Turkish Boots on the Ground

Following global leaders U.S. and Russia, not to mention regional power Iran, Turkey now has boots (and tanks) on the ground in the ethnic/jihadi war engulfing the center of the Mideast…and note where they went: to the front line between Kurdistan and the Islamic State at Mosul.

Considering that Turkey has demonstrated an extraordinarily tolerant attitude toward the IS jihadis and extreme hostility toward Kurds who don’t follow Turkish rules, it is impossible to say whether Erdogan sent his tanks into what used to be Iraq to support a Kurdish attack on Mosul or to prevent it. Has Ankara just recognized Kurdistan’s independence or is Ankara establishing a cordon sanitaire around its Salafi allies in a move to use them against Iran, Assad, Russia and…who knows…even Riyadh itself? What can be assumed is that Erdogan’s minimum goal is to enhance his influence over Kurdistan. Watch for Turkish efforts to isolate Iraqi Kurds from Syrian Kurds, both of whom should have the common sense to start working together very closely to protect their long-term security.


What Are Erdogan’s Intentions?

  • Kurdistan approved his troop movement; Baghdad did not. This suggests that Erdogan’s intent is to split Kurdistan off from the former state of Iraq.
  • PM Davutoglu responded to Baghdad’s demand for a troop withdrawal by stating–by way of a concession(!)–that Turkish troops would not enter Islamic State-controlled Mosul without consulting Baghdad. In other words, “We will stay in Kurdistan as long as we please.” 

From Baghdad’s protest one can guess that Baghdad’s patron Tehran was not informed and will thus take a dim view of Turkey’s effort to intervene in what some of the ambitious decision-makers in Tehran will surely view as Iran’s sphere of influence. (Indeed, Iran did quickly protest.) If, as has been suggested, the Mideast is now moving toward a regional Sunni alliance extending from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, then these Turkish boots on the ground in a position to challenge Iran’s new sphere of influence can be seen as a significant step forward toward that pan-Sunni goal. But if Ankara is trying to take leadership of regional Sunnis, the regional Sunnis don’t seem too happy about it. Sunni Arab regimes condemned the entrance into Iraq of Turkish troops. Surely Riyadh and other Sunni capitals can see that Sunni Turkey’s military move into Shi’i (mostly) Iraq amounts to supporting the Sunni Arab world, can’t they? So much for Sunni unity.

So the Sunni unity hypothesis remains unproven. The Sunni leadership hypothesis (i.e., a unilateral Turkish move to lead regional Sunnis), albeit still not proven, is certainly plausible enough to give Westerners tempted once again to make a bargain with the jihadi devil reason for pause. What is clear is a new Turkish penchant for a highly activist and apparently unilateral foreign policy increasingly supported by militaristic tactics. Why Ankara would copy the most unsuccessful foreign policy tactics of Washington and Tel Aviv is a question analysts and psychologists will no doubt ponder at length, but the pattern of Ankara’s new attitude is becoming rather clear: playing the race card against Turkish Kurds to re-elect Erdogan, attacking Syrian Kurds for their behavior inside of Syria, shooting down a Russian jet apparently because it was attacking Sunni Syrian rebels allied with Ankara, and now just rolling its tanks into what Baghdad still likes to think of as Iraqi territory.

The Mideast seems to have moved dangerously far away from its position only a few years ago, when Turkey–proclaiming moderation, good neighborliness, acceptance of Kurdish civil rights, and democracy–worked with Brazil to moderate the dangerous nuclear dispute between Washington and Tehran. A Turkish transformation from agent for peace, compromise, and moderation into challenger for leadership of regional Sunnis is likely to make today’s Mideast appear almost tranquil compared to what we will see in a decade. Over the short term, it is hard to see how Sunni Arabs will view a unilaterally aggressive Turkey: as Sunni brother, NATO crusader, or Ottoman. Future possibilities easy to foresee include Turkish-Iranian (proxy) war over ethnic/religious control of Iraq and Syria, Turkish-Saudi (proxy) war for the allegiance of regional Sunnis that will only entice jihadis to play one off against the other, and a unified Sunni confrontation with either Mideast Shi’a or the West.


NOTE, 12/6/15: Kurdish media are reporting clashes between Syrian rebel groups, all recepients of U.S. aid, in which the Kurdish YPG and groups more closely aligned with Turkey have targetted each other rather than the Islamic State.

NOTE, 12/7/15: How easily boots on the ground become bases on the ground. Rapidly emulating his superpower mentors, only weeks after Putin’s tactically masterful establishment of heavily manned bases in Syria and Obama’s new policy of officially having a few boots on the ground with the Kurds along with his boots supporting Baghdad, Erdogan too is now reported to have a military base in Kurdistan. In fact, Turkish training bases in Kurdistan are not new, but Turkish tanks apparently are. Whether Erdogan is truly trying to compete with the “superpowers” or is just trying his hand at balancing Iran, which allegedly now has thousands of boots on the ground in Syria, is something Erdogan is keeping to himself, but the world knows what happened so very long ago in Vietnam after JFK put those first few boots on the ground…


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