Tal Afar: Spark for a Turkey-Iran Proxy War?

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In Tal Afar, an overstretched Iraqi Army leaves regional powerbrokers and their proxies room to fight, with little chance of mediation.

This article follows up on last week’s examination of Hawija, a predominantly Sunni Arab town where government neglect and a sense of marginalization sparked unrest in 2013 that presaged the current crisis. At the problem’s core lies the issue of Baghdad’s struggle to shape the post-ISIS environment in northern Iraq. Local conflicts, fueled by posturing from Iraq’s neighbors, threaten to incite future violence; the Iraqi government has little capacity to counter these forces. Tal Afar’s experience deepens the warning from Hawija, showing that the battle for Iraq’s future will be fought, won, or lost on forgotten battlefields where Baghdad’s influence is all but non-existent.

Residents flee ISIS advances into Tal Afar
Residents flee ISIS advances into Tal Afar in 2014.

In the fight to dislodge the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from its territory in northern Iraq, the government in Baghdad has struggled to stay master of its fate. On 1 October, Turkey’s Parliament voted to maintain the country’s troop presence in Iraq (and Syria). As the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus declared, “No one has the right to object to Turkey’s presence in Iraq when the country is fragmented that much.”

Ankara’s bluntness illuminates a critical reality facing Baghdad policymakers: by pouring its resources into Mosul, the Iraqi government loses its capacity to project force into ISIS-held areas outside Ninewa’s capital city and its immediate environs. Tal Afar, the predominantly Turkmen district capital 63 km west of Mosul in Ninewa Province that remains under ISIS control, is a symbol of this growing regional chaos. In summer 2014, the jihadists dramatically altered the town’s demography. Today, Turkey, its rival Iran, and their proxies – chiefly the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), respectively – are competing to shape the town’s ethnic and political soul post-ISIS.

In the northern Iraqi geopolitical arena, the losers of this struggle will be local populations coopted by and victims of external powerbrokers. In Tal Afar, and other towns like it across northern Iraq, the absence of Iraqi government or neutral international arbitration leaves room for regional competitors to exercise their ambition.

Crisis in Tal Afar

The people of Tal Afar understand this uncomfortable reality well. The town of approximately 200,000 (pre-2014) sits at this nexus between local grievance, regional competition, and almost non-existent central government authority. Before June 2014, Tal Afar had been split along sectarian lines, between Sunni (70-75 percent) and Shia (25-30 percent) Turkmen populations. When ISIS swept across Ninewa Province that summer, the town’s Shia community fled, eventually finding their way to Kerbala and Najaf in southern Iraq. By the end of 2015, 1,250 Turkmen families had found refuge in the Imam Ali Shrine, and wounded Turkmen fighters were being treated in Kerbala hospitals.

For the PMU, reversing Tal Afar’s forced demographic shift by restoring this displaced population represents a strategic priority in Ninewa Province. The force likely to prosecute such an operation will comprise many of the same Shia Turkmen who fled south two years ago – but this time mobilized within Iranian-backed organizations. Nearly 12,000 Turkmen have joined the PMU since 2014, many signing up with militias that receive funding and weapons from Tehran.

The shift in the Shia Turkmen perspective southward to Arab Iraq highlights cleavages within the post-2014 Tal Afar population. Traditionally, the local community looked to Turkey as its guarantor. Today, however, many displaced Shia residents believe that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara abandoned those fleeing ISIS in 2014, thus relinquishing its guardian role. In the eyes of many displaced Turkmen, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) refusal to accept internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Tal Afar – many of whom had been forced to flee a second time after they initially sought refuge in Sinjar – was a result of Turkish influence over the ruling KDP in Erbil.

The Sunni community that remained earned a reputation as adherent to ISIS ideology. Immediately following Mosul’s fall, ISIS militants turned toward Sunni areas in Tal Afar district, seizing towns like Muhallabiyah, which had long been considered “a cemetery for al-Qaeda martyrs.” After the jihadists captured the Mosul Dam for 12 days that summer, they assigned a hydrologist who had previously managed Tal Afar’s drainage system as its monitor. And in April 2016, a coalition airstrike killed Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, a deputy to the self-declared “caliph” of ISIS, who had spent much of his career in Tal Afar.

Of course, it is important not to assign blame to an entire community for extremist activity. Those who fled initially — mostly the town’s Shia inhabitants —  were in immediate danger. In many cases, Sunni civilians — who may have not have felt themselves in the same peril as their Shia neighbors — remained to protect their property and livelihoods, care for elderly, young, and sick family members, as well as preserve personal dignity. While some Sunni Turkmen certainly showed at least willingness to work alongside ISIS, those who ascribed wholeheartedly to the extremist ideology likely represented a relative minority of the remaining Tal Afar population.

Sectarian divisions within the Tal Afar Turkmen community highlight tensions that are today being exploited by regional actors. Sunni motivations are rooted in pre-2014 politics. During the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies in northern Iraq were markedly sectarian, the town’s Shia Turkmen received training and equipment from pro-Baghdad militias and the army. The Sunni population, seeking similar support but abandoned by Baghdad, found willing partners in jihadist groups – the precursors to ISIS. As Faleh Jabar, director of the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, noted, “Jealousy drove many [Turkmen] to join extremists on an individual basis.”

Potential for Conflict

Today, many in the Iraqi government and PMU revile those Tal Afaris who remained in both the town and district under ISIS rule. Analysts should not underestimate the strength of these sentiments lest they miss the warning signs of growing violence. While Baghdad is reluctant to commit already overstretched resources to a difficult fight to liberate the town, Shia militias – both Turkmen and Arab – will take a leading role in any clearing operation there.

Officials in Ankara have remained quiet regarding the Sunni Turkmen community’s alleged connections to ISIS. Instead, they responded to these emergent sectarian divisions within the Turkmen population by reasserting their role as the legitimate protector of the entire ethnic community. Turkish media report that senior government officials recently voiced support for “the homecoming of all Sunni and Shi[a] Turkmen people to Tal Afar.” Turkey, however, is anxious to prevent a Shia zone of control along the critical corridor from Iran to Syria that could act as a conduit for supplies to the Assad regime. It staunchly opposes any involvement of PMU forces in the town’s liberation, seeing them as extensions of Tehran’s hand in this strategically important area.

While Iraqi and international coalition leaders have assured Turkey that PMU forces would not enter Mosul, there have been no such assurances regarding areas like Tal Afar that fall outside the immediate battle’s scope. This silence leaves room for Ankara to not only assert its will over operations in Tal Afar, but also to shape on-the-ground realities to effectively cut Shia Turkmen fighters out of the envisaged post-ISIS region.

Turkish leaders have cultivated proxies through which to prosecute their strategic objectives. Over the past few years, the Turkish government has established close ties with KRG President Masoud Barzani and his KDP. The KRG’s Peshmerga are divided between KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) units. By mobilizing the KDP Peshmerga, which have been accused of withholding weapons transfers from their PUK counterparts, the Turks are able to mobilize Kurdish force in areas like Tal Afar. Additionally, Turkish troops based in Bashiqa have been training Sunni tribal militia since 2015 – a group that will ultimately fall within the Peshmerga command structure.

The PMU view Turkey’s posturing as unacceptable vis-à-vis Tal Afar, as well as elsewhere in the country – especially given the Shia Turkmen contingent within their ranks. Following Ankara’s unilateral decision to maintain troops in Iraq, PMU spokesman Yousif al-Kilabi warned that Turkish forces based in northern Iraq are “occupiers and during the fight against ISIS in Mosul we do not fight the group (ISIS) alone, but also the Turkish troops if they do not retreat from Iraqi land.” The ground is thus laid for violence between Turkish soldiers, Turkey-backed militia, and the PMU.

Many PMU commanders view the Sunni residents who remained under ISIS rule as jihadist sympathizers, and their fighters may seek revenge against these individuals if they spearhead the battle to liberate the town. It is possible that Shia militias could engage in ethnic cleansing or force displacement of Sunni Turkmen populations, reversing the demographic transformation wrought by ISIS – actions that would surely precipitate some kind of Turkish response, either directly or through the KDP Peshmerga.

Managing Future Violence?

The situation in Tal Afar is dangerous. The Iraqi Army is exhausted as it prepares to assault ISIS’s stronghold in Mosul, while also holding already-liberated areas like Ramadi and Fallujah and providing security in the capital. The battle for Iraq’s future will be fought on forgotten battlefields like Tal Afar, where Baghdad and its international partners have ceded the role of liberator to non-state actors with dubious motivations and external patrons.

As the Iraqi government’s ability to perform the role of mediator across northern Iraq fades, the potential for internecine violence threatens to upset regional security and destabilize any post-ISIS environment. In Tal Afar, as was the case in other flashpoints like Hawija and Mosul, a sense of marginalization and neglect drove some communities to find alternative sources of support from extremist groups. If Baghdad remains unable to project force or provide mediation for local conflicts, similar sentiments could reemerge – driving affected communities away from the Iraq state.

Local populations and their displaced compatriots will emerge as the victims of this violence, caught between a desire for stability and the policies of groups that do not represent their interests. It will be difficult to monitor the humanitarian and security situation in a post-ISIS Tal Afar, creating the very real possibility of reprisal killings and suppression of local communities by their liberators.

Ultimately, if Baghdad cannot provide security for Tal Afar’s residents to address the deep traumas experienced over the past two years, local conflict will likely erupt that could put the region at risk of increased inter-communal violence. Such an outcome undermines the international struggle further east in Mosul to bring a post-ISIS settlement. As the past 15 years in Iraq showed, it is in such environments that groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS thrive.