The ISIS Operation in Mosul and the Implications for Turkish Foreign Policy

Below is my initial analysis of the implications of the ISIS operation in Mosul for Turkish foreign/security policy

According to reports from numerous news outlets, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham now control the city of Mosul. After days of fighting, CBS news reports:

Iraqi police and army forces abandoned their posts in the northern city of Mosul after militants overran the provincial government headquarters and other key buildings, dealing a serious blow to Baghdad’s efforts to control a widening insurgency in the country, a provincial official and residents said Tuesday. The insurgents seized the government complex — a key symbol of state authority — late on Monday, following days of fighting in the country’s second-largest city, a former al Qaeda stronghold situated in what has long been one of the more restive parts of Iraq. The gunmen also torched several of the city’s police stations, freeing detainees held in lockups.

In addition, Reuters is reporting that “28 Turkish truck drivers ferrying diesel to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul have been abducted” by ISIS fighters. If the reports turns out to be true, Ankara will soon be faced with an even more precarious security situation than before. For much of the Syrian civil war, the Turkish government was of the opinion that Bashar al Assad was the root cause of the conflict’s extremism. For Ankara, the “extremist problem” would naturally resolve itself once the Syrian dictator was forced from power and the “moderate Syrian led opposition” turned its guns on the extremist foreigners. Thus, the issue of foreign fighters transiting Turkish territory – and Turkey’s support for groups like Ahrar al Sham and Liwa al Tawhid – were seen as a means to an end, rather than a long-term threat to Turkish security.

Things have now changed. The empowerment of ISIS has forced Ankara to adopt a more US style counter terrorism approach to the conflict. As a result, Ankara listed Jabhat al Nusra as a terror group and has recently worked to empower the “moderates” to put pressure on ISIS and the regime. However, this effort has come at a time when Turkey’s Kurdish issue has become more problematic. Recently, clashes in Lice over the Turkish military’s construction of a military outpost resulted in the killing of two protesters. Shortly thereafter, Kurds in Lice took to the streets in protest. And, in Diyarbakir, a man infiltrated an air base and took down the Turkish flag. This action prompted nationalist Turks to take the streets. The resulting tension has caused some concerns about the viability of the ongoing peace process. The KCK, for example, has said:

The massacre in Lice has demonstrated the fact that the AKP has no policies for settling the Kurdish question; quite the contrary, it has decided to suppress people’s resistance … The duty falls on the Kurdish people and the democratic circles to draw a line for these policies which aim at eliminating the background built up through years of struggle by the peoples of Turkey. Therefore, democratic circles should come together and struggle on the basis of a democracy program. Such a struggle will reveal the anti-democratic and hegemonic face of the AKP, put an end to the policies aiming at distracting and deceiving the society and open the way for a real free and democratic life. We call on all the Kurdish people and democratic circles to embrace the martyrs of Lice, pursue their struggle until they crown the Lice people’s resistance Lice with a democratic Turkey and free Kurdistan; we call on the youth to join the guerrilla in order to strengthen self-defense against the attacks.


The Fall of Mosul and the PKK Peace Process

Erdogan is in a tough spot. To keep the peace process alive, Erdogan will have to appease two diametrically opposed constituencies: The Turkish nationalist right (which do comprise a sizable portion of the AKP’s base) and the Kurdish nationalist movement (And he has to do so in such a ways as to advance his own presidential ambitions). It wont be easy. However, to account for the aforementioned difficulties in Syria, Ankara has to ensure that the peace process continues. To this end, the leadership in Turkey’s intelligence community – most notably, Hakan FIdan – are reported to be the main proponents of the peace talks with the PKK.

The tone in Turkey surrounding the peace process changed after after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ceded control of strategic border areas to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a Kurdish group with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Despite fears that the PKK had gained strategic depth – and thereby opened up a second front apart from Iraqi Kurdistan – Ankara continued to insist that external intervention be sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or framed under the still controversial legal framework of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Up until this point, Erdogan – for domestic reasons – had tacked back to the nationalist right to curry favor with the electorate (this was at a time before December 17th and coincided with his initial efforts to rewrite the Turkish constitution to support his own Presidential ambitions). In doing so, Turkey began to take more aggressive steps to combat the Kurdish threat.

However, once Ankara lost its hard fought strategic depth, Turkey, once again, turned back to a peaceful settlement of the PKK issue. In other words, the capture of Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, allowed for Turkey to tighten ties with its Arab neighbors. Up until this point, Ankara’s relations with Syria and Iran were marred by the latter’s harboring of the PKK’s leadership. After Hafez al Assad opted to cease his support for the group – which then prompted Ocalan to flee – the Turkish intel/security/diplomatic community began to re-engage with Damascus. On the economic side, the opening up of Syria allowed for Turkish trucks to have an overland route for trade with the rich Gulf Arab states. And on the security side, the elimination of the PKK threat allowed for Turkey to gain some much needed strategic depth vis-a-vis its fight with the PKK.

After the Syrian conflict started, both of these hard fought gains were eliminated. In turn, this necessitated the fast resolution of the conflict – so you got arming and support for the rebels (Im simplifying, obviously). Yet, after the emergence of the PYD led mini-state, this also necessitated coming to some sort of agreement to account for the loss of the aforementioned strategic depth. Turkey had two options: a military solution, or a diplomatic intervention. This then led to another sharp swing in Turkish foreign policy and the decision to resume the peace talks with the PKK. (This was only after Turkey tried to coerce the PYD with military threats and failed. Ankara also stepped up its support for the safe zone idea at this point. That decision was right out of the 1991 playbook.)

This dynamic continues. Thus, if Erdogan can get through this week, he may be able to steer the country back towards dialogue with the PKK. He has the support of the intel leadership and, if rumors are to be believed, the buy-in from Turkey’s military leadership. This is not really surprising. Turkey faces a truly chaotic situation in Syria and Iraq. The security services have therefore prioritized the managing of the PKK threat. Thus, I still have some hope that the two sides will be able manage the current tensions and find a way back to the negotiating table. Inside Turkey, Erdogan has the support of the security establishment (at least its leadership anyways). And on the Kurdish side, Ocalan still appears to be behind the talks.

However, there is a second leg to this policy. Turkey has long sought to tighten ties with the Barzani clan. In many ways, this alliance of convenience stems from their mutual loath of the PKK. The AKP has been pursuing a four pronged policy vis-a-vis the Kurds. The first pillar is the talks with Ocalan. The second is economic investment in the southeast. In doing so, the AKP is hoping to create economic opportunities for the region’s Kurds. The thinking behind this is simple: If the region’s Kurds have a better economic future, they wont be incentivized to go to the mountains. The third pillar is the maintenance of security. And it is here where we are seeing the building of small military bases, which I like to think of as forward operating bases (FOBs – and here is the chapter on FOBs in David Petraeus’ counter insurgency field manual). And the fourth pillar is the empowerment of the Barzani backed idea of pan-Kurdishism. This narrative stands in contrast to that of Ocalan’s. The peace process is therefore part of a much broader effort that aims to lessen the appeal of the PKK, whilst also negotiating with its leadership, and indirectly signaling tolerance for the PKK’s entrance into politics (in some form or another) at some point in the future. (I think of the reporting from pro-government press about the alleged PKK abductions and the subsequent protests in this regard.)

And it is here, where there is a link to the ISIS take over of Mosul. Mosul sits right on the diving line between Arab and Kurdish controlled Iraq. The further encroachment of ISIS forces in to Iraqi Kurdistan risks destabilizing an area of extreme interest for Ankara. Turkey has broken with the United States and has supported the export of Kurdish oil from the KRG, has invested heavily in the region, and has taken numerous steps to tighten ties with Barzani. The expansion of ISIS’ territory, which now runs from Mosul to Al Anbar in Iraq out to Al Raqqah in Syria, has put extra pressure on Ankara. For Turkey, the only entree point for its intel operations in Syria are run out of the Hatay province.

And this is where the whole narrative comes full circle. To ensure that it retains this entree point into the Syrian conflict, Ankara has taken steps to distance itself from Nusra. This appears to be part of a broader US backed approach to the conflict that includes the arming of certain rebel groups and the training of certain rebel groups outside of Doha. To this end, Turkey has tacitly signaled its support for a dual pronged policy within Syria of supporting groups that combat extremists and the regime. Turkey, therefore, retains a very strong incentive – and buy-in from the security leadership – to continue with the peace talks. The elimination – or at least, management of – the PKK allows for Ankara to retain its strategic depth, while also giving it a buffer zone against the looming ISIS threat in Syria. And in Iraqi Kurdistan, the relationship with Barzani remains crucial and helps to ensure that the ISIS threat is contained in Arab Iraq.

The Iraqi Dimension

However, the taking hostage of 28 turkish truck drivers adds a very problematic element to this equation. First, Turkey’s embrace of the KRG’s interpertation of the Iraqi constitution, combined with the AKP’s support for the al-Irraqiya alliance in the 2010 Iraqi elections, has led to the break-down of ties with Baghdad. This tension only increased after the whole Tariq al Hashemi brouhaha.

In any case, Turkey’s troubled ties with Baghdad could complicate the Foreign Ministry’s efforts to work with Baghdad to facilitate the release of these truck drivers. To be sure, ISIS could opt to release the truck drivers as a show of good faith – or the two sides could work through a third party-  but the breakdown in security in Mosul could have other consequences for Turkish policymakers. The major overland routes to Basra from Turkey run through Mosul. Ankara has already lost its ability to truck goods to the Gulf through Syria and may now have to deal with the same issue in Iraq. If  Turkey loses this route – and I think the taking hostage of 28 truck drivers may mean that this is inevitable – it could have some impact on Turkish trade with the region. In this regard, the importance of the KRG’s stability becomes even more paramount. In addition to the aforementioned security issues, the maintenance of a stable area of export is always near the top of the Turkish foreign minister’s agenda.

Turkey must also be concerned about the abysmal performance of the Iraqi security services. If Iraq descends further into chaos, Turkey will have to contend with two failed states on its borders. And in the absence of centralized authority, the expansion of ISIS territory could continue. However, in a perverse way, Turkey also does not want to see the rapid influx of advanced weaponry into Baghdad to support a fight against ISIS. Turkey is wary of Maliki’s sectarian agenda and does not want the Iraqi strongman to acquire the means to further solidify his hold on power. And any influx of modern weaponry erodes Turkey’s massive conventional superiority over the Iraqi state and could lessen Ankara’s air superiority over Kurdistan. In turn, if the PKK problem does flair up again, Turkey wants to ensure that its aircraft can operate over Iraq with impunity, rather than having to worry about the reaction from an F-16 equipped central government (And this extends to the outfitting of the Iraqi army – which many in Ankara view as sectarian – and the potential for the weapons’ use to further an anti-Sunni  agenda.)

The Iranian Dimension

Enter Iran. Turkey and Iran have sought to compartmentalize their relationship after years of tensions over the Syrian conflict. The two sides have agreed to combat extremism and sectarianism. However, it is really unclear how the two sides are going to go about doing this. For now, they remain on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, support different actors (and these actors are indirectly fighting for different Islamic sects, which thereby contributes to the sectarianism problem that they have pledged to work together on to combat), and have wildly different points of view about groups like the Islamic Front, Ahrar al Sham, and Hezbollah.

However, on the economic side, the two retain an incentive to find a way to cooperate. In turn, the two sides are certain to continue to focus on ways to deepen trade. However, even this will be problematic, owing to the ongoing price dispute about Iranian natural gas and high import tariffs for Turkish made goods. Nevertheless, Iran remains the ONLY stable government on Turkey’s southern border. Turkey, therefore, has an incentive to ensure that the Iranian central government remains strong, EVEN THOUGH they DESPISE Iranian foreign policy in Syria.

The Collapse of Zero Problems

And this leads me back to the whole thrust of Turkish foreign policy. The Strategic Depth foreign policy is dead. It is over. Put a fork in it. Turkey has sought to tack back to the core principles of Zero Problem since the election of Hassan Rouhani (and even slightly before then, but for the sake of brevity, I wont go into it.) [1] However, regional events – that are largely outside of Turkey’s control – have made the resumption of this policy all but impossible. Turkish foreign policy during the AKP era has always necessitated the maintenance of strong central states. In turn, these strong states could keep a lid on Kurdish nationalism (as is the case in Iraq, Syria, and Iran) and make quick decision to tighten trade ties with Turkey. As state after state in the region falls into chaos (I’m including Egypt here), the main actors with which Ankara needs to liaise with are losing the ability to implement real political change – or at the very least keep a lid on potential security problems. In Syria and Iraq, this represents a serious problem moving forward. Turkey now finds itself having to deal with a pseudo-state in Kurdistan, where most of the people don’t think too highly of Ankara. In the Gulf (outside of Qatar), Turkey has been labeled as pro-Ikwhan. While Ankara has been cooperating with Saudi Arabia in Syria, the political suspicions decrease the potential avenues for support outside of the Syrian context. All of this comes against a backdrop of the emergence of the ISIS pseudo-state.

Turkey has few levers to really deal with this threat. The Iraqi state – and its security forces – have proven to be a political and military joke. (And I’m being kind.) Absent strong centralized states, Turkey has few real links to the emerging political actors, outside of the Brotherhood in Egypt, Barzani in Kurdistan, and certain groups in Syria. All of this suggests that Ankara is certain to face serious challenges moving forward in the region. However, with little influence with the weakened central governments, Ankara now faces a reality of marginal influence and increased security threats.


[1] I will say that Turkey’s handling of the Arab Spring was a departure from the Strategic Depth policy. Ankara had never really focused on democracy promotion. Ankara’s handling of the Arab spring hinged on what I have deemed, the promotion of Turkish Exceptionalism. This approach is very much rooted in more conservative thinking about Ankara’s place in the region and has its antecedents in more Islamist tinged ideas about the role of religion and regional politics. As a result, I see the efforts to recusitate Strategic Depth as a pragmatic return to the idea of working with whomever is in charge. Syria obviously remains the outlier. However, Turkey’s “brand” is so tainted at the moment, I don’t see how Ankara can resurrect the glory of the “Zero Problems era Pax Turkana.”

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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