Turkey Deepens Its Presence in Nineveh

Turkey has deployed some 150 troops to train a militia under the control of Osama and Atheel Nujaifi, two close Turkish allies in Iraq. Nineveh’s former governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, authorized Ankara to deploy trainers near the town of Bashiqa in March, ostensibly to train a hold force to take control of Mosul once the city is cleared of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).

The Iraqi government has demanded that Turkey remove its military personnel, citing a breach of sovereignty. The Turkish government has halted its deployment of forces to the base, but has indicated that it has no intention of withdrawing its troops and equipment, arguing that the deployment is necessary to protect the Nujaifi/Turkish run base from ISIS attack.

The base is located in disputed Iraqi territory, but is now effectively under the jurisdiction of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), whose President, Masoud Barzani, is a close Turkish ally. Ankara has sought to cement its presence in Arab controlled northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, to deepen Turkish influence in the area and to hedge against growing Iranian empowerment. Turkey’s efforts to deepen its influence with elements of the Sunni and Kurdish political movements in Iraq accelerated in 2010, after former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki managed to retain power, even after the Turkish backed Iraqiya coalition won two more parliamentary seats in the Iraqi election.

Maliki’s alliance with the Badr organization, which has extensive links to Iran, changed Turkey’s political calculus. In response to Maliki’s centralization of power and alliance with Shia militias, Turkey sought to deepen its own power base. First, it built upon is deep relationship with the Barzanis and began to facilitate the independent export of oil pumped from Kurdish controlled areas. Second, Ankara sought to empower Sunni allies, turning to Osama and Atheel in 2009. This effort compliments Turkey’s two decades old effort to strengthen Iraq’s Sunni Turkmen communities and its relationship with other Iraqi politicians, including Ayad al-Allawi and the now exiled Tarek al-Hashemi.

Turkey’s actions pre-date the rise of the Islamic State and stem from a strategic decision to empower rivals to Maliki and Iran. This strategy, however, has faltered, owing to the dissolution of a united Iraqi Sunni movement and the Nujaifis’ declining political popularity. The Nujaifis’ political decline began in 2010, after Ankara helped broker an alliance between Atheel and Massoud Barzani. Atheel had previously won support from Sunni Arabs in Mosul for his stridently anti-Kurdish views, and thus his flip-flop undermined his support almost immediately after he assumed his position as Nineveh’s governor.

Atheel’s popularity declined further after he fled Mosul for the KRG during the Islamic State’s successful siege of the city in June 2014. Shortly thereafter, Atheel was impeached after he visited Washington and directly appealed for weapons shipments to Iraqi Sunnis, rather than work through Baghdad. Both Osama and Atheel have argued in favor of the creation of a Sunni dominated autonomous administration, similar to that of KRG. Thus, many Iraqis believe that their appeal for weapons are a part of a larger effort to raise an indigenous militia to police an autonomous administration—and is thus a ploy to break up the Iraqi state.

Critically, the Nujaifi plan lacks support from Iraq’s other Sunni dominated political parties, who in some cases oppose Nujaifi for self-interested political reasons. Most Sunni dominated parties have instead focused on pushing new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to ease the de-baathifcation law the United States put in place in 2003 and to pass a national guards bill to rein in the Shia militias (Hashd al-Shabi) and empower Sunni tribesmen.

Abadi managed to pass the national guards proposal out his cabinet in February, but the bill has stalled in parliament, owing to sharp disagreements about the command and control structure, as well as an overarching concern amongst Iraqi Shiite dominated parties about arming Sunnis. The leader of the Badr Brigades, Haider al-Ameri—whose political party controls 22 seats in parliament—favors the maintenance of a local control over militias. Badr has the support of Maliki and Iran.

In contrast, Abadi has the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and members of the Sadrist movement. They both favor the abolishment of Hashd al-Shabi, and the integration of these Shia militias into the armed forces, under the direction of the Prime Minister, which will reduce the Hashd al-Shabi’s ability to challenge their own authority. Abadi has no natural constituency in Iraq, and is thus forced to balance between the growing popularity of Ameri, whose Hashd al-Shabi units have become a vanguard force in the fight against ISIS. 

Maliki, Ameri, and the Nujaifis are all working at cross-purposes with Abadi because they argue that their allied militias remain independent, rather than be incorporated into the military’s hierarchy. Thus, while Atheel Nujaifi has adopted vehemently anti-Shia rhetoric in recent weeks (most notably, making the claim that Mosul residents would not accept Shia forces fighting ISIS in the city), his push for locally governed militias is similar to that of Ameri, and therefore the two men are pushing for the same goal: The raising of autonomous militias.

Against this backdrop, Turkey deployed eighteen trainers and military personnel to a Nujaifi run camp near Bashiqa in March to train the so-called Hashd al-Watani—a volunteer force operating outside of Baghdad’s control, and affiliated with the Nujaifis. At the time, the deployment went largely unnoticed because few people this author interviewed took the camp seriously. The training was rudimentary, the trainees lacked weapons, and they were not involved in the on-going KRG led operations against the Islamic State near Mosul. Moreover, the Hashd al-Watani operates outside of the US led anti-ISIS coalition. This is because the United States favors the passage of a national guards bill to address Sunni grievances, rather than the raising of an independent militia. This places the United States in alliance with Abadi and al-Sistani, who are both pushing to centralize control over independent militias.

Turkey’s decision to increase the number of personnel at the base thus raises the appeal of men like Ameri (and his backer, Iran), whose militia is far more powerful than the Hashd al-Watani. This, in turn, strengthens Iran’s hold over Iraqi politics at the expense of the Iraqi central government and Turkey’s favored politicians. For Turkey, however, this deployment is an insurance policy against the breakup of the Iraqi state and is the latest in a series of moves to blunt Iran’s increased influence and to give Turkey more influence in Iraqi politics.

Turkey’s actions, both with the KRG and in Nineveh, suggest that Ankara is amenable to the further decentralization of the Iraqi state. For years, Ankara had pushed to empower Baghdad to ensure that the Kurdistan regional government did not achieve formal independence. While Turkey remains committed to a “one Iraq” policy, senior officials have argued in favor of allowing locals to govern cities cleared of the Islamic State. This subtle shift in policy appears to be driving Turkey’s recent decision-making and suggests that Ankara will continue to work to deepen its relationship with its own allies inside Iraq to ensure that it retains its influence in Iraqi Kurdistan and Nineveh.

Aaron Stein is a Senior Resident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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Image: (Photo: Reuters)