By Mustafa Aydin
After months of preparation and supported by the U.S.-led coalition’s air power, the Iraqi army finally started its military operation to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Oct. 17, 2016. Since then, the operation has maintained a slow but steady progress, reaching the Tigris River by Jan. 8. It is claimed that the joint operation involving the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Shiite militias as well as U.S.-led coalition forces has already caused ISIL to lose more than 50,000 fighters and most of the ground under its control.
Yet, despite these setbacks, ISIL still has the capacity to defend the city for a considerable time and more importantly, to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the country, undermining its stability. The most recent attacks came in the first few days of 2017 with several bombings in Baghdad. According to the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, almost 7,000 civilians were killed in the country in 2016 as a result of bombings and militant attacks.
Since losing the battle of Mosul, which was taken by ISIL more than two years ago, would considerably lessen its ability to regroup and survive in Iraq, ISIL will not easily give it up and the battle might drag out until the last ISIL fighters are eliminated in the isolated patches of the city.
The sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and the presence of more than a million civilians in Mosul further complicates the fight. The mostly Sunni residents of Mosul are skeptical about the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias that participated in sectarian atrocities in the previous offensives on Fallujah and Ramadi. Thus, who will control and rule the city following its liberation from ISIL is one of the most burning issues.
This was also the beginning of the tension between Turkey and Iraq. The two countries have been at odds over the presence of Turkish troops in Bashiqa, where Turkey established a camp in March 2015 to train local Sunni groups and Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against ISIL around Mosul. However, when Turkey replaced and expanded its troops in Bashiqa in December 2015, the Iraqi government, under the not-so-subtle influence of Iran and Russia, asked Turkey to end the training program and appealed to the U.N. Security Council to force Turkey to leave the camp.
On the eve of the Mosul operation, the relationship between the two countries became strained again over the issue and their respective ambassadors were summoned on Oct. 5, 2016. Finally, it seems that the two reached some sort of an understanding, if not an agreement, during a two-day visit by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to Iraq. Although the details are still unknown, both Yildirim and his Iraqi counterpart, Haider al-Abadi, expressed their intention to overcome the difficulties between the two countries with special emphasis on the mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty.
Obviously a thaw in relations might bring an improvement in a wide array of fields, including trade, energy and defense. Yet Turkey’s priority would be to attain Iraq’s cooperation to end the existence of outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in Sinjar region, one of the not-so-openly spoken aims of the Turkish presence in Bashiqa, and if possible, coordination to prevent further terrorist infiltration into Turkey from Iraqi territory. It seems that the understanding between the two countries revolves around this deal: the withdrawal of Turkish troops if and when the Iraqi government is able to force the PKK out of Sinjar and curtail its movement between the Kandil Mountain and the Turkish border. Obviously, Turkey needs to see results, not just assurances. Still, just re-establishing dialogue between the two countries would be a huge improvement.