With much of the public’s attention in recent weeks focused on the escalation between the US and Russia over the nearly 6-year-old proxy war in Syria, a reminder that middle-east tensions include virtually all other neighboring countries, came from Iraq’s prime minister who on Wednesday warned Turkey that it risked triggering a regional war by keeping troops in his territory, as the neighboring states summoned each other’s ambassadors in a mounting diplomatic stand-off.
Turkey’s parliament voted last week to extend its military operation in Iraq and take on “terrorist organizations”, a reference to Kurdish militants and Islamic State. Responding to the Turkish decision, Iraq’s parliament condemned the Turkish vote and called for Turkey’s 2,000 troops to leave, Reuters reported.
An adamant Turkey has refused to comply and insists that its military is in Iraq at the invitation of Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, with which Ankara maintains solid ties. Most of the troops are at a base in Bashiqa, north of Mosul, where they are helping to train Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and Sunni fighters.
Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said the deployment had become necessary after Islamic State’s seizure of Iraq’s second city, captured in 2014. “Neither Turkey’s presence in Bashiqa nor its operation right now in Syrian territory are aimed at occupying or interfering with the domestic affairs of these countries.”
Turkey announced late on Tuesday that it was summoning Iraq’s ambassador to complain about the parliamentary vote. “We believe this decision does not reflect the views of the majority of Iraqi people, whom Turkey has stood by for years and attempted to support with all its resources,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said.
Adding to the sideshow comedy, the ministry added that “we find it noteworthy that the Iraqi parliament, which has not said anything about the accepted mandate for years, puts this on the agenda as though it were a new development in times when terror is taking so many lives in Turkey and Iraq.”
Iraq, however, disagrees: “We have asked the Turkish side more than once not to intervene in Iraqi matters and I fear the Turkish adventure could turn into a regional war,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned on TV. “The Turkish leadership’s behavior is not acceptable and we don’t want to get into a military confrontation with Turkey.” Iraq’s central government in Baghdad also says it never invited such a force and considers the Turkish troops occupiers.
As a result, Iraq too, on Wednesday, summoned the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad to protest what it said were “provocative” comments from Ankara about the troop deployment.
The latest dipolomatic spat added more heat to an already highly-charged and complex confrontation between regional powers, triggered by the Syrian civil war and the rise of Islamic State. Tensions between Iraq and Turkey rose recently with expectations of an offensive by Iraq and U.S.-backed forces to retake Mosul. Turkey has said the campaign will send a wave of refugees over its border and, potentially, on to Europe.
Ankara worries that Baghdad’s Shi’ite Muslim-led forces will destabilize Mosul’s largely Sunni population and worsen ethnic strife across the region, where there are also populations of Turkmens, ethnic kin of the Turks. Turkey is also uncomfortable with the arrangement of Kurdish forces expected to take part in the offensive.
However, while it is unlikely that NATO member Turkey and Iraq will unleash an all out war without the explicit proxy backing of the superpowers, a far more troubling scenario is currently playing out in Syria between Russia and the US, where diplomacy is now officially dead and where every action seeks to provoke the adversary into an escalating response, meant to achieve what increasingly appears to be a military confrontation between the former cold war adversaries.