ISTANBUL – Turkey is refusing to withdraw forces deployed to Iraq, despite Baghdad’s call for Ankara to do so immediately. Ankara insists the deployment is to protect its troops who are training Iraqi Kurdish forces, but the dispute is stoking old and new regional tensions.
Iraq has threatened to take Turkey to the United Nations Security Council, but Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has ruled out any withdrawal, saying it is Turkey’s duty to provide security for the soldiers involved with training there.
Hundreds of soldiers, backed by 20 tanks, were sent to Iraq to bolster defenses of Turkish forces who were training Iraqi troops in an effort to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants.
Metehan Demir, a Turkish expert on military affairs and commentator, says the issue is turning into a battle of wills.
“Some Turkish officials say we cannot do it, because it could be perceived [as an] order from Iraq,” Demir said. “Turkey does not want to be understood in that way.”
The Turkish government insists the military deployment is part of a normal rotation of soldiers subject to a bilateral agreement. However, political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University says historical tensions are fueling the dispute.
“Mosul was very dear to the hearts of the founders of [the] Turkish Republic, as it was considered as part of new Turkey,” he said. “Every Arab, every Iraqi, knows the second thoughts and designs of Turks regarding Mosul. So it is highly symbolic to send troops, especially in this very volatile situation.”
Turkey is already embroiled in a diplomatic crisis with Russia after Turkish jets downed a Russian fighter jet last month. Analyst Demir warns there is a risk of Moscow becoming involved in the tensions over Iraq.
“Baghdad is very well aware of the crisis between Turkey and Russia,” he said, “and might seek to invite Russian troops in that area to open similar camps to help them. And it means Turkish troops and Russian troops might come face to face.”
As for the United States, observers say such a risk will give the U.S. further incentive to defuse tensions between the two key allies.