At a time when the United States needs Turkey to focus on its role in Syria, Washington is at odds with Ankara over Turkey’s unauthorized deployment of troops in northern Iraq. The squabble is just the latest example of the disconnect between the U.S. and Turkey, which the White House will have to manage as part of its strategy for the region. The divergent interests of the American and Turkish governments constitute the biggest factor obstructing international efforts against the Islamic State.
In a Dec. 16 phone conversation with the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sought to defuse tensions between Ankara and Baghdad that have been brewing for several weeks now. The Iraqis have been demanding that Turkey pull its forces that were deployed near Mosul for the purposes of training Iraqi militias to fight against the Islamic State, however, the Turks have been largely defiant.
Turkish military interventions in Iraq complicate the pre-existing problem created by the Islamic State’s rendering of Syria and Iraq into a singular battlespace. Washington’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is based on restoring the national boundaries between the two countries. While facing the challenge of dealing with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the Americans do not want to see Iraq, which Washington spent great blood and treasure building, become even more unstable.
The Turks, however, have a very different view of the region. From their perspective, if they are to be the ones dealing with IS and leading the efforts to stabilize the region, they cannot limit themselves to just Syria where they are up against an Iranian-backed regime. Therefore, intervening in Iraq is a way to try and counter Iran’s influence in the region. Towards this end, Turkey has welcomed the Saudi move to create the Islamic Military Alliance against IS – a coalition that excludes the Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian governments.
More important to the Turks’ strategy is the establishment of a Turkish base in Qatar, which is designed to take advantage of the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran and enhance the Turkish regional position through the support of its main Arab ally, Qatar. From the American perspective, all these Turkish moves are a distraction from the fight against the Islamic State and aggravating the increasingly convoluted regional landscape. Washington may be able to temporarily get the Turks to back down on Iraq but will have to continue to deal with the unintended consequences of encouraging Ankara to play a larger regional role.