Michael Rubin: Erdogan's Troop Incursion Into Iraq Threatens NATO Unity

A Turkish soldier on an armored military vehicle surveys the border between Turkey and Syria, near the southeastern village of Besarslan, in Hatay province, Turkey, on November 1. Michael Rubin writes that the Turks have sent forces into Iraq without consent from the Iraqi government. Umit Bektas/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Turkish forces are massing along the Iraqi border, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatens a further incursion into Iraq to prevent Iraqi forces—especially Shiite militias—from establishing control over key towns following their liberation from the Islamic State group (ISIS)

Erdogan's immediate concern is the Iraqi town of Tel Afar, on the road between Mosul and Sinjar. Tel Afar has a large Turkmen population, but is also largely Shiite. The Turks have long claimed ethnic solidarity, seemingly unaware or not caring that many Turkmen in Tel Afar and elsewhere prioritize sectarian over ethnic identity (perhaps half of Iraq's Turkmen are Shiite).

The Turks have already sent forces into Iraq absent any consent from the Iraqi government. For the Turkish government to suggest they received permission from Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Massoud Barzani is disingenuous, as Barzani's legal authority ended with his second term in August 2015.

Regardless, any permission Barzani granted to Erdogan was for territory outside the KDP's control. In short, Barzani giving Erdogan permission to station forces and train Iraqi militias in Bashiqa, about 20 miles north of Mosul, has about as much legal standing as actor Sean Penn giving permission for Venezuelan or Russian forces to establish a base in Louisiana.

The Iraqi government would be absolutely correct to consider Turkey an invading force. Any Turkish presence would be met with Iraqi resistance and might be the national and sectarian flag around which more militant and sectarian Shiite Iraqi forces would rally. At the very least, Turkey would have a fight on its hands.

The Iraqi government cannot allow Turkey's logic and claims of ethnic solidarity to stand, for that would not only would foreshadow Turkish interference in Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu and other ethnically diverse areas, but might also justify greater Iranian interference across broad swaths of Iraq. The resulting fight against the Turkish Army would likely would not contain itself to Iraqi territory.

If the problem was only Turkey's leadership hanging themselves with a noose of their own making, that would be one thing. But what would Turkey's military involvement mean for NATO?

Here, history informs. One of the central strategic projects of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration was the creation of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a corollary to NATO along the Soviet Union's southern rim, including Turkey, Iraq, pre-revolutionary Iran and Pakistan.

Internal revolution first in Iraq and then in Iran formalized CENTO's early demise in 1979, but during its nearly quarter-century existence, Pakistan fought two wars with India.

Pakistan, like Turkey, has a unique quality: It sees itself as a victim of history and yet nearly every war Pakistan has fought with India, it has precipitated. But go to Pakistan today and both liberal and more radical Pakistanis will agree that the United States and Great Britain betrayed their country by not rallying to its defense in either 1965 or 1971. So far as Pakistani leaders are concerned, it was Washington and London that killed CENTO.

Back to Turkey: If Turkey invades Iraq—and, diplomatic niceties aside, that is exactly what a push toward Tel Afar would signify—and if its forces are subsequently attacked inside Iraq or across the border in Turkey, then Turkish officials might try to rally NATO to their side.

NATO, however, has no business defending an increasingly erratic aggressor like Erdogan's Turkey. The likelihood that NATO would ever fight Kurds or Iraqis more broadly on behalf of Erdogan's Turkey is between zero and nil.

What comes next would be a typical Erdogan temper tantrum, one that would be quickly followed by an even greater renaissance in Turkey-Russian relations. Perhaps for NATO, the end will come with a Turkish bang rather than a bureaucratic whimper.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen and prewar and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing With the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, examines a half-century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.