By Humeyra Atilgan Buyukovali
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday defended Turkish involvement in Iraq, saying Turkey had an “historical responsibility” in the region.
Ankara’s role in the operation to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Daesh -- it has trained thousands of Iraqi and Peshmerga fighters in the run-up to the assault -- has come under criticism both in Baghdad and the West.
However, Erdogan pointed to Turkey’s concerns for the interests of Mosul’s Sunni Muslim Arab and Turkmen population.
Referring to U.S. comments, he said: “You are coming from tens of thousands of kilometers away and you have the right to say Baghdad has called for you. OK, but Turkey has a 350-kilometer [220-mile] border and there is always a threat.
“Turkey has a historical responsibility there. So we will be there.”
Erdogan has led calls supporting Turkey’s role in preparing around 3,000 local troops to free Mosul -- Iraq’s second city -- from Daesh after more than two years’ occupation.
He has also voiced warnings against the direct involvement of Shia Muslim militias in liberating the city following allegations that such militias have committed atrocities against the Sunni population in other parts of Iraq.
Speaking at a ceremony in Ankara to mark the start of the academic year, Erdogan said Turkey would continue to be involved so as to prevent sectarian conflict and repeated his promise that Turkey “will be both in the field and at the table for Mosul”.
The president criticized Baghdad’s hostility towards Turkey over the camp at Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul, where Turkish forces have trained Iraqi troops but which sparked a diplomatic row last month.
“No one should expect us out of Bashiqa; we will stay there,” he said, adding that the Iraqi government had asked for Turkish assistance following the fall of Mosul to Daesh in June 2014.
Turning to the fight against Daesh in Syria, Erdogan said the victory of the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army in Dabiq, a town that had symbolic importance for the terror group, would lead to an assault on the city of Al-Bab, around 35 km (22 miles) northeast of Aleppo.
Turkey launched an operation in August to rid northern Syria of Daesh. Erdogan said Raqqah, Daesh’s de facto capital in Syria, could be the target of a possible joint U.S.-Turkish operation.