Does Turkey’s Erdogan Dream of Neighboring Mosul?

By Lucy DerTavitian | (Informed Comment) | – –

The battle over Mosul appears to have ignited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s expansionist Ottoman era fantasies. He gained a few more adversaries recently when he claimed that Mosul, along with Aleppo, Western Thrace in Greece, and Kosovo, are part of Turkey. Erdogan’s comments come at a crucial time, as Iraqi forces sets out to liberate Mosul from ISIS.

Baghdad is already enraged at Ankara over a unit of Turkish troops stationed in the Northern city of Bashiqa, near Mosul. When Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder Al‐Abadi demanded that Ankara get its troops out of his country immediately, Erdogan refused claiming “no one should expect us to leave.” Abadi responded swiftly and sharply “we are ready for them,” said the Premier, “this is about Iraqi dignity.”

When Abadi’s inflammatory comments were more than Erdogan—and possibly Turkishness as a whole—could accept, the Turkish President invoked an Ottoman era document which gives Turkey historical claims to Mosul. “Some ignorant people come and say, ‘what relation could you have with Iraq?’ those geographies that we talk about now are part of our soul,” said Erdogan, “in Mosul a history lies for us.”

Erdogan’s assertion is based on the “National Pact,” a set of decisions adopted by the last term of the Ottoman Parliament in the 1920s. One of its claims is that Mosul and Kirkuk belong to Turkey. Basically, it’s a pact that the Turks made amongst themselves that Erdogan now appears to want the rest of the world to recognize in some fashion.


Despite his heavy-­‐handed remarks, Erdogan was quick to follow that Turkey respects Iraq’s territorial integrity, “even if it weighs on our hearts, we respect every nation’s geographical borders,” said the Turkish President. Erdogan’s comments seem to have more to do with bringing Mosul under Turkey’s sphere of influence than reclaiming an old ottoman territory. After all, annexing land from our neighbors is just not that easy in the 21st century, given that it is forbidden in the United Nations Charter and international law.

Turkish scholar Fatma Muge Gocek agrees that Erdogan’s rhetoric is aimed at establishing Ankara’s influence in Mosul, but doesn’t think the Turkish President’s ambitions stop there. “His [Erdogan’s] ultimate goal is annexation and brining Mosul under his sphere of influence is simply the first step towards that goal” says Gocek.

According to Gocek, Erdogan’s claim to Mosul is yet another attempt to re-­‐write Turkish history. For Erdogan the establishment of the Turkish (secular) Republic was a diversion from the nations ultimate goal. Erdogan envisions a new Turkey, one that under his correct leadership will bypass the republic phase of his country by returning to its Empirical legacy. This return to Turkey’s illustrious history is to take place by 2023, the Centennial of the establishment of the Republic. Mosul is part of his larger discourse of Empire over Republic.

With Mosul Erdogan can claim that the Republic gave the city away and he, the leader of neo-­‐Ottomans somehow brought it back.


It’s hard to comprehend Erdogan’s claims to Mosul without first understanding the origins of ancient Mesopotamia.

A number of dynasties had ruled Iraq’s second largest city until the Islamic Conquest in the seventh century. Then the Ottomans ruled the City until the fall of the Empire. After the collapse Mosul was under the Baghdad province, but later became its own administration along with Basra. Although Mosul was a trade center for the Ottomans, the region was mostly culturally Arab, and Arabic, not Turkish, was the language of the province. After WWI Britain occupied Mosul until King Faisal, the new ruler of Iraq took reign of the City. When Saddam Hussein came into power he embarked on a steady policy of Arabization in order to drastically change the demographics of Mosul.

In June 2014 ISIS occupied Mosul. Many in the city had initially welcomed the terrorist organization because the Sunni population had experienced discrimination at the hands of the Shiite dominated Iraqi government. After experiencing heavy atrocities at the hands of ISIS, the City now stands firmly united against the extremist group.


Erdogan’s interests in Mosul are twofold: protection of the City’s Sunni majority, and Turkey’s history in the Northern City.

Turkey fears that once ISIS is cleansed out of Mosul, Shiite vengeance will reign throughout the city. Its claims are founded as human rights organizations have long documented the kidnapping and brutal killing of Iraqi Sunnis in the hands of Shiite militias. Since the Iraqi army is comprised mostly of Shiites, many Sunni Moslawis mistrust the Popular Mobilization Units that have been sponsored by the Iraqi government to drive ISIS out of the City. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made it clear that Ankara can’t rely on Baghdad to protect the Sunnis of Mosul when he claimed “we have made every preparation to take our measures because the promises given by the United States and Iraq about the PKK and the Shiite militias not being part of the operations has not satisfied us yet.”

For Erdogan Turkey’s acceptance of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined the borders of the modern republic, “is the greatest injustice to be done to the country and to the nation.”

As the second strongest army in Nato, and a Sunni state, Ankara feels obliged to protect the City. And with Iranian-­‐backed Shiites forces already on the ground, Ankara sees no reason why Turkish troops should have to leave; regardless if they’re welcomed by the Iraqi government or not. Interestingly, when the Ottoman Turks governed Iraq they too played favorites. The Turks reserved most positions of power to the Sunnis elites and often treated the Shiites as second-­‐class citizens.

Turkey’s historical claims to Mosul—like everything else in the Middle East—is complicated and ambiguous.

When the borders of modern day Turkey were defined in the 1920s the fate of Mosul was left to be determined by the League of Nations. The city would either merge with Iraq, under the British mandate, or join the Turkish Republic. The League concluded that modern day Turkey had no claims to Mosul.

Mosul’s diverse identity, much like many of the territories in the Middle East, made it difficult to carve out. What the League learned during its inquiry was that Mosul was culturally Arab, not Turkish. But perhaps what most weighed heavily on their decision was that the Brits had already established a political and economic presence in Mosul. Most significantly, they had founded the Turkish Petroleum Company, which later became the Iraqi Petroleum Company. When King Faisal took reign of Iraq he convinced the League of Mosul’s vital significance to his new country. His argument was that the Northern City was the only barrier against Turkey’s intrinsic expansionists aspirations, which of course had the potential to destabilize Iraq’s oil economy.

Ultimately Turkey agreed to the concede Mosul in exchange for 10% of Iraqi oil profits from the region for the next 25 years. Nearly a 100 years later, it seems President Erdogan is not happy with that arrangement while Prime Minister Abadi is still echoing King Faisal’s fear of an expansionist Turkey.


Mosul is a mosaic of diverse peoples, cultures, and religions. The majority of Moslawis are Sunni Arab, but the city is also home to a small population of various ethno-­‐religious groups. Assyrians and Armenians comprise most of Mosul’s Christian citizenry. Kurds and Yazidis along with the Turkmen, Kawliya, Circassians, Mandeans and Shabakis comprise the remaining of Mosul’s indigenous communities.

The Kurds and the Yazidis may be the most familiar ethnic groups of Mosul. Yazidis, a Kurdic people, adhere to an ancient Northern Mesopotamian faith that combines Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Less familiar are perhaps the Mandeans, Circassians, Shabakis, and Kawliyas. The Mandeans adhere to a Southern Mesopotamian religion, but theirs is of a Gnostic faith that reveres mostly John the Baptist, but rejects Jesus. The Circassians are indigenous peoples of the Caucasus and are predominantly Muslim. And then there are the Shabakis, whose faith, much like the Yazidis, combines Islam and Christianity. To complicate the matter further, Shabakis, unlike the Yazidis are Shiite. Lastly there are the Kawliyas, who are the Romas of Iraq. Mosul also had an ancient Jewish population, but most were driven out soon after the creation of the State of Israel.

Finally there are the Turkmen of Iraq, who are the third largest ethnic group in the country and most significant to Ankara. The Turkmen are the decedents of Turks who migrated to Mesopotamia at the start of the seventh century and onward. They have a strong bond to their ancestral land and have long been trained, armed, and funded by the Turkish government.

Erdogan’s path to Mosul is paved through the Turkmen. The minority group is continuously denied political rights and is widely targeted by ISIS. They also face ethnic discrimination and forced assimilation in the hands of the larger Arab and Kurdish communities. Erdogan can use human rights violations against his ethnic kin as a reason for intervention and prolonged stay in Mosul. After all the Turkmen were one of the reasons why the Turkish President refused to leave Bashiqa at Abadi’s request, “I have Turkmen brothers there, Turkish brothers who ask us to come and help,” said Erdogan,”excuse me, but I won’t leave.” If such a precarious situation were not to arise, when needed, then Erdogan can create a situation in which the Turkmen are systematically targeted. He’s very good at that.

But the Turkmen aren’t always a reliable ally of Ankara’s. Like many other minority communities in the region, they are ethnical diverse and fiercely divided. Forty percent of Turkmen are Shiites, while the remaining 60% are Sunnis. The two don’t necessary get along. Sectarian strife has erupted amongst the ethnic group in the past leading the Shiites Turkmen to migrate to the center and south of Mosul while the Sunni Turkmen fled to the Kurdish controlled areas. Shiite Turkmen traditionally vote for Shiite parties, regardless of ethnicity, whereas the Sunni Turkmen traditionally vote in accordance with Ankara. To complicate matters further there are pro-­‐Kurdish Turkmen who are at odds with the more overtly religious Islamic Turkmen. The pro-­‐Kurdish Turkmen have called for concessions in exchange of Kurdish rule, while others in the community have called for a sovereign, independent Turkmen state.

Under such circumstances it’s hard to imagine that Erdogan would rely solely on the protection of the Turkmen to fulfill his ambitions in Mosul. But according to Gocek, religion comes before ethnicity for Erdogan and Sunnism is the only version of Islam he’s interested in defending. It is under the Sunni flag that he hopes to untie the majority of Mosul and expand that control throughout former Ottoman territories. For Erdogan the Turkmen are merely a means to an end.


All of Mosul’s various ethno-­religious communities have age-­old diverging claims to their ancestral land. They also have colliding regional allegiances that further threaten the City’s fragile sectarian balance. Erdogan’s aggressive form of nationalism only unsettles that delicate equilibrium.

Once ISIS is driven out of Mosul, each one of the city’s ethno-­religious communities will continue to cling to their age-­‐old aspirations and grievances. They all have enormous scores to settle: Sunni tribulations continue to pile up against Shiite indignation, Arabs keep resenting the Kurds for encroaching on their territories, while Kurdish objectives are still at war with Turkish interests. Meanwhile the Iranians continue to battle the Saudis for regional hegemony.

We don’t quite know where Erdogan’s ambitions in Mosul lie or what steps he’ll take to attain them. What we do know is that the Turkish president is a careful strategist. He’s patient and politically astute. He hides his ambitions, even from those closest to him. It’s now apparent that he has long harbored ambitions of turning Turkey into a Sultanate in disguise of a presidential system, an Islamic Republic, and ultimately an empire.

Mosul is very important to Ankara, not just historically but strategically and because of its resources. It could also be an outpost that in some way brings Erdogan’s ambitions of Sunni expansion into fruition. Unfortunately for Erdogan the Middle East is an ever-­changing region with shifting allegiances and altering ambitions. And the Iraqis, not the Turks, will determine where those alliances will ultimately fall.

Lucy DerTavitian is a content creator/writer at a Sabbah Media. Born in Beirut, she came to the US at age 10. She was for some time a foreign affairs anchor and producer at KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Aljazeera English: “Battle for Mosul: Turkish-trained Nineveh guards on the ground”

4 Responses

  1. This is Erdogan’s “Sudetenland”. Will there be another Chamberlain? I suspect that other NATO governments will be loath to use their soldiers to drive Erdogan out of Iraq. Hence there will be a foul compromise. Erdogan will get Northwestern Iraq, then take it all. It is again about oil. And a strategic port at Basra.

  2. Another blessing then, probably the only thing that can unite the Iraqis is an encroachment on their country for territorial gain.

  3. An informative piece except the author seems to have conveniently left overwhelming Kurdish history of the city. She briefly touched on the Arabization of the city under Saddam Hussein, who was he Arabizing the city against? Would the 40% of Mosul’s Kurdish population which she again conveniently didn’t mention have anything to do with that? Imagine what the Kurdish population would have been if this Arabization did not take place? Shame on you for misleading readers and just mentioning Kurds as a side note.

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