As it always happens, a major military offensive in a country where multiple interests collide and converge, alliances take place. Some new are formed and some old suffer a set-back. Iraqi army’s operation in Mosul, the erstwhile capital of the Islamic State in Iraq, has produced the same kind of impact. As such, whereas it has widened the gulf between the US and Turkey (read: the US has quietly opposed Turkey’s military intervention in Iraq), it has equally bridged, to an extent, the gap between the US and Iran. On the other, the US opposition to a Turkish invasion of Iraq has brought Russia and Turkey a step closer to making an alliance in Syria and influence the situation together to their advantage. In short, what we have on the ground today is this: US, Iraq and Iran are quietly co-ordinating against IS in Mosul; while Turkey and Russia are watching it and responding to it accordingly.
Two recent developments indicate this scenario: Turkey has scaled down its demand for a fully-fledged participation in the battle for Mosul, whereas Russia has redefined its strategic objectives in Syria that now include liberation of the whole country under the leadership of President Assad. This re-defined objectives has its roots in the sense that both Russia and Syria are getting from the Mosul operation: IS fighters from Iraq may find the newly liberated and the still-to-be-liberated areas in Syria as suitable sanctuaries to shift to and re-launch their ‘jihad.’
On the other hand, the fact that Tukey has been forced out of the battle for Mosul, a city it historically considers its own part, its chances of finding a place on the negotiating table have faded considerably, leaving it with no other option but to extend its engagement with Russia.
Mosul, for Turkey, has a lot of strategic attraction. Ankara tends to organize and reinvigorate militia forces affiliated with it, which can be achieved through military presence in the Sunni-dominated city of Mosul and training those forces in Iraq. This plan aims to restrict Iran’s clout in Iraq and create some sort of power balance between Tehran and Ankara in the political arena of Iraq. However, with the US denying Turkey a ground military presence, this objective has suffered a clear set-back.
As such, an important factor that has contributed to convergence of Russia and Turkey is the way Iran and the US are co-operating. Unsurprisingly, the US has preferred that the liberation of Mosul is best handled by Iraqi forces and affiliated militia without Turkish involvement, which is also the demand of Baghdad and the secret wish of Tehran. In this context, Iraqi Army’s alliance with the Shi’ite-based Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the fight to retake Mosul makes perfects sense. Needless to say, PMF factions are led by none other than the charismatic commander of Iran’s famous Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
This Iran-US co-operation has been facilitated by the fact the US had secretly lifted some of financial sanctions in January that were to be originally lifted in 2023, allowing Iranian economy a reasonable breathing space in the global market. As part of the secret package deal signed in January 2015 in Geneva, Western companies can now do business with Iranian companies that may be linked to politicians and generals in Tehran (including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards commanders) who figured in the US’ sanctions list previously. Equally, the Obama administration has begun allowing Iran to use American dollars in its business dealings with foreign companies.
This being the extent of co-operation between the US and Iran, an alliance between Russia and Turkey does make sense. Hence, Erdogan’s emphasis on working in co-ordination with Russia in Syria over the battle for Aleppo. As some reports have shown, Turkish President Recep Erdogan disclosed in the last week that in a phone conversation with Putin, they discussed the Russian wish that Ankara should persuade the al-Nusra fighters to leave Aleppo without further fighting.
“We (Turkey and Russia) have given necessary instructions to our colleagues and have started to work in this direction. And we also discussed an agreement on how to drive out the al-Nusra from Aleppo and provide peace for the city’s inhabitants, and for this we need to work together,” Erdogan said. He added that if there is an exodus from Aleppo due to the fighting, Turkey will be willing to accept at least one million refugees.
For Turkey, co-operation with Russia has become a lot more important in the context of extended US-Iran co-operation. Were Turkey not to co-operate with Russia over the battle for Aleppo, Turkey’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ might suffer similar set-backs its objectives in Iraq/Mosul have. Therefore, in addition to Turkey’s continued need of Russian acquiescence over its ‘Euphrates Shield’ operations in northern Syria, Ankara does also want to count on whatever Moscow could do to help resolve the contradictions involving Iran and Iraq today in Iraq.
The bigger picture emerging out of this whole scenario involves certain contradictions. Consider this: while the US is restricting Turkish involvement in Iraq, the former continues to rely on the latter for its military presence in Syria. Needless to say, despite their disagreement over Iraq, Turkey still remains a NATO member.
This is because of the fact that whereas the US has a 7500 strong military presence in Iraq, it lacks such presence in Syria where Turkey influences, if not dictates, terms of engagement.
Similarly, while Russia is watching over increasing convergence between the US and Iran in Iraq, both Russia and Iran continue to co-operate in Syria. As a matter of fact, nothing could be of more help to Iran than Russia striving for Syria’s complete liberation. In the same line, the US and Iran continue to have diametrically opposite views and objectives vis-à-vis Syria. With the question of Assad’s future still colouring their bi-lateral terms, it is far from clear which direction their mutual relations would go in the future. While important sanctions have been lifted, many still remain in place.
Therefore, the alliances taking place in the shadow of Mosul operation are contradictory and may fall with the fall of IS in Iraq if those contradictions are not sorted out and resolved. What can resolve this contradiction is not how and the extent to which the countries involved co-operate in Iraq and Syria, but how these countries define their interests and the tactics they use to achieve them.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.