About 100,000 Turkish troops, backed by aircraft and tanks, are poised to enter Iraq for counterterrorism purposes. But once there, they might just stay permanently, occupying the Mosul area, leading to dangerous regional consequences.
To understand this danger requires a refresher in Turkish irredentist ambitions harking back to the 1920s. The Ottoman Empire emerged from World War I on the losing side, a predicament codified in 1920 by the Treaty of Sèvres imposed on it by the victorious Allies. The treaty placed some Ottoman territory under international control and much of the rest under separate Armenian, French, Greek, Italian, and Kurdish control, leaving Turkish rule to continue only in a northwest Anatolian statelet.
Kemal Atatürk's military victories of 1919-22 and the reassertion of Turkish power, Sèvres was never applied. Instead, the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, established all of Turkey's present borders but the one with British-occupied Iraq. For Iraq, Lausanne stipulated a provisional boundary (the "Brussels line") to be replaced within nine months by a "friendly arrangement to be concluded between Turkey and Great Britain." Failing an agreement, the League of Nations would decide the border.
In fact, Ankara and London did not reach a "friendly arrangement" and the League of Nations ended up assigning Mosul province, with its 600,000 inhabitants, to Iraq. Atatürk's government reluctantly signed a treaty in 1926 based on the Brussels line.
For nearly six decades, Mosul's disposition seemed settled. But it re-emerged during the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-88, when Saddam Hussein lost full control over northern Iraq. Four times after 1983, he permitted Turkish troops the right of "hot pursuit" onto Iraq territory to hunt down a mutual enemy, the Kurdish Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerana Kurdistan, or PKK). These incursions inspired some elements in Turkey to revive the old claims to Mosul.
The Kuwait War of 1991 led to a further collapse in Iraqi authority north of the 36th parallel, prompting Turkish forces to engage in hot pursuit across the border 29 times, further feeding Ankara's Mosul ambitions. These aspirations culminated in 1995, when approximately 35,000 Turkish troops entered northern Iraq in "Operation Steel," leading Turkey's President Süleyman Demirel explicitly to re-open the 1926 file: "The border is wrong," he said. "The Mosul Province was within the Ottoman Empire's territory. Had that place been a part of Turkey, none of the problems we are confronted with at the present time would have existed." Demirel even accused the Western powers of resurrecting the long-defunct Treaty of Sèvres.
Demirel's comments roused immediately, strong, and negative reactions, and he backtracked, saying that "Turkey does not plan to use force to either solve the [border] problem or gain territory." But, as I wrote at the time, "nothing was actually resolved and the Mosul issue could flare up into a crisis, especially if the Iraqi government continues to weaken."
Which brings us to the current situation. Much has changed since 1995, with Saddam Hussein deposed, the PKK leader in a Turkish jail, Islamists ruling in Ankara, and northern Iraq a flawed haven of tranquility. But the PKK again roils Turkish-Iraqi relations, Turkish forces routinely cross into Iraq, and the Mosul question again looms.
In March 2003, Ankara's then-new Islamist government decided against helping the U.S.-led war effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein, a decision that forfeited Turkish influence over northern Iraq. Despite the presence of several Turkish battalions quasi-permanently stationed in Iraq, a rejuvenated PKK began cross-border attacks in Turkey in 2004, eventually killing thousands. In July 2006, Turkey‘s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his government was "running out of patience" and Turkish forces repeatedly struck at PKK targets.
The issue reached new heights of tension in recent weeks, despite an Ankara-Baghdad agreement requiring that Iraqi troops crack down on the PKK and unconfirmed reports of a U.S. Special Forces covert operation against the PKK. With Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's support, Erdogan has waved away American concerns about a Turkish invasion, the Turkish parliament voted 507-19 to authorize air strikes and ground invasions of Iraq, and Chief of Staff Yasar Büyükanit made bellicose threats.
Bashar al-Assad (l.) supports Recep Tayyip Erdogan's threats against northern Iraq.
The Turks have entirely valid counterterrorist reasons to strike the PKK in Iraq, but Ankara's shadowy irredentism since the 1990s suggests that it harbors aspirations to regain some Ottoman real estate. In other words, yet another unsettled Middle Eastern border threatens instability.