The involvement of Turkey in the war in Syria has been extensively covered, but now over the last week, it appears the country is also gearing up for a greater role in the neighbouring and connected war in Iraq. While talk of a Turkish ‘invasion’ of Iraq is somewhat overblown, the consequences of Turkish troops deploying to Iraq could have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.
The current controversy between Iraq and Turkey began last week following the emergence of reports that Turkey had deployed a number of soldiers to Bashiqa, a small Peshmerga-held town around 15km away from the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul in northern Iraq. While initial reports of the number of troops varied, the most credible information now has around several hundred troops and up to 25 associated vehicles deployed.
What is not yet clear is the mandate of these troops, and the role they will play in Iraq. According to Turkish statements, "the mandate of the Turkish elements in Bashiqa is to provide training to Iraqi volunteers within the scope of the fight against Daesh, and they have not been given combat duties and responsibilities". Nonetheless many still believe these troops may play a larger, and more direct combat role against ISIS into the future.
Whatever role Turkey intends for these troops, what is more important is the international (and intranational in the case of Iraq) response to their deployment. The Iraqi government of Al-Abadi has widely condemned this as a breach of Iraq sovereignty, with his government giving several deadlines for the Turkish troops to withdraw, before they faced retaliation. These deadlines were backed up by similar threats from Shia militia groups within the Popular Mobilisation Units which form a significant part of the Iraqi forces.
While these deadlines and threats may indeed be serious, the fact that they have passed without incident stands testament to the fact that it is actually very difficult for Iraqi government forces to attack the Turkish troops. Notwithstanding their much more critical war with ISIS, the Iraqi government/Shia militias would also have to attack through territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Given the good relations between Turkey and the KRG (in contrast to other Kurdish groups), and the fact that the Turkish deployment likely has the tacit approval of KRG leader Masoud Barzani, this is unlikely to happen without a fight. Furthermore, the relations between KRG Peshmerga forces and Shia militia have suffered a serious deterioration over recent months following clashes around the town of Tuz Khurmatu, making any deployments against Turkish forces likely to face Peshmerga resistance.
With all of this considered, Turkey’s deployment will have several geopolitical ramifications. Firstly, the KRG will become more deeply aligned with Turkey due to their hosting of Turkish troops, as well as their own Peshmerga troops receiving Turkish training and support. Secondly, the Iraqi government may be forced to align itself more with Russia, as the US is unable to prevent the erosion its of sovereignty by another NATO player. In the long-run these positions could serve to solidify a formal partition of Iraq following the defeat of ISIS as a major military force in the country.