Rarely in times of peace has a Middle Eastern country expanded its military, political, economic and cultural power beyond its borders as far away and at such a rate as Turkey has in recent years.
Three decades ago Turkey’s soft power remained deeply contingent upon preserving its bonds with the Western world while its militarily leverage was capable of operating only closely to NATO.
Now, Turkey’s military bases, outposts, navy and drones are churning out state-of-the-art combat weaponry across the Middle East, the Arabian Gulf, the horn of Africa and North Africa and beyond.
Turkish political, economic and cultural power is also evident across the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia and Azerbaijan, as well as in some key Muslim nations like Pakistan.
From northern Syria to Libya to Qatar and Somalia, Turkey has been active in building its military presence while aggressively seeking to advance its political and economic influence through diplomacy and investment.
Yet, nowhere has the Turkish military been able to operate with greater intensity and with fewer restrictions than in northern Iraq, gaining from the political chaos there following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
While Ankara’s strong-arm tactics in recent years have raised fears in many countries in the region about Turkey’s rising influence, a combination of historical, geopolitical and security factors may indicate that Turkey’s escalation in Iraq could spill over into a wider conflict.
Even before the Turkish drone attack last week on an Iraqi military convoy that killed two army commanders, Turkey had been carrying out incursions in northern Iraq, claiming that the porous border provided a retreat for the Kurdish anti-government rebel group known as the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party.
Turkey began its hot-pursuit operations against the PKK as early as 1988, but it only built a permanent presence in northern Iraq in early 1992 in tandem with its cross-border campaigns to counter the rebels.
Nearly three decades on, Turkey’s massive military presence in Iraq has gone beyond its declared aim of the pursuit of the PKK to establishing a long-term military presence in northern Iraq.
On 11 August, a Turkish air raid in northern Iraq killed two commanders of Iraq’s border guard and their driver, marking the first Iraqi troop deaths since Turkey launched cross-border operations in the region.
Iraqi officials did not give details about the assault, but local media said the Turkish drone strike had targeted the officers while they were meeting with PKK guerrillas to try to calm tensions in the mountainous district of Sidakan north of Erbil.
The Iraqi government blasted the strike as “blatant Turkish aggression” against Iraq’s sovereignty and territory and called on Ankara to stop all its military operations in the region.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad twice over the attack to relay a “strongly worded message of protest against the aggression” to his government.
The Foreign Ministry also said the Iraqi government had cancelled a planned visit by Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar to Baghdad scheduled on 13 August.
Turkey rebuffed Iraq’s protests and announced it would continue its military operations in Iraq, which it said were “necessary for border security no matter where they may be”.
Turkey has long attacked the PKK, which it labels as a terrorist group and accuses of using the rugged terrain of northern Iraq as a rear base to wage attacks inside Turkey.
But Turkey’s aspirations in northern Iraq could surpass by far the goal of “neutralising terror threats against Turkey” in order to secure long-term strategic interests, most importantly creating more geostrategic advantages as a new regional order is taking shape.
Even before the recent killing of the Iraqi commanders, Ankara was making major strides into northern Iraq, pushing Baghdad to face an unwanted foreign military force on its sovereign territory.
In 2015, Turkey established a military base in the town of Bashiqa near Mosul where some 5,000 troops were sent to support and train Sunni Muslim allies after Islamic State (IS) group militants seized the province.
Ankara has since maintained its presence in Bashiqa, which now includes dozens of tanks, despite the expulsion of IS militants from Mosul and repeated protests from the Iraqi government.
In June, Ankara launched a new ground offensive dubbed Operation Claw-Tiger that saw Turkish troops advancing deeper into Iraq. Its Defence Ministry said the operation was supported by warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery and armed and unarmed drones.
Later, the Turkish military launched another double ground and air offensive into northern Iraq named Operation Claw-Eagle that Ankara said was in response to “increasing harassment and attempts to attack” Turkish military bases in the area.
Turkey has announced its “neutralising” of scores of PKK rebels in its operations in northern Iraq, but there has been little information from independent sources about the activities of the Turkish troops in the region.
However, a map issued by Turkey’s Directorate of Communications last month showed 37 Turkish military bases and advanced outposts in northern Iraq, including four in Erbil, Duhok, Soran and Zakho and others on the Makhoul Plateau some 200 km north of Baghdad.
In many of its campaigns Iraqi civilians have reportedly been killed, houses destroyed and sometimes villages completely levelled by Turkish bombardments or air-raids.
Turkey’s military buildup in Iraq comes as part of its increasing efforts to extend its power well beyond its borders, with troops on the ground and drones and navy frigates loitering in the airspace and off the coasts of several countries.
But while Turkey’s display of military power elsewhere is intended to play a bizarre game of chicken, its involvement in Iraq could be more dangerous and could indicate that Ankara might be sleepwalking into a new war.
The underlying factors are the combustible situation in Iraq, where multiple non-state actors and proxies are competing with a fragile Iraqi state and a variety of regional and international powers to control the country.
As long as these factors hold, the possibility of the Turkish buildup escalating into a broader confrontation between Turkey and Iraq will endure, and this hazardous prospect will be put to the test over the next few months.
Therefore, it is possible to imagine a scenario in which Turkey is trapped in a broader war in the strategic, yet troubled, region of northern Iraq with its soft and porous borders.
There is already a cold war rhetoric emerging, with this kind of “twitch and grunt” reflecting a nationalistic spiral on both sides of the border.
Iraq has taken steps to protest against Turkey’s belligerency, including in a diplomatic campaign to seek support from Arab and foreign nations and the suspension of a visa programme with Turkey that had granted entry permits at border crossings for Turkish visitors.
Iraqi officials have also signalled that they will sever imports from Turkey, Iraq’s second-largest goods supplier with exports to Iraq amounting to $13 billion. Iraq has already suspended plans to open a second crossing with its northern neighbour that Turkey had hoped would bolster bilateral trade to some $20 billion a year.
Iraqi political groups have stepped up their rhetoric against Turkey, demanding more proactive diplomacy by their government and retribution for what they have termed as Ankara’s repeated aggressions.
The Iraqi army has also warned that a military option is on the table. “The Joint Operations Command has the capacities and the military potential to defend the country’s security and sovereignty once orders are given,” Tahseen Al-Khafaji, an Iraqi army spokesman, said in a statement.
As the crisis unfolds, Turkey has remained unapologetic, and it has vowed to continue its operations deep inside Iraq, raising fears that Ankara may be planning to establish safe havens in northern Iraq similar to those in Syria.
In this regard, it continues to use water from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, which descend from the Turkish mountains, directly impacting water flows into Iraq and hence increasing the pressure on the country.
Moreover, Ankara continues to host and assist disgruntled Iraqi Sunni Arab politicians in a bid to meddle in Iraq’s internal affairs through playing the sectarian card and increasing Sunni-Shia tensions.
Ankara’s defiance, however, is in line with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy in Iraq, which goes beyond fighting the PKK to advancing his agenda for Turkey to be an “unstoppable power” in the Middle East.
While Turkey’s aggressive role in the wider Middle East is largely about this power struggle, its ambitions in Iraq remain more expansionist and even imperialistic.
Indeed, Erdogan has been sending signals that the fate of northern Iraq will be a serious interest for Turkey as long as Iraq remains unstable and its future hangs in the balance.
Erdogan has in the past invoked the Misak-i Milli (National Pact), a 1920 Turkish document that claimed large parts of northern Iraq that used to be called the Mosul Velayet, or province, under the former Ottoman Empire.
Many in Turkey believe that the Mosul Velayet, which includes the Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Kirkuk provinces in Iraq today, was unduly cut off from the remaining territory of the former Empire, now making up today’s Turkey, and they aspire to see it connected back to the Turkish homeland.
Wars usually start with a spark, and Turkey’s aggressive interventions and ambitions in Iraq have been stockpiling and could provide the trigger.
Iraq may be unsettled politically, socially and militarily, but that does not mean that Iraqis will surrender to Turkey’s military posturing or let it take the reins in terms of remapping their country.
While war-torn Iraq remains in the great power tussle at a disadvantage to Turkey, which is the second-largest military force in NATO, Turkey may well confront a resurgent Iraqi patriotism if it tries to climb the ladder of escalation in the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly