Iraq’s Turkmen Block ISIS Escape Route from Mosul
(ERBIL) All of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s intelligence and ingenuity will be tested by the brutal, complex and internecine conflict underway in Nineveh Province surrounding Mosul.
Take the case of the split within Iraq’s three-million strong Turkmen minority. The Iraqi Turkmen are a Turkic ethnic group who mostly adhere to a Turkish heritage and identity. Iraqi Turkmens are the descendants of various waves of Turkic migration to Mesopotamia beginning from the 7th century until Ottoman rule.
The Iraqi Turkmen generally are patriotic Iraqis but have close social, financial and political ties with Turkey. However, many of the leaders of Islamic State are Turkmen, and they stand accused of war crimes.
The sectarian division in Iraq cuts the Turkmen minority down the middle, with approximately half of its population Sunni and half Shia. Both sides have been victims of terrorism, and both Shiite fighters with the Popular Mobilization Forces and Sunni Tribal-Force Turkmen are fighting side by side backed by the Iraqi army, according to Dr. Ali Akram Bayati, director of the Turkman Rescue Foundation in Baghdad.
They are closing in on a fierce group of Turkmen terrorists in Tal Afar, a stronghold of Al-Qaeda even before Islamic State emerged.
The battle for Tal Afar, a strategic city 40 miles west of Mosul, is about closing the escape route of Islamic State fighters from Mosul.
Islamic State’s western access to Syria is guarded by 800 terrorists in this mountain town, until recently a city of 250,000 citizens midway between Mosul and the border to Syria.
“The city of Tal Afar is deserted now except for 800 Islamic State fighters and about 100 of their family members, according to our sources with the PMF,” Bayati says. “Turkmen commanders with the PMF tell me that of this number, 100 are foreign fighters and 700 are local fighters,” he said.
The Tal Afar terrorists are accused of multiple acts of brutality, according to Bayati, who was honored last year by the U.S. State Department for his advocacy on behalf of a persecuted minority. “They are guilty of mass executions and interment of corpses in mass graves, beheadings and trafficking of sex slaves,” Bayati wrote in an email. “The Turkmen in Tal Afar are not just ISIS fighters, they are the leaders of ISIS,” said Bayati in an interview. “In fact, many of the leaders of ISIS in Mosul also are Turkmen,” he added.
The Turkish government is seeking to use the Turkish-speaking minority as an intermediary between Ankara and Baghdad, Bayati said. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi on Jan. 7 to resolve several sources of tension, including the stationing of 2,000 Turkish military trainers and advisers at a base 20 miles east of Mosul. The Iraqi Prime Minister has demanded repeatedly that the base, which Turkey has maintained for decades, be evacuated. The Turkish advisors have used the base to train and equip thousands of Sunni militia who are supporting the Iraqi Army in the campaign to liberate Mosul.
The Iraqi coalition of Turkmen lawmakers met with Prime Minister Yildrim in a closed meeting during his visit to Baghdad and aired several concerns, according to Bayati, one of the participants.
Yildrim implored the group of 30 of Turkmen, including elected officials at the national and local level, to help resolve disputes between the two countries so that Turkey’s share of trade with Iraqi companies could increase. But the Turkmen lawmakers had their list of demands for Ankara, too, including a demand that Turkey arrest and prosecute a group of 100 Iraqi terrorists who are operating in Turkish territory to support the Islamic State.
Bayati gave the prime minister a list of the names and locations of the terrorists, many of them from Tal Afar, Bayati said. “They are accused of smuggling weapons and fighters over the Syrian border, human trafficking, and smuggling of terrorist prisoners out of Turkish prisons,” according to Bayati. But they also should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, in his view. He cited “beheading Turkmen and other minority residents and mass executions,” in an email.
“Those terrorists on the list given to Yildrim are responsible for crimes and terrorist operations in Turkey too, and we want to cooperate with Turkish government to arrest them,” he said.
“The Turkmen Rescue Foundation plans to seek extradition of the terrorists from Turkey to Iraq. In cases where the terrorists cannot be extradited, the Iraqi Turkmen will seek financial judgments against them in Iraqi courts, Bayati said. “We will try to deliver them to the Iraq side, but failing that, we are going to file lawsuits against those terrorists on behalf of our people and the victims,” Bayati said.
Turkey’s critics in the United States say that the Turkmen minority in Iraq has been used as a pawn to aid the expanded influence of Ankara’s Islamist government.
“The Turkish government has deemed it to its best interest to support and facilitate Sunni jihadi groups from the beginning of the conflict (2011) in Syria,” according to Dr. Ahmet Yayla, who headed Turkey’s Counter-terrorism department of Turkey’s National Police until 2013. “Turkey explicitly armed the Sunni groups, including Turkmens, provided military training, logistical support and when needed allowed them come to Turkey for medical treatment or rest and retreat,” Yayla has written in an email. “In fact, even some members of the Sunni opposition groups in Aleppo [Syria] were welcomed to Turkey after Aleppo fell to the Syrian regime,” Yayla wrote.
“Turkey aimed to ensure Bashar Assad was going to be defeated swiftly, buts Ankara’s plan to change the regime of Assad didn’t work out, according to Yayla. “Turkey’s plans backfired as the coalition forces decided to work with the PYD [Kurdish government of Northern Syria] against the Islamic State and as Russians and Iranians kept supporting Syrian regime. Consequently, because of Turkey’s policies, the radical jihadist terrorist organizations in the region became stronger and killed thousands of innocent people,” Yayla wrote.
The tragic loss of life defies words. The Shia Turkmen want justice for the mass executions of their ethnic brethren, who were considered worse than infidels by the pathological purists among the Sunni Turkmen terrorists rampaging across Iraq in June 2014. Hundreds of Shia Turkmen women were sold into sex slavery, and some are still captives in Raqqa, according to Bayati, whose advocacy resulted in the U.S. State Department including Shia Turkmen among the recognized victims of genocide last March.
Whether the Turkish government has acted in good faith to hunt down terrorists operating in its territory has been an open debate for years. Turkish diplomats interviewed on Dec. 29 at the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C. insisted that Turkish soldiers and police are fighting and dying to defeat the Islamic State. The diplomats said they could not speak on the record but hotly denied allegations by Yayla that Turkish intelligence agents had facilitated arms shipments from Turkey to Syria for years.
Without a doubt, Turkey has suffered numerous Islamic State terror attacks during the previous year. The diplomatic overtures from Ankara to Baghdad in January are evidence that Turkey wants to repair its spotty track record with its weaker southern neighbor and would like to play the Turkmen card in Baghdad. Whether the Turkmen will cooperate or simply conclude they are being played, remains to be seen.
Douglas Burton, a former State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq, reports on national security issues in the Middle East for several news platforms.
Photo Credit: Iraqi forces soldiers wait to begin training at Camp Taji, Iraq, Jan. 22, 2017. The soldiers were learning from coalition personnel how to search personnel and vehicles for improvised explosive devices. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht.