Turkey’s complex reasons for fighting in Syria and Iraq

06:38 - Source: CNN
Turkey insists on fighting in Mosul

Story highlights

Turkey has issues on two fronts: Iraq and Syria

Ankara wants to be included in fight for Mosul, Iraq says no

Istanbul CNN —  

For months, the US has been building up an alliance in the Middle East aimed at dislodging ISIS from its strongholds in both Iraq and Syria.

But these efforts have been complicated in recent weeks by one of Washington’s oldest allies in the region: Turkey.

The Turkish government is lashing out against factions currently battling ISIS. Ankara has been engaged in a very public war of words with the government in Iraq. At the same time, the Turkish military has been bombing US-backed Kurdish militants in Syria.

Part of this policy stems from Turkey’s unenviable position, living alongside two of the bloodiest, most destabilizing conflicts the Middle East has seen in a generation.


Days before the start of the week-old Iraqi offensive to drive ISIS out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Turkey’s President issued an unusual public demand to join the military operation.

“We have to take part in the Mosul operation,” said Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Turkish announcement drew angry rebukes from the Iraqi central government, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi openly accused Turkey of violating Iraqi sovereignty.

“The Mosul battle is an Iraqi battle and the ones who are conducting it are Iraqis,” Abadi later added.

Why Mosul matters

  • Since Mosul's capture by ISIS fighters in June 2014, Mosul has been a vital stronghold for ISIS.
  • The largest city under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria, it was the city from which the group first declared the establishment of its so-called caliphate.
  • Since then, ISIS has gradually lost its other Iraqi cities -- Ramadi, Tikrit and Falluja -- to government forces.
  • About 1 million people are estimated to remain in Mosul, once a cosmopolitan trade hub of 2 million residents.
  • Turkish officials have used several arguments to justify their inclusion in the Mosul offensive.

    One revolves around the fear of further sectarian conflict between Mosul’s predominantly Sunni population and the Shi’ite-dominated military forces of the Iraqi government.

    “If we accept Mosul’s current destiny, there will be a Sunni-Shia struggle,” Erdogan said in a speech October 18.

    But behind the scenes, analysts say there is ongoing rivalry for influence in Iraq between Turkey and another regional powerhouse: Iran.

    “Turkey and Iran have a tradition of silently competing with each other,” explained Ahmet Han, associate professor of international relations at Kadir Has University.

    “The difference is that Turkey is speaking a lot and very loudly, but Iran is not,” Han added.

    Last year, Turkey sent several hundred Turkish soldiers armed with tanks and artillery pieces to a base in Bashiqa, near Mosul. Iraq protested, saying it had not given permission for such a move.

    And Turkey’s claims that it helped the Peshmerga by providing tanks, artillery and troops in weekend battles around Bashiqa drew another angry outburst from Iraq’s Prime Minister.

    “We don’t want Turkish military forces on the ground,” Abadi said Monday. “The Turkish claim that they participated in the war is untrue.”

    Meanwhile, majority Shiite Iran continues to enjoy influence within the Iraqi government, and among a number of Shiite militias that have been trained by the Iranian military.

    In speeches before crowds of supporters, Erdogan has also argued that Turkey should determine Mosul’s future, based on the fact that the city was ruled more than a century ago by the Ottoman Empire.