Challenges to Turkey’s Military Deployments Abroad

Ceng Sagnic reviews Turkey's policy of military deployment to multiple theatres over the past two years, and expounds upon structural differences between the deployments to Qatar-Somalia and Syria-Iraq.

Turkish soldiers undergoing medical training.  Illustrative.
Turkish soldiers undergoing medical training. Illustrative. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Turkey’s growing intention to deploy troops abroad first surfaced in late 2015, as plans to establish a military base in Qatar were revealed.[1] The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi - AKP) government later announced deployments to the coast of Somalia adjacent to the Red Sea[2] and to northern Iraq’s Bashik (Bashiqah), a sub-district of Nineveh north of Mosul, the country's second largest city.[3]Up until 2015, Turkey’s military deployments beyond its borders remained limited to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in the framework of a declared objective to prevent attacks by the separatist Kurdish movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan - PKK).[4] In fact, the large presence of the Turkish military in the camps scattered across the northern frontier of the region served this objective effectively during multiple incursions against PKK since the early 1990s. Nevertheless, these bases were established for exclusively operational purposes, in the likely case of Turkish incursions into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and thus remained almost completely isolated, awaiting renewed clashes with PKK.

The ultimate philosophy of planned Turkish troop deployments to Qatar and Somalia were announced in early 2015, as components of a proactive Turkish foreign policy that lacked direct engagement with local belligerents. Notwithstanding the earlier declarations that deployments by the Turkish military had neutral purposes and were to be made in conjunction with local governments’ expectations, sudden deployments to Bashik and later to northern Syria’s rebel-held regions contradicted such philosophy and involved Turkish troops in ongoing battles. The Euphrates Shield operation, launched by the Turkish military and Syrian rebel organizations on 24 August 2016, has so far resulted in the expansion of these groups’ territorial control of border areas previously controlled by the Islamic State (IS) in the north. Meanwhile, in the last few months, Turkey declared multiple times that it intends to launch operations against the IS in northern Iraq similar to its ongoing operation in northern Syria. Yet, local Kurdish sources had already reported multiple times that since 2015, Turkish tanks were involved in limited-scale skirmishes with IS militants in northern Iraq while supporting the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).[5] The absolute lack of cooperation with local authorities and the involvement of Turkish troops in the civil wars of Syria and Iraq set the deployment to these two countries apart from the establishment of military bases in Qatar and Somalia, representing a categorical difference between the deployments.

This categorical difference is apparent in Syria and Iraq, where the success of Turkish military missions rests on the military capacity of Turkey’s local partners against other belligerents. In Syria, the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) has managed to advance deep into IS-controlled territories and has prevented the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from expanding along the border with Turkey in order to connect the self-proclaimed cantons of Kobane and Afrin. Hence, the deployment of forces by Turkey has already been declared a victory against both the IS and the US-backed Kurdish groups.[6] Whereas in Iraq, Turkey's declared effort to lead local Sunni-Arab militias to serious gains in the war against the IS is still far from the reality.

The Turkish military base in the Bashik region was established in 2015 to train Sunni militias known as Hashd al-Watani and commanded by the former governor of Nineveh Atheel al-Nujaifi. Immediately after almost one-third of Iraq was captured by the IS, Atheel al-Nujaifi - whose seat was overrun by IS militants in June 2014, in the course of a three-days attack on Mosul - began to mobilize a force of Sunni volunteers from local civilians and former police officers of Mosul. The initial plan was declared as an exclusive cooperation with the KRG in order to recapture Mosul without any intervention by forces of the central Iraqi government.[7] The mobilization period in Nineveh also coincided with the aftermath of a fatwa issued by Iraq’s highest Shi'i religious authority, Ali al-Sistani, which called for the formation of Shi'i volunteer forces to fight off the IS expansion in northern Iraq.[8]

Turkey’s subsequent involvement in support of al-Nujaifi’s Hashd al-Watani - which the central Iraqi government deprived of any material support in favor Shi'i militias - fell short of preparing this local Sunni force to retake Mosul from the battle-hardened and well-equipped IS militants. According to both Turkish and Sunni-Iraqi sources, a few thousand Sunni militia fighters that were stationed at the Turkish military base in the KRG-controlled part of the Nineveh province were provided only military training while desperately waiting for the US-led international coalition and the central Iraqi government to recognize and equip them.[9]

Challenges to the Turkish project in northern Iraq are not limited to the military shortcomings of the Sunni volunteer fighters in the face of the well-equipped and trained forces of the IS and the central Iraqi government. In the summer of 2016, a few months before the start of the ongoing Mosul operation, negotiations between the central Iraqi government and Turkey’s only legitimate ally in Iraq, the KRG, restarted in an attempt to reach a US-supervised consensus for the Mosul offensive. In early September 2016, the KRG announced that it had secured an agreement with the central Iraqi government that in exchange for direct talks on its prospective independence referendum, provided Iraqi forces with access to KRG-controlled parts of northern Iraq for the purpose of an operation on Mosul.[10] Although the semi-autonomous KRG refused to allow Shi'i militia forces to enter the Kurdistan Region, its ultimate permission of Iraqi military use of its territories unavoidably paved the way for Iranian-backed militias to open up a northward supply route reaching the far outskirts of Mosul from the south.[11] Considering the unconditional US air and ground support for joint Iraqi forces, including Shi'i militias, in the war against the IS in northern Iraq, the Turkish-backed project of transferring the future administration of Mosul to the Sunni volunteer forces of Hashd al-Watani has once again been sidelined.

Turkey’s expanding military missions in a number of countries, including its southern neighbors Iraq and Syria, continue to serve as subsidiary arguments in its domestic political rhetoric of converting Turkey into a global actor. Advocates of this policy often describe it as the revival of the Ottoman past, breaking the century-long self-imposed isolation of successive pre-AKP regimes. However, as is apparent in the comparative cases of military deployments to Syria and Iraq, the projected expansion of Turkey’s regional influence is predominantly dependent on the strength of its local allies, rather than the inherent capacity of the Turkish military itself. The exclusion of Turkish-backed Hashd al-Watani from the Mosul operation (and presumably from the city’s future administration) serves as the most recent evidence that in the spectrum of the wars in Syria and Iraq, the capacity of local belligerents is still conditioned by the intervention or noninterference of global powers. Unlike Mosul, where the US implicitly decided to support only Shi'i and Kurdish components of Iraqi security forces at the expense of Turkish-backed Sunnis, it would be fair to argue that the relative success of the Turkish-backed FSA operations in northern Syria rested on a lack of similar interference.


Ceng Sagnic is a junior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) - Tel Aviv University. He serves as the coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program and is co-editor  of Turkeyscope. cengsagnic[at]

[1] “Türkiye neden Katar’da askeri üs kuruyor?”, Al-Jazeera Turk, June 17, 2015

[2] “Türkiye ilk askeri üssünü Somali'de kurdu”, NTV, September 30, 2016,0ssBwpEmuEuXw_prsBuByA

[3] Zeidel R & Sagnic C, “The Politics of the Turkish Military Presence near Mosul”, Tel Aviv Notes, December 28, 2015 

[4] “Irak'ta 10 farklı noktada Türk askeri”, Haber 7, December 16, 2015

[5] Rebwar Kerim, “Türk tankları cephede Peşmerge ile omuz omuza”, Twitter post, January 10, 2016

[6] “Fırat Kalkanı PYD'nin koridor hayalini çökertti”, Yeni Şafak, August 25, 2016

[7] “النجيفي وبرزاني يبحثان تحرير «نينوى» من «داعش» ويتفقان على التنسيق”, Al-Sharq, December 1, 2015

[8] “بيان صادر من مكتب سماحة السيد السيستاني - دام ظلّه - في النجف الأشرف حول التطورات الأمنية الأخيرة في محافظة نينوى”,, June 10, 2014

[9] “Türkiye Başika'da ne yapıyor?”, BBC Türkçe, December 18, 2016

[10] “فوئاد حسێن: هەولێر و بەغدا دوو شاند بۆ پرسی سەربەخۆیی پێكدەهێنن”, ZNA, September 1, 2016

[11] “الحشد الشعبي يفتح جبهة جديدة بغرب الموصل ويهاجم تلعفر”, RT, October 30, 2016