Conflicts between capitalist rivals in the region have intensified, particularly as the governments of Turkey and Iran each seek to assert greater influence as regional powers. They were further exacerbated Oct. 26 when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that Washington plans to open an offensive against Islamic State in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa “in the next few weeks.”
Thousands of Shiite militias joined the battle in Mosul Oct. 30. They act under the auspices of the Iraqi government, but most are trained and organized by the Quds Brigade, the extraterritorial arm of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards. Its commander, Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani, was reported to be in Mosul in late October.
Posing as the protector of Sunni Muslims and ethnic Turkmen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the involvement of the Shiite militia. The Turkish military began moving tanks and armored vehicles to the Turkish-Iraqi border Nov. 1. Ankara already has 2,000 troops in northern Iraq, including 800 at a base near Mosul, despite the opposition of the Iraqi government.
Recent speeches by Erdogan have asserted that Turkey has an historic claim to territory in northern Iraq and Syria, including Mosul, and regards this as part of Ankara’s sphere of influence. Maps published by Turkish media have begun showing these regions as part of Turkey. In an Oct. 19 speech that criticized Washington’s collaboration with Kurdish forces in Syria, Erdogan said, “We are not obliged to abide by the role anyone has set for us.”
Turkish troops and tanks, and a Turkish-backed Arab militia, have been advancing in northern Syria since late August in an operation Ankara calls “Euphrates Shield.” Both Turkish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), are capturing territory from Islamic State and advancing towards the city of al-Bab.
In a televised speech Oct. 27, Erdogan said Turkish forces would prevent the SDF from entering al-Bab and then drive it from the city of Manbij and back east across the Euphrates River. Then “we will go toward Raqqa,” he proclaimed.
But Washington is depending on the SDF as the main force for a U.S.-led assault against Islamic State in Raqqa. “We are afraid to be hit from the back if we move to Raqqa,” Saleh Muslim, a Syrian Kurdish leader, told the Seattle Times by phone Oct. 29. U.S. special operations forces and airstrikes have been supporting both the Turkish and Kurdish-led forces in Syria.
Erdogan said he urged President Barack Obama in a phone call Oct. 26 to exclude the SDF from the offensive on Raqqa and collaborate instead with a Turkish-led military assault. White House officials said Obama asked Erdogan to hold back from attacking the SDF while the Raqqa assault is underway, and that Washington would help control the Kurds. “We’re not in perfect control,” the Oct. 31 Washington Post quoted an anonymous White House official as commenting.
The Turkish forces advancing on al-Bab are not far from the city of Aleppo, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its backers, including Russian planes and Iranian troops and militias, are carrying out a murderous assault on opposition insurgents for control of the city. A commander of the pro-Assad forces issued a warning Oct. 26 that any Turkish advance towards their positions north and east of Aleppo would be met “decisively and with force.”
Teheran, which backs the governments in both Iraq and Syria, has repeatedly warned Ankara against intervention in either country.
In Turkey, Erdogan is continuing to arrest Kurdish politicians, close newspapers, and fire thousands of teachers, health workers and others deemed disloyal to the government, using emergency powers adopted following the failed July military coup. Dozens of officials of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Democratic Regions Party (DBP) were arrested in southeastern Turkey in October, including the two co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city. They are accused of supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
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