Turkey's long-term interest in Kirkuk and Mosul

Turkey's long-term interest in Kirkuk and Mosul
Analysis: Turkish officials have detailed a long-held ambition to reclaim parts of the former Ottoman empire - though relations with Iraqi Kurdish authorities have warmed significantly since, writes Paul Iddon.
7 min read
12 May, 2017
Multi-ethnic, oil-rich Kirkuk has long been sought after by Turks and Kurds [Anadolu]

Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of the modern Turkish state in the early 1920s, Turkey has exhibited a phantom limb syndrome when it comes to two territories within the boundaries of modern Iraq it believes should rightfully have been theirs, namely Kirkuk and Mosul.

In March 2017, Kurdish authorities in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk - the population of which consists of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen - decided to fly the Kurdish flag alongside the Iraqi flag over official buildings.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that such a move could damage ties between Turkey and Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has also called Kirkuk, the population of which consists of Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds, "a Turkmen city".

Turkey has long presented itself as the guardian of Turkmen minorities beyond its own frontiers. Back in 1974, Turkey invaded the northern part of Cyprus under the pretext of shielding the Cypriot Turkish minority there. In 1989, Turkey condemned efforts by Bulgaria to assimilate its minority Turkmen community.

Turkish Kurds, whose cultural and linguistically rights were at that time harshly suppressed, believed Ankara's indignation on the latter was hypocritical.

Last year, Turkey also warned the Iraqi Shia Popular Mobilsation Force paramilitaries against harming the Sunni Turkmen residents of Tal Afar, the Iraqi city west of Mosul.

Relations between Ankara and Baghdad were at a low throughout the past year, given Turkey's "unauthorised" deployment of troops to a training camp north of Mosul. In the Bashiqa Camp, Turkey trained Sunni paramilitaries, the Hashd al-Watani - which was renamed the Nineveh Guard before the launch of the Mosul operation.

The former governor of Nineveh Atheel al-Nujaifi heads this militia. Baghdad issued a warrant for his arrest last year, which was renewed in January, alleging that he was the one responsible for inviting the Turkish troops to Bashiqa.

Incidentally, Nujaifi's ancestors were, according to a 2009 Wikileaks cable, "closely aligned with the Ottoman rulers of Mosul and received large land grants". Today he has been described as "Turkey's main Sunni Arab proxy in Iraq".

Turkish officials also demand that Mosul remain a Sunni Arab-majority city following the current operation to rout Islamic State group militants.

In late October, Erdogan claimed that Turkey would expand its now complete Euphrates Shield operation in northwest Syria to "Kirkuk, Mosul, Tal Afar and Sinjar".

Turkoglu claimed land deeds from that time for Kirkuk and Mosul in particular could give Turkey a chance to legally challenge the status of these territories in the future

Shortly before Erdogan spoke, Turkey's state-owned Anadolu news agency published an article about Ottoman-era land deeds that quoted Zeynel Abidin Turkoglu, the head of the government land registry's Archive Department. Turkoglu claimed land deeds from that time for Kirkuk and Mosul in particular could give Turkey a chance to legally challenge the status of these territories in the future.

Erdogan has also been rather frank about his frustration that post-Ottoman Turkey did not manage to incorporate these territories into the boundaries of the modern Turkish republic, even going so far as to revisit the status of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.

During Ottoman times Kirkuk and Mosul were part of the Ottoman Mosul Vilayet, which was subdivided into the regional authorities, or Sanjaks, of Mosul, Kerkük and Sulaymaniyah.

As the vilayet of Mosul joined together with the vilayets of Basra and Baghdad, the Kurds, whose region was previously in the Mosul Sanjak, were essentially forced into the new Iraq, where they remain today following the short-lived Kingdom of Kurdistan in Sulaymaniyah.


In 1920, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, the British - kingmakers in Iraq, then known as Mesopotamia - built up Iraq's then fledgling army to counter the threat of Turkey seizing the former Mosul Vilayet.

The Kurds also claim Kirkuk, which is often called the "Kurdish Jerusalem". Kurds in Kirkuk were ethnically cleansed by Saddam Hussein, as part of his so-called "Arabisation" campaign which attempted to fundamentally alter Kirkuk's ethnic demographics to enable Baghdad to consolidate its control there.

After Iraqi Kurdistan gained its autonomy - fostered by American-led coalition protection in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and solidified by Saddam's subsequent overthrow in 2003 - Turkey worried about that region becoming a possible threat which could motivate its own restive Kurdish population to fight for secession.

After the Americans toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in July 2003 they arrested Turkish special forces who were reportedly preparing to assassinate Kirkuk's newly elected Kurdish governor. Their aim appeared to be intentionally causing instability as a pretext to send in ground forces.

If we do have such rights, we have to explain this to the international community and our partners in order to secure these rights
- Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis

Even before the invasion of Iraq, Turkey's then-Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış suggested that Turkey could stake a claim to Kirkuk's oil fields, saying he had looked over treaties from the post-World War I period to determine if Turkey could feasibly claim Mosul and Kirkuk.

"If we do have such rights, we have to explain this to the international community and our partners in order to secure these rights," he said, while emphasising that his comments did not necessarily mean Ankara was actively claiming ownership over these territories.

The Americans told Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers to stay on the outskirts of Kirkuk shortly after the 2003 invasion, but did assist them in Mosul in 2003-05. Turkey warned Iraqi Kurdistan against annexing Kirkuk into their autonomous region, claiming it would threaten the rights of Kirkuk's minority Turkman population, going so far as to hint that they might forcefully intervene militarily to prevent such an outcome.

Iraqi Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani invariably responded to such comments by saying the rights of Turkmen were upheld in Kurdistan. Were Turkey to militarily intervene in Kirkuk against the Kurds under the pretext of protecting Turkmen, Barzani warned, then Iraqi Kurdistan could do the same on behalf of the millions of Kurds in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast.

Turkey also feared that control over that oil-rich city would, quite literally, fuel successful Kurdish statehood, with one former Turkish air force officer named Mesut Casin arguing: "The main problem [for Turkey] is how [Iraqi Kurds] use their oil."

Casin then went so far as to predict: "Within ten years the Kurds will have an army and air force, same as the Israel model, and they will request some territorial parts from Turkey."

Today, more than ten years later, Turkey has notably backed off its previous position that Kurdish control over Kirkuk constituted a "red line" for them. The Kurds today control Kirkuk, which the Iraqi army vacated ahead of the IS takeover in June 2014. They have been administering the city ever since and gradually annexing it. Relations between Barzani and Erdogan are very cordial, with the former received on state visits to Turkey as a respected statesman.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned flag controversy once again underscores Turkish sensitivity to the prospect of Kirkuk becoming part of an independent Kurdistan - even one with which it can have good relations.

The phantom limb syndrome that Turkey expresses in different ways over Kirkuk and Mosul from time to time also goes hand-in-hand with the so-called Sevres Syndrome. Named after the historic Treaty of Sevres, it refers to western support of minorities in Ottoman domains as the empire was collapsing and the eventual partition of that empire and formation of a large part of the modern Middle East.

Today, editorials in conservative and pro-government newspapers in Turkey are full of conspiracies about western plots aimed to dismantle Turkey. US support for the Syrian Kurds against IS infuriates many Turks who perceive it to be the first part of a grand plan to partition Turkey itself.

Interestingly, before the Turkish incursion into Syria in August the aforementioned Mr Yakış warned, in February 2016, that a Turkey which more actively intervenes beyond its recognised frontiers runs the risk of losing parts of its own territory. Yakış referred specifically to Hatay province, incorporated into Turkey in 1939 but claimed by Syria - which did not become independent from French rule until 1946.

"The world would not accept such interference [a Turkish incursion into northwest Syria]," Yakış said. "It would not allow the border to be redrawn unilaterally. What's more, if the Turkish military faced defeat, Syria might reintroduce the claim that Hatay belongs to Syria."

While Yakış referred to one particular case, it is possible that increased Turkish forays beyond its recognised borders into areas which were once part of the Ottoman Empire could potentially, in a classic boomerang effect, undermine Turkey's own territorial integrity.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon