Does Iran want to move into Tal Afar to counter Turkey?
According to an Al Arabiya article, sources in Iraq are reporting that Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, wants the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to participate in the future battle to liberate Tal Afar from ISIL.1 This city is the second largest in Iraq’s Mosul province and is composed predominantly of Sunni Turkmens.
It now appears that the operation in question is no longer a future one, as Shiite militias such as the Bader Brigades and the Hashed al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), have begun their advance towards Tal Afar.2 Since the PMU is a well known Iranian proxy force, it is probably safe to assume that Iranian ‘advisers’ from the IRGC are also embedded with them in their drive towards Tal Afar.
One may wonder why Soleimani wants to have control over Tal Afar? According to the analysts cited in the Al Arabiya article the reason is to provide a secure “pathway for Iranian troops moving from Iraq to Syria.” While this is a sensible and valid explanation, there are other aspects of this story that the analysts have, surprisingly, failed to mention.
Just a few day before the Soleimani report, Turkish journalist Ibrahim Karagul called for Turkey to launch a military intervention against Tal Afar so as to prevent the Kurdish militias of Syria and Iraq from linking up, although I suspect the actual motivation is neo-Ottoman expansionism.3 With this in mind one has to wonder if Iran’s strategy with respect to Tal Afar, in addition to cutting off a key ISIL supply route to Mosul and facilitating the movement of Iranian forces between Iraq and Syria, is also intended to prevent Turkey from solidifying and expanding its influence in northern Iraq?
It is also interesting to note that Erdoğan recently stated, “The Iraqi region of Sinjar, west of Mosul, is on its ways to becoming a new base for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists. Turkey would not allow this to happen.”4 The only way I could see Turkey preventing the PKK from setting up shop in Sinjar is either through an aerial bombing campaign or via ground troops, in other words through military intervention. With Sinjar being only about 45 kilometers west of Tal Afar, it appears Erdoğan himself is possibly thinking of another military intervention in northern Iraq, in line with Karagul’s views.
Furthermore, in addition to signs Turkey may further intervene in northern Iraq, it should also be remembered that there exists tensions between Turkey and Iran. Undoubtedly the standard sectarian divide of Sunni versus Shiite is at play between the two nations, resulting in both not wanting the other to be prominent in the northern portions of Iraq and Syria.
In the case of Iran, its Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi has stated “All governments and nations must observe the Iraqi government’s decisions and respect its sovereignty. … No country is authorized to intervene in Iraq under any excuse without the government’s permission.”5 For those unsure of the context Qassemi is criticizing Turkey’s unwelcomed military presence in Bashiqa, northern Iraq. He also criticized Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, stating “it is necessary that the Turkish army swiftly end the military operations in Syria,” as Turkey’s stated aims for intervention “should not be used as a justification for violating the territorial integrity of another country by conducting military operations against that country without coordination with its central government, and by overlooking its national sovereignty.”6
Conversely the Turks are not happy with Iran’s presence in neighboring Iraq and Syria. In the case of Syria President Erdoğan bluntly asked “What business have Russia and Iran [in Syria]?”7 Pertaining to the battle of Mosul, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu did not want the involvement of Shiite militias, who are proxies forces of Iran. He once stated “Involving Shiite militias in the operation will not bring peace to Mosul. On the contrary it will increase problems.”8
So while the analysts, who supposedly are experts, make no mention of it, it seems highly likely that Soleimani’s interest in Tal Afar is to counter the Turks. And when one takes into account all the factors involved in this situation–Turkish and Iranian sentiment against one another, the PMU’s participation in the operation for Tal Afar, Soleimani’s desire to have a direct Iranian presence in that operation, Karagul’s writings proposing a Turkish intervention on Tal Afar and Erdoğan’s hints at an operation against Sinjar–it seems highly likely that the Tal Afar region could become a flashpoint between Iran and Turkey. So while people pay attention to the ongoing battle for Mosul, they should also keep an eye on Tal Afar.
 http://debka.com/article/25747/Pro-Iranian-Shiites-ready-to-lead-Mosul-operation , http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2016/10/29/Iraqi-Federal-Police-reach-ISIS-southern-hub-Shoura.html , http://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/hashd-shaabi-militias-say-offensive-toward-tal-afar-started-2555507 , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/group-opposed-by-turkey-launches-operation-to-cut-mosul-off-from-syria.aspx?pageID=238&nID=105511&NewsCatID=352