Turkish soldiers near the Turkey-Syrian border post in Sanliurfa, in September last year. AFP Photo.
“Turkey’s security zone starts from Latakia and (goes) through Aleppo, Mosul and Sulaimani,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently remarked during his two-day visit to Jordan.
His comments give some insight into how Turkey views its periphery and what it perceives its security interests to be in an ever changing and unpredictable geopolitical and regional environment.
It’s no secret that Turkey’s government has been monomaniacally obsessed with the situation just over its southern border with Syria, where the Syrian Kurds have achieved unprecedented control over their own region.
Additionally, it has long sought a buffer zone there to shield itself against a spillover of the conflict, house displaced Syrians within their country’s borders and prevent Syrian Kurdistan’s three cantons from joining together and forming a contiguous region which would dominate the Syria-Turkey border.
Turkey has increasingly begun to view the Kurdistan Region as a de-facto buffer zone in its own right from an unstable Iraq. As with swaths of northern Syria, and indeed Iraq’s Nineveh province, Turkey for historical reasons believes it should have at least a major say in the future of these regions. Remember it was back in the 1920s, during the British Mandate in Iraq, that the Iraqi Army was founded. Its first mission was to force the Turks from parts of the Kurdistan Region, including Sulaimani, and ensure they did not annex it into the new Turkish Republic.
Much more recently, over the course of the last 25 years, Turkey has maintained a foothold in that region during its ongoing war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) when the Iraqi military was forced from the Kurdistan Region following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Its deployment of combat troops to secure its forward-operating-base in Bashiqa north of Mosul incurred the wrath of Baghdad last December and saw Turkey’s relations with its neighbors strained even further.
Reams of commentary have long been urging Baghdad to formulate a comprehensive outreach to Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority in order to defeat ISIS politically as well as militarily: the Makhmour offensive launched last week has failed partially because locals in ISIS-occupied villages have not risen up against their occupiers, since they still do not trust the Iraqi military. The Turks are training Sunni militiamen who are to fight to eventually liberate Mosul. Ankara likely hopes that this will give it clout and influence in the city, possibly even to rival a Baghdad which has become increasingly closer to Iran in recent years.
This conspicuously comes after Turkey failed to garner a substantial foothold in Sunni-majority Syria throughout the course of the last half-decade. The Turkish government likely calculated that the Syrian uprising would have given it renewed clout in Syria’s north, particularly in Aleppo, and enable Ankara to directly determine the future of that region in accordance with its own security needs and strategic interests.
And then there is the Kurdistan Region, whose unprecedented autonomy in the post-2003 order Turkey was reluctant to accept. Indeed, until recent years, Turkey had warned Erbil against annexing Kirkuk and accordingly threatened to intervene against it militarily. Since then, Ankara has come to view Erbil as much less of a threat and even a potential ally in the region, to the extent that it may soon see an independent Kurdistan Region, along with an increasingly autonomous post-ISIS Nineveh, as being both in its security and strategic interests in the region.
Whatever the case may prove to be in the not too distant future, it is clear that the fate of these regions is something that weighs -- and has long weighed -- heavily on the minds and conscience of the decision-making establishment in Ankara.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.