Since the Mosul operation to liberate Iraq's second largest city from Daesh began two weeks ago, the battle for Mosul has already started to lose momentum, as coalition forces led by the Iraqi army struggle to advance on the outskirts of Mosul in the operation which is now expected to last longer than planned.
Dr. Hicran Kazancı, the representative for the Iraqi-Turkmen Front which represents more than 2 million Iraqi-Turkmens, spoke to Daily Sabah about the ongoing operation and the implications it could have in the region. Regarding allegations that the Hashd al-Shaabi's Shiite militia had entered Tal Afar, Kazancı said he could not confirm these claims but stressed that the Iraqi-Turkmen Front is insistent in joining the fight in Tal Afar, adding that eventually they will.
Speaking about demographic restructuration in the region, Dr. Kazancı drew attention to the fact that both Mosul and Kirkuk are key locations in the region, underlining that the Hashd al-Shaabi's inclusion in the Mosul offensive will probably have dire consequences similar to those seen in the Daesh invasion of Mosul and Tal Afar.
According to Dr. Kazancı, regardless of ethnicity or sectarian affiliations, clan leaders in the region have a positive attitude toward Turkish involvement and are aware that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) do not have any ethnic affiliation or sectarian ideology militarily and they believe the Turkish army will prevent any forces from starting sectarian war.
He also warns that if an ethnic or sectarian war emerges as a result of this cooperation, the ongoing conflicts we have seen since the Lausanne Treaty will persist for at least another 100 years.
n Ali Ünal: There are claims that the Hashd al-Shaabi has entered Tal Afar. How do you evaluate this situation?
I wasn't able to verify this claim; however, I can say that it is highly probable. They were very insistent in joining the fight in Tal Afar and, eventually, they will. Unfortunately, this indicates that they are aiming to spark a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis. On a side note, they have some Turkmens among their ranks. As Tal Afar is a city comprising of a Turkmen population, it also means that they will set Turkmens against Turkmens.
- A.Ü.:Could this clash in Tal Afar cause a war between some regional powers, say, Turkey and Iran?
It's definite that it will have an impact on the region. The sparks of the clashes may also spread into Syria and Lebanon. As Turkey has been expressing that it is against any kind of sectarian policy from day one, the Hashd al-Shaabi's (Popular Mobilization Forces) such transgression would force Turkey to intervene.
A.Ü.:The operation to cleanse Mosul of Daesh is on its second week. You were on the field, what is your opinion about the current state of operations? Are the coalition forces trying to achieve the aims they have set?
While it is seemingly a fight against Daesh, I believe they have ulterior motives, namely an ethnic or sectarian agenda. Around 60,000 members of the Iraqi security forces are joining the operation; considering the Iraqi federal government's apparent ethnic and sectarian policies, it is hard to believe their security forces will be different. The Iraqi army, interior ministry, and defense ministry are all based on this policy.
As you know, Paul Bremer was appointed the governor of Iraq in 2003. During his service, he issued an order which abolished the army and the interior ministry. Then, they went on to restructure these institutions. During the process, the most controversial part was the addition of sect to the job application forms. This caused the politicization of the Iraqi army. In contrast to the Iraqi army, the peshmerga emerged as a non-ethnic and non-sectarian military formation. As a result of their fight against DAESH and the support they received from the international coalition, they were able to transform into a professional army.
Regarding other factions of the operation, the Turkish-trained the Hashd al-Watani is also joining the Mosul offensive. The Hashd al-Watani, unlike the Hashd al-Shaabi, is a group that is officially supported by Mosul local council. Mosul local council warned the Hashd al-Shaabi not to join the offensive and preferred the alternative the Hashd al-Watani, which is comprised of Mosulites.
The Hashd al-Shaabi, on the other hand, is a group originating from the southern parts of the region, which is insistently trying to join the Mosul offensive. It is known by all that they have a bad reputation and an extensive criminal record, which also includes ethnic and sectarian warfare. Their ethnic and sectarian cleansing in towns like Tikrit, Gayara and Fallujah were also recorded by the United Nations. Moreover, even when they had retaken certain Turkmen towns by repelling Daesh months ago, none of the Turkmens dared to return to these towns, due to their bad reputation. For these reasons, the Hashd al-Shaabi must not be allowed to join the offensive. Otherwise, they may spark a sectarian war and will further deteriorate the conditions in Iraq and the region.
The only authority which can prevent the ethnic and sectarian warfare is the Iraqi federal government. However, the million-dollar question is whether they will prevent it or not.
A.Ü.:You are asserting that the Hashd al-Shaabi's inclusion into the Mosul offensive will have catastrophic repercussions. What would be the extent of these repercussions? Are we talking about a sectarian war within the country, or a conflict which can evolve into an interstate war?
Politicians who are linked with the Hashd al-Shaabi have made certain statements over the recent months. Implicating Sunnis, these politicians said "they are the spawn of the devil, go there and take Caliph Ali's revenge." This discourse clearly indicates that the Hashd al-Shaabi is only driven by revenge.
Returning to your question, the Hashd al-Shaabi's inclusion to the Mosul offensive will probably have dire consequences similar to Daesh's invasion of Mosul and Tal Afar. Let me elaborate; Mosul is a city predominantly Sunni. In 2014, during the obviously sectarian administration of Maliki, there were 63,000 soldiers in Mosul. All of these soldiers were directly under the command of Maliki. When Daesh attacked in 2014, they didn't have any plans to capture the city; similar to what happened in Kirkuk a week or two ago, they only aimed to gain control of certain government institutions. However, this army of 63,000 soldiers didn't resist Daesh and retreat, due to the sectarian policies. It's clear that a sectarian army cannot be professional and successful. Unfortunately, the federal government of Iraq does not have neither the will nor the power to prevent the same thing from occurring again.
A.Ü.:Let's assume that the Hashd al-Shaabi entered Mosul. What would happen?
Looking at what's going on in Baghdad today will give a clear idea about what would happen in Mosul. Currently, a Sunni cannot enter a district which is populated by Shiites in Baghdad, and vice versa. Thus, Baghdad is divided into districts based on sectarian identity. By using Daesh as an excuse, certain forces are aiming to realize a similar division in cities like Mosul and Kirkuk. Mosul and Kirkuk are key locations in the region, if you want to restructure the region demographically. They are alleging that the Sunni population is aiding Daesh and, thus, planning to eliminate all groups that are opposing them, Sunni or not. This is would be a catastrophe not only for Iraq, but for the whole region.
A.Ü.:When Mosul was invaded in 2014, certain Sunni groups had supported Daesh, as they were afraid of the probable massacres to be committed by the Iraqi federal army. After two years, are there any Sunni groups continuing to support Daesh?
We definitely cannot talk about support. During its emergence, there were some who saw Daesh as a savior against the Maliki administration. However, after a while, seeing Daesh's inhumane actions against the people, the viewpoints of the said Sunni groups shifted. Therefore, it's not accurate to talk about Sunnis supporting Daesh. When you look at the composition of the Hashd al-Watani, more than 3000 of their members are Sunnis.
Before Daesh's invasion, Mosul was a city of almost 2 million. Now, we believe that 700,000 to 1 million people still live in the city, as most of them escaped after or during the invasion. In this sense, it is rather absurd to claim that all of the remaining population is supporting Daesh. People who are of a sectarian mindset are trying to use these unreal allegations to further their agendas.
A.Ü.:According to your observations, how many Daesh militants are in the region?
There are more than 3,000 in Mosul, while there are around 2,000 in Tal Afar. This is our estimation.
A.Ü.:Looking at the estimations, would you not think that the combined power of the Iraqi federal army and peshmerga is enough to drive Daesh out from both Mosul and Tal Afar?
In my opinion, the fight against Daesh in Iraq cannot be furthered if the U.S. isn't approving it. For example, the village of Bashir was under Daesh control for several years. The Hashd al-Shaabi and the Iraqi army tried hard to retake the village, but they were unsuccessful. They even organized tens of large-scale offensives on the village, but as the U.S. didn't approve the said offensives, they were not able to retake it. However, when the U.S. approved the offensive recently and bombed the village with their air force, the village was retaken in a very short time.
Regarding the operation, before the Mosul offensive, the Hawija region has to be cleansed of DAESH and retaken. Even though there were attempts for it, this didn't realize, as Erbil and Baghdad were not able to strike a deal. There are three large oilfields in Hawija and they belong to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq. The federal government of Iraq wanted to have these oilfields in exchange for their support in Hawija; however, this offer was rejected by the KRG. After these interactions, the U.S. clearly stated that the oilfields belonged to the KRG and should remain so. As you can understand, the U.S. has the final say in most matters in Iraq.
On the other hand, as the Mosul offensive draws near, we are observing that there is a decrease in bold statements about Mosul. As the coalition forces progress into Mosul, the resistance will get fiercer.
A.Ü.:Is the offensive going to take more time than originally anticipated?
I believe so. A time before the conception of the Mosul offensive, U.S. authorities had stated that they believed Daesh would continue to exist for 20 or 25 more years in the region. However, Turkey's Syrian operations, Jarablus being retaken within a week or so, and the return of 50,000 refugees to the city seemingly changed this plan. Hastily, they made the decision to launch the Mosul offensive and they are trying to keep Turkey out of this offensive.
Supporting other terrorist organizations because they are fighting against Daesh causes the said organizations to gain legitimacy, while it has larger implications for the region. While there are many countries in the region with legitimate armies, cooperation with terrorist organizations on a similar scope with Daesh is very problematic. If an ethnic or sectarian war emerges as a result of this cooperation, the conflicts which have been going on since the Lausanne Treaty will be perpetuated for at least another hundred years.
A.Ü.:President Erdoğan stated that Turkey was determined to be a part of the Mosul offensive. On the following days, Turkey may even launch a land operation. The federal government of Iraq protested these statements; however, what do the people living in Mosul and Tal Afar think about Turkey's involvement?
The clan leaders in the region, regardless of their ethnicity or sects, have a positive attitude about Turkey's involvement; we may even say that they want it. As they live in a region which is neighbored by Turkey, they know the policies of the Turkish state. Moreover, they are aware that the Turkish army doesn't have an ethnic or sectarian component in its mindset and they believe that Turkish army will prevent any force from starting a sectarian war. Therefore, when we, the Turkmens, state that we want Turkey's involvement, we are also talking for the Arabs and Kurds of the region.
On the other hand, Turkey has never supported any terrorist organizations in the region. Looking at the list which was announced by the U.S., we can see that only Turkey has not provided any support for these terrorist organizations. Regarding the federal government of Iraq, it's rather intriguing that they oppose Turkey's existence in Iraq, while they don't oppose the existence of the terrorist PKK within the country. Furthermore, it is known that the federal government is giving wages to PKK militants in Kirkuk. In this sense, the legitimacy of a government which is supporting terrorist organizations is highly questionable. It is also obvious that the federal government of Iraq does not make any decisions; they are made for them. If Turkey's existence is an issue for the federal government, they should start with protesting the U.S., which invaded Iraq in 2003 despite the fact that their motion was rejected by the U.N. Moreover, they should also investigate all of the 63,000 soldiers which forsook Mosul.
Turkey is in the region due the provisions of international agreements. Protesting Turkey at the dawn of the Mosul offensive is either meaningless or utterly meaningful.
A.Ü.:Could you provide some information about the Turkmen population in Iraq in general and in Tal Afar in specific? What are the major concerns of Turkmens in Iraq?
There are more than 2 million Turkmen in Iraq. Before Daesh's invasion, Tal Afar was completely comprised of Turkmens, regardless of their sects. There were around 450,000 people in Tal Afar. Regarding Mosul, there were around 1.7 million people living in Mosul and 20% of them were Turkmens.
About the Turkmens' concerns, most of them believe that Daesh is deliberately targeting them. When we look at the regions controlled by Daesh, we can see that they are concentrated in regions which are predominantly Turkmen. On the other hand, as Turkmens, we found ourselves amid an ethnic and sectarian war, even if we didn't ever have such policies or mindset. Unfortunately, we observe that they partially achieved their heinous aims in Tal Afar. Moreover, we have seen Daesh causing turmoil in Kirkuk, even though it's not controlled by them, almost without any resistance. Kirkuk is also important, because there is a significant Turkmen population living in the city. After that incident, the federal government placed snipers who are members of the PKK, as if there was not any alternative, against Daesh snipers. Therefore, we can say that Turkmens are mainly concerned about a demographic change in the region.
Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds of the region all trust in Turkey. There is the recent instance of Jarablus. While the coalition forces were not able to push Daesh back for several years, Turkey came and cleansed the town of Daesh within a matter of days. As the town was cleansed, 50,000 people were able to return to Jarablus. What I am trying to say is that it's not enough to retake Mosul; what is going to take place after that is more important. There are many Sunni and Shiite clans in Mosul and their peaceful cohabitation after is crucial.
A.Ü.:In your opinion, are there any plans announced either by the federal government or the U.S. and the coalition forces to preserve the power balance within the region?
There are numerous plans; however, on the other side, there is the reality. A plan does not always realize just because some superpowers wanted it. There are people in the region who would oppose such machinations.
On the other hand, Daesh has been holding Mosul without losing any territory and fighting like a professional army. As Iraqis, we have certainly had to learn a lesson from this. If sectarian conflict is sparked after Mosul is retaken, these conflicts may evolve into a full-fledged catastrophe. There are talks about corridors. We know that the PKK is not the only group which has such plans; the Hashd al-Shaabi, for instance, has similar ambitions. Still, Turkey's consistent policies foiled many of these plans, before they were even put into action.