What does Turkey want in Mosul?
“No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come,” said Victor Hugo famously. True, nothing is as powerful as something whose time has come. The same applies to Turkey’s “Mosul question.”
Turkey has some legal rights on Mosul that are based on and bound by international law. Now it is time for Ankara to use these rights, which it has not called on so far. But hereby what I mean is neither resorting to military power nor pursuing territorial aspirations.
First, the background in a nutshell: The “Mosul Vilayet” was part of the Ottoman Empire until it was occupied by Britain during the First World War. Later, when the Turkish Republic was founded by the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, it remained unresolved which country would control this region. Following futile negotiations between Turkey and the U.K., the League of Nations – a precursor of the United Nations - prepared a comprehensive report. Accordingly, Iraq would retain Mosul, but only on the condition that it would safeguard the cultural and property rights of the resident Kurds and Turkmens. Moreover, Mosul was declared “disputed territory” between Turkey and Britain.
The League of Nations grounded this decision on the fact that “Mosul is geographically and demographically closer to Turkey,” as by that time it was predominantly populated by Turkmens and Kurds.
Afterwards, when the Kingdom of Iraq declared its independence in 1932, it guaranteed to grant the right of mother tongue-based education to Turkmens and Kurds. State officials would also speak Turkish or Kurdish in the Turkmen or Kurdish-populated places. Administrators in these regions would also be of Kurdish or Turkmen origin.
Having said that, both Turkey and Britain still have some rights as the parties of this disputed territory. In other words, Ankara has a say over Mosul through different means.
The first one is sitting at the table. Once the Mosul operation is over, Mosul will be reshaped. It is already being reported that it will be split into eight administrative parts. But who will decide about these regions and how they will be administered? Based on its rights defined in the U.N. documents, Turkey must sit at this decision table.
Ankara’s second option is about the cultural rights of Turkmens and Kurds residing in Mosul. It is Iraq’s legal responsibility to safeguard these rights. Yet Turkey can resort to the U.N. if it adjudges that these rights are not respected.
Turkey could also have a voice about property rights. The private property of Turkmens and Kurds was confiscated during Saddam’s governance. Ankara therefore has the right to apply to the U.N. so that these properties are returned to their owners.
Another right granted to Ankara by international law is the right to call for a referendum. According to Murat Sofuoğlu, a lawyer and the director of the Process Research Center, “Turkey can ask the U.N. to conduct a referendum in case Mosul faces the risk of disintegration or rising instability.” In that case the residents would be asked if they would prefer to become part of Turkey, Iraq or Britain, or rather become independent. But things are not so easy. “In the current conditions Mosul’s residents would not vote for Turkey,” says Sofuoğlu. First and foremost, the Arabs, Kurds and Yazidis might not accept having to speak Turkish. Hence, this might trigger various conflicts and clashes.
“Therefore if we are going to get into that process, we would have to offer a different and wider perspective to them. Turkey would need to change its governance system and shift to a federal system,” Sofuoğlu says. However, as this is currently far off Ankara’s agenda, any referendum seems to be out of use.
The last option for Ankara is the most critical one, which would grant both Mosul and Turkey a historical status. It is called the “Mosul Vilayet System,” which was the governing model during the Ottoman Empire.
Tarık Çelenk, the founder of the research institute Ekopolitik, specialized in conflict resolution, advocates this administrative system. Accordingly, Mosul would be divided along different ethnic and sectarian lines. Each district would be governed based upon its preferred manner of life and governance. “This could serve as a solution model for other Middle Eastern countries that are also torn to pieces such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” Çelenk says.
In short, Ankara could bring this model to the U.N.’s agenda, using its soft power for the representation of all elements in Mosul. This would also save Turkey from being perceived as the “sponsor of Turkmens and Sunnis.” It would also present a positive step toward the Kurds in the region and weaken the current Shiite opposition to Ankara.
But in order to pursue these objectives, it is essential for Turkey to make itself understood by the international community, especially by the U.S. and other relevant parties such as Iraq. After all, compromise has never been required as much as now.