Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has once again insisted on the necessity for Turkish involvement in the battle for ISIL-held Mosul in neighbouring Iraq, saying his country has an “historical responsibility” in the region.
Speaking in Ankara on Tuesday, Erdogan said Turkey did not want to be part of any sectarian conflict in Iraq, but voiced concerns for the future of Sunni Arab and Turkmens in Mosul.
“If we say we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason,” he said.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces closing in on Mosul said on Tuesday they had secured some 20 villages on the outskirts of the city during the first day of a major ground and air operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
In his speech, Erdogan also warned against the direct involvement of Shia militias in the operation, following allegations that they had committed atrocities against Sunnis in other parts of Iraq.
“They say 30,000 Shia militants are coming. They should be prepared for what they will face.”
Two weeks ago, Turkey’s parliament voted to extend for a year the deployment of an estimated 2,000 troops across northern Iraq to combat “terrorist organisations”.
Around 500 of these troops are currently stationed in the Bashiqa camp in northern Iraq, training local fighters for the battle to recapture Mosul.
Days before Iraqi troops and their local and international partners started their push to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemned Turkey’s military presence in the country, and warned that Ankara risked “triggering a regional war”.
Abadi’s government requested an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the issue, and both countries summoned each other’s ambassadors in a mounting diplomatic standoff.
In response to Abadi’s comments, Erdogan said on Tuesday that the Iraqi government should “deal” with other armed groups like ISIL and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) “rather than acting tough with us”.
“Ankara is treating Baghdad as a foreign actor in Mosul,” Metin Gurcan, columnist for Al Monitor and former adviser to the Turkish military in Iraq, told Al Jazeera.
“It is looking at the situation from a city-centric point of view and categorising Baghdad as a Tehran-backed Shia force trying to control Sunni-majority Mosul.
“So it is basically saying ‘if Baghdad is allowed to participate in this operation, using soldiers transported to the region from as far as Iran, I can take similar action. I have every right to protect Mosul’s Sunni population, which is historically linked to Turkey, against invasions”.
Ankara’s insistence on playing a role in the operation to retake Mosul from ISIL has also come under criticism from Washington – a major partner in the operation conducting air strikes against the armed group’s positions.
The US told Turkey to respect the Iraqi government’s wishes regarding its military presence in the country.
“All of Iraq’s neighbours need to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said last week.
“We call on both governments to focus on their common enemy, our common enemy, which is Daesh,” Kirby added, referring to ISIL by an Arabic acronym.
Responding to the US comments, Erdogan said: “You are coming from tens of thousands of kilometers away and you have the right to say Baghdad has called for you. OK, but Turkey has a 350km border and there is always a threat.
“Turkey has a historical responsibility there. So we will be there.”
Mosul remained under Ottoman control for nearly 400 years, until its capture by Britain in 1918. The city served as the capital of one of the three provinces in Ottoman Iraq and was seen as an integral part of the empire.
According to Gurcan, the rift between Turkey and the US regarding Iraq was rooted in Ankara’s insistence in acting as an autonomous force, rather than completely accepting Washington’s lead.
“Turkey wants to keep Shia militias, Kurds with links to the PKK out of Mosul and it wants to give air-support to the troops it trained in the Bashiqa camp,” Gurcan told Al Jazeera.
“The US is not against any of this,” Gurcan said. “Washington is simply saying that it wants to stay as the dominant force in Iraq and Turkey is welcomed to join in, if it is willing to act under US command as part of the coalition.
“But Turkey is trying to avoid this. They want to act at least semi-autonomously and this is causing friction.”
Also on Tuesday, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkish jets have not yet been used in the offensive to retake Mosul – but will be deployed when the time comes.
“There is agreement on Turkey taking part in the coalition in Iraq,” Yildirim told delegates of the ruling AK party in Ankara.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said an Iraqi delegation was due to arrive in Turkey towards the end of the week, amid diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the tensions between the two countries.
“Both sides essentially have the will to solve this through dialogue,” Cavusoglu said on Tuesday during a visit to Uzbekistan, according by the Anadolu news agency. He added that the delegation would come “maybe Thursday”.
It comes after a top-level Turkish delegation led by foreign ministry under-secretary Umit Yalcin went to Baghdad on Monday.
“De-escalation efforts may continue, but Turkey’s end-game in Iraq is quite clear,” Gurcan told Al Jazeera.
“It wants to conduct an operation similar to the Euphrates Shield within northern Iraq.”
Ankara began the cross-border Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria on August 24, saying it was targeting both ISIL and the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers a “terrorist” group.
Turkey recaptured several towns and cities, including Jarablus, from these groups and created a de-facto safe zone on the border.
“For Turkey, Operation Euphrates Shield was a major success,” said Gurcan.
“Ankara gained a lot of leverage in the Middle East against ISIL, Damascus and even US thanks to this operation.
“This operation brought Turkey back in to the game, and it wants to repeat this success story in northern Iraq.”
Additional reporting by Birce Bora.