- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will be walking into diplomatic buzz saw Thursday when he arrives in Turkey a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a blistering critique of the U.S.-backed campaign to oust the Islamic State group from neighboring Iraq and demanded a bigger role for Turkish military forces.

Mr. Erdogan’s remarkable outburst was the latest sign of difficulties the Obama administration faces in keeping the various members of its regional coalition pushing in the same direction in the fight to oust the Islamic State from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria and find a way to end Syria’s bloody civil war.

The Obama administration has long sought to control Turkish involvement in the Iraq fight amid fears of a clash with American-aligned Kurdish forces near Mosul, but Mr. Erdogan threatened Wednesday to take unilateral action if Turkey’s interests were threatened by chaos spilling from the battle to reclaim Iraq’s second-largest city.

“From now on, we will not wait for problems to come knocking on our door, we will not wait until the blade is against our bone and skin, we will not wait for terrorist organizations to come and attack us,” Mr. Erdogan said in a fiery speech from his presidential palace in Ankara.

His comments prompted concern among U.S. officials already wary about a series of provocative moves by Mr. Erdogan that analysts say have been driven — at least in part — by a desire to pressure Washington into giving Turkey its way against Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. Mr. Carter’s visit will also be his first to Ankara since a failed military coup nearly ousted Mr. Erdogan and his ruling AKP party from power this summer.

While Turkey remains a major NATO ally, Mr. Erdogan raised eyebrows in the West last week when he suddenly invited Russia to bid on providing his nation with its first-ever long-range air and anti-missile defense system.

The Pentagon declined to comment Wednesday on whether Mr. Carter will raise the issue during his visit to Turkey. But it is likely to add to the thick tension over the Kurdish issue. Turkey has long battled the separatist Kurdish PKK movement in its south and fears an independent Kurdistan across the border in Iraq will only inflame the fight.

The Obama administration has relied on Kurdish militias to fight the Islamic State in both nations, but the Erdogan government views many of them as terrorists no less threatening than the group that has held Mosul and other territory in northern Iraq and Syria for the past 2 years.

Erdogan is trying to leverage political gain, and he wants Turkish troops in northern Iraq,” said Michael Rubin, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.

“He clearly wants to be in Mosul,” Mr. Rubin said Wednesday. “He wants Turkish boots on the ground so he can help determine the future of what happens there.”

Muscling the Pentagon?

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made headlines Tuesday by claiming the country had reached an agreement with U.S. commanders to allow Turkish fighters to carry out airstrikes in Mosul against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Turkish F-16 fighters based out of Incirlik Air Base, near the country’s southern border with Iraq, would execute airstrikes in Mosul under the command of the country’s military command node in Kuwait, Mr. Yildrim told the Hurriyet Daily News. The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has protested Turkish military actions inside its borders.

Mr. Erdogan reiterated the claim regarding Turkish air operations over Mosul, saying Baghdad “thought they could keep us out of Mosul by bothering us with the PKK and [the Islamic State].”

He said Iraqi leaders strove to “shape our future with the hands of terrorist organizations.”

U.S. defense officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday that no such agreement had been reached with Ankara on military air operations in Mosul.

“It’s not true,” one defense official said, noting there had been only one instance of Turkish aircraft entering Iraqi airspace — a surveillance drone — since the country’s forces deployed to northern Iraq.

Additionally, Russia has warned Turkish forces advancing through the Syrian border town of Jarablus to halt their advance south or risk being targeted by Russian aircraft operating in the country, the official added. Russia is allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime adversary of Turkey.

Even if a military coordination deal included Turkey, it would require Iraq to sign off because any offer of foreign military support in the campaign against the Islamic State needs Baghdad’s approval, a second U.S. defense official told The Times.

Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commander of U.S. and coalition land forces in Iraq, said at the Pentagon on Wednesday that there were no orders directing Turkish fighters to take part in the fight for Mosul.

Roughly 300 to 400 Turkish soldiers are stationed at a small training camp outside Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul. Reports say smaller Turkish units are scattered across the city’s northern and eastern borders.

Turkish units have been training and equipping Sunni militias in the region, preparing them to defend against any threats posed by Kurdish members of the People’s Protection Unit, also known as the YPG, the armed faction of the Kurdish Workers’ Party in northern Iraq. Ankara considers the group to be on par with the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.

U.S.-Turkish ties in the fight against the Islamic State began to fray in June, when Washington rebuffed an offer by Turkey to conduct joint operations to retake the strategically critical northern Syrian district of Manbij.

Since then, U.S. diplomats and defense officials have repeatedly tried to engage with their Turkish counterparts to quell any tensions among Washington, Baghdad and Ankara, the second defense official said.

But Pentagon officials say Mr. Erdogan’s recent tough talk is aimed less at the U.S. and Mr. Carter than at concerns over the fallout once the Islamic State is driven from Mosul. The caustic rhetoric coming out of Ankara over the past several weeks did not start “until [Mr. al-Abadi] announced the operation” to retake Mosul, one official added.

Footsie with Moscow

Turkey’s demand for a role in the Mosul fight has overshadowed its outreach toward Russia, which has generated growing concern among officials in Washington.

According to a Defense News report, Mr. Erdogan made the surprising move last week to invite Moscow to bid on a contract to provide a long-range air and anti-missile defense system for Turkey — three years after Ankara disqualified a Russian bidder.

Turkey’s pursuit of the system has been bumpy since 2013, when Ankara took bids from U.S., French and Chinese companies before selecting the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp. to provide the air defense architecture.

But the deal with the Chinese was suddenly canceled amid heated criticism from Washington and other NATO allies.

One American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity Wednesday said U.S. officials were warily monitoring Mr. Erdogan’s call for a Russian bid ahead of Mr. Carter’s visit.

However, the official suggested that the Obama administration thinks it is highly unlikely that the Turks will go through with deal with the Russians.

“Obviously, we were concerned three years ago when Turkey decided to try to buy an air defense system from China,” said the official. “So we walked them off of that, telling them that if they were interested in getting an air defense system that could be interoperable with NATO and linked to intelligence aspects of the NATO network, then they would have to buy a NATO system, not a Russian or Chinese system.”

While the official lamented that the Turks have “invited the Russians to bid again,” they added that “there’s a big difference between Turkey doing things for optics and actually signing contracts.”

But Turkey’s overtures toward Russia may be more than just posturing, Mr. Rubin said.

“On one hand, Erdogan is trying to leverage political gain,” he said, but Turkey appears poised to take “a turn away from NATO.”

Mr. Erdogan, he noted, went out of his way after this summer’s failed coup to fire scores of Turkish military officials “simply because they had experience working with NATO.”

In addition to Turkey, the Pentagon said, Mr. Carter will stop in the United Arab Emirates, France and Belgium to meet with “key partners in the campaign to deliver [Islamic State] a lasting defeat.” He plans a major speech on the future of NATO next week in Brussels.

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