Mosul: Turkey’s Fulda Gap

December 29, 2015

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Our national borders pass through Antioch and span east-ward, containing Mosul, Sulaymaniya, Kirkuk. We say: This, is our national border.

— Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (December 28, 1919 – National Liberation Speech)


The “National Pact” (Misak-ı Milli) is a six-article manifesto of Turkey’s War of National Liberation, accepted by the defeated, but defiant, Ottoman Parliament in January 1920, outlining the bare minimum of conditions Turkish nationalists agreed upon to end World War I. It was bypassed and ignored by the Ottoman palace, which instead signed the Sevres Treaty in August 1920, creating the great schism between the palace and the nationalists, leading to the eventual triumph of the latter under Mustafa Kemal’s leadership. There were several printed versions of the pact in 1920 that had different interpretations of borders as laid out in the 1918 Mudros Armistice between the Ottomans and the Allied Powers. Ankara’s version, for example, included the  Vilayet (Mosul, Kirkuk and Sulaymaniya) as part of Turkish national borders, whereas the Istanbul version was unclear about its status. Since the Mosul Vilayet was still under the control of the Ottoman forces at the time of signing the Mudros Armistice, the nationalist consensus was that these areas had to be incorporated into the new Turkish state. However, following British diplomatic engagements, the Ottoman palace had ordered the 6th Army to withdraw from the Vilayet of Mosul in favor of a British contingent, which occupied the city in November 1918.

The status of Mosul and Kirkuk were unresolved in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which suggested that the matter should be resolved bilaterally between Britain and the Turkish nationalist movement. In May 1924, both sides came together for the Istanbul Conference to resolve the dispute, which failed due to a number of revolts against the British rule in Mosul. Then, the matter was forwarded to the League of Nations, where Turkish nationalists favored a self-determination referendum in Mosul — which was rejected by the British, who asked for a fact-finding mission to determine its status. The League of Nations mission concluded eventually that the Turks had no right to claim Mosul. They awarded the vilayet to the British, amidst intense Turkish protest. Since then, for Turkey, Mosul has been separated from Turkey’s national borders artificially and illegally, without an agreement, but through a fait accompli. This is the reason why, even today, Ankara sees the boundaries of the Ottoman Mosul Vilayet as a part of its natural zone of influence, if not within its real borders.

Since 1994, however, Turkish troops have had a de facto presence in the old Vilayet of Mosul, manning a number of outposts, defensive positions, and training camps. The Ba’ashiqa base, which recently appeared in the headlines following Baghdad’s outrage over Ankara’s decision to reinforce the base, is one of several front-line outposts built by Ankara in the 1990s as a part of its campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Today, in the Mexican standoff between the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Peshmarga, the PKK, and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, these outposts act as forward operating bases (FOBs) for Turkey. They are aimed primarily at holding the PKK in check while providing training to the Peshmerga of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and gathering intelligence on the Islamic State in Mosul.

Large PKK access zone (RED) across Turkish-Iraqi-Iranian rugged border. Once PKK penetrates through the green lines within the KRG, it becomes difficult to track or stop them until they reach the red lines.

Twenty years after their establishment, Turkish FOBs in places like Sulaymaniya, Bamerni, Zakho, Dohuk, and Kanimasi hold an unknown number of troops and intelligence officers who rotate on a regular basis. These bases (specifically the base in Ba’ashiqa overlooking Mosul) have been subject to much controversy recently, as Turkey reinforced the FOB with around 150 additional troops and 25 armored vehicles in early December. Baghdad criticized the move, arguing that such reinforcement is outside the scope of Iraq’s existing deal with Turkey. Heated rhetoric out of Baghdad portrayed Turkish forces as hostile invaders.

Much of this outburst follows the downing of the Russian jet by Turkey on November 24, and Russia’s decision to increase pressure on Ankara within Syria and Iraq. Despite Turkey’s attempts to clarify the situation with Baghdad by sending the undersecretaries of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this didn’t stop a large rally in Baghdad on December 12, during which Turkish flags were burned. The same day Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appealed to the United Nations, with Russia’s help, and asked the Security Council to force Turkey to withdraw its forces from Iraqi territory, specifically Ba’ashiqa. Turkey stated that it would withdraw extra reinforcements but retain the minimum training personnel there. On December 16, Islamic State forces launched a Katyusha barrage on the FOB, wounding (according to different reports) four Turkish soldiers as well as killing an unknown number of volunteers and trainees. Soon after the attack, both the Islamic State and Ketaeb Hezbollah in Iraq claimed responsibility. Then on December 27, the Islamic State launched a second rocket attack on the same FOB, this time in a more audacious fashion, showing off drone footage of their makeshift Katyusha barrage on Youtube. One Al-Hashd al-Watani member died, along with one Turkish soldier wounded. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu asserted that the attack changes nothing and that Turkish troops would stay in Iraq until the liberation of Mosul.

There is an important historical dimension to this episode that is too often ignored by Western observers. Turkey feels the phantom limb syndrome in Mosul, which would have remained within the Turkish Republican borders had Britain not forced otherwise through the 1926 Ankara Agreement. And yes, Turkey feels the same syndrome since it “lost” Mosul for a second time in June 2014, when ISIL captured the town, overran the Turkish consulate, and kidnapped the Turkish consul-general, along with 49 consulate employees. And also yes, Turkey wants to avenge this by playing a dominant role in the liberation of Mosul, both from its own historical perspective and to increase its political influence in Baghdad.

However, outside all of these considerations lies a key geopolitical factor, which is that Mosul is Turkey’s “Fulda Gap.” The original Fulda Gap is a strategic corridor in Germany, which was one of the main flashpoints of the Cold War, where the Soviets were expected to launch a tank offensive on West Germany. The geography of the Fulda Gap — two corridors of flat terrain — was conducive for a rapid mechanized attack, and was also historically important since it was through this gap that Napoleon had withdrawn his armies after the Battle of Leipzig and escaped to France. With a major Fulda Gap tank battle in mind, NATO had developed a plethora of anti-tank weaponry, including aerial tank busters such as the AH-64 Apache and the A-10 Warthog.

Mosul and other Turkish FOBs in Iraq serve a similar purpose. Although the new Turkish Republic’s 1926 Ankara Agreement with Britain intended to amend the League of Nations decision on Mosul in favor of Turkey, it has remained an extremely rugged and porous border passing right through the entire northern end of the Zagros Mountains. Through much of Turkey’s Republican history, the Turkish–Iraqi border has been practically uncontrollable with frequent activities of smuggling and banditry. This wasn’t much of a problem until 1984, when Turkey’s long-standing policy of centralization towards its Kurds, coupled with the brutality of the 1980 military coup, led to the emergence of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party — the PKK. Its leaders fled Turkey before the 1980 coup to take refuge in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. The PKK later seized the opportunity of the Gulf War and relocated to the mountains of northern Iraq. Benefiting from the massive Kurdish refugee crisis of the Gulf War, as well as the large arms caches Saddam’s army left behind, the PKK exponentially increased its scope and initiated one of the deadliest and longest insurgencies in the Middle East through the 1990s.

Mosul as a key connector between Turkish FOBs. Highways and roads render Mosul a key logistics hub.

Turkey responded to PKK attacks both through security operations in Turkey, as well as cross-border operations in Iraqi territory. The first of such operations was the 1992 “Scrape Off Campaign,” which was followed by the 1995 “Operation Steel” and 1997 “Operation Hammer,” all of which featured a growing number of soldiers and more advanced equipment. During these operations, the need emerged to coordinate with the northern Iraqi Kurds, specifically Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and their militias, along with establishing permanent FOBs in northern Iraq. Over time, these FOBs grew into specific functions that their locations necessitated. FOBs closer to the border (such as Batufa, Kaniması, Duhok, and Sheladize) filled combat and reconnaissance roles, whereas FOBs deeper within KRG territory (such as Ba’ashiqa, Selahaddin, and Raniyah) grew to have intelligence as well as training and coordination functions. While Ankara had to deal with a larger and better-armed insurgency internally, without these FOBs, these outpost bases significantly reduce the PKK’s ability to coordinate and arm within Iraq and mitigate its ability to carry out large-scale attacks within Turkey.

Similar to the loss of the Fulda Gap, the loss of the Mosul–Erbil line as a frontier defensive and intelligence position meant Turkey had to deal with the PKK domestically, in Adıyaman, Elazığ, or Bingöl, instead of within the Matina–Gara–Zap line, which lies in Iraqi territory. In other words, the FOBs enable Turkey to contain the PKK outside of Turkey, without having to deal with a much stronger insurgency domestically.

Mosul and Ba’ashiqa are perhaps the most central links of this FOB network. Up until the loss of Mosul, Turkey’s intelligence and operational network there connected Erbil and Dohuk nodes to coordinate them against PKK movements across northern Iraq. It also connected Mosul and Kirkuk nodes to cover the Makhmour refugee camp area, which has long been a major recruiting and supply area for the PKK. The Mosul–Erbil line was in many ways a Fulda Gap: It held strategically and geographically key forward operating positions. The loss of Mosul not only created a disconnect between Erbil and Dohuk operational nodes, but also between Mosul and Kirkuk. Without the geographic and infrastructure advantage of Mosul, Turkish efforts had concentrated on the closest base, Ba’ashiqa. But with the most recent row with Baghdad, Ankara was forced to clear out all FOBs from Iraq.

The fate of Turkish FOBs also suffers from Turkey’s PKK myopia in a region with multi-layered security threats. While these bases were established in the 1990s with the PKK in mind, there are now PKK offshoots such as the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ — People’s Protection Units) and PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat — Democratic Union Party) in Syria, which creates a geographic connection through the Zakho–Malikiyah–Qamishli line, flanking Turkey’s existing FOB network within the territory of the KRG. Also flanked by the Islamic State in the south along the Tal Afar–Mosul–Qaraqosh line, Turkey’s strategic position in Iraq seems enveloped, necessitating a reconsideration of these FOBs’ geographic location and the safety of the troops stationed there. The most recent Katyusha attack by the Islamic State on Ba’ashiqa has been a sobering incident.

All this calculus sits atop the emergence of the YPG as the most active fighting force on the ground against the Islamic State, and the fact that both the United States and Russia have been competing to emerge as the protector of Syrian Kurds. While Turkey’s objection to this, citing the PKK connection of both groups, has forced Washington to withhold such support, Turkey’s internal security operations in urban areas — and the civilian casualties they produce — has left NATO in an awkward position. With both U.S. and Russian planes coordinating with the Syrian Kurds in one way or another, and as Turkish security operations mount civilian casualties, Ankara is rapidly exhausting its political capital vis-à-vis shaping regional politics along its security priorities. The best example of this has been Washington’s call to Ankara to vacate the Ba’ashiqa camp as soon as possible.

While Turkish FOBs were established in the 1990s with the PKK in mind, now it is outflanked by two new strategic access zones: Syrian-Kurdish and ISIL.

Ankara never calculated that the ending of its “peace process” with the Kurds would be a significant matter. After all, if the Kurds didn’t behave politically, a range of armed options could always be used against them. Marginalization of the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and criminalization of its activities or its elected representatives had virtually no repercussions within or outside Turkey — or so Ankara thought. The spiral of violence in Turkey, its repeated policy failures in Syria, and developments in the aftermath of the downing of the Russian jet all acted as multipliers and created a chain reaction across Turkey’s diverse set of strategic shortcomings. The entry of a more aggressive Russian policy into the region’s calculus through Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus acts as a multiplier on almost all of Turkey’s security and policy problems. One of these problems is the possibility of the loss of Turkey’s Iraqi “Fulda Gap,” which holds its critical forward defensive and intelligence positions against the PKK. With NATO’s gradual loss of patience towards an erratic Turkish policy in Syria, combined with Turkey’s domestic heavy-handedness towards the Kurds, Ankara is losing its strategic center of gravity, and its autonomy in determining its own security policy.

Although the United States and the European Union are currently silent over the civilian toll of the security operations, history and statistics tells us that there is a limited time window for such silence. Washington has already asked Turkey to leave the Ba’ashiqa camp as well as other KRG-bound reinforcements. Turkey complied, but Ankara is still largely confused over whether Washington agrees with Baghdad’s demand that all Turkish troops in the region have to be withdrawn, or only the reinforcing troops. Turkish officials recently stated that pulling all Turkish troops from the KRG would be out of the question, and that the withdrawal from Ba’ashiqa is merely redeployment, intended to return back to Ba’ashiqa at a future date. As Russian-Iranian pressure over Baghdad, over Turkey’s presence in Iraq, intensifies, it is unclear whether Washington will ask Turkey to follow suit and pull back even more troops.

To that end, Turkey’s internal Kurdish policy seems to be coming home to roost in the form of FOBs in Iraq and the loss of Turkey’s frontier defensive line against the PKK, this time with an aggressive Russia and increasingly apathetic NATO. Mosul is critical for Turkey, and if Washington forces Turkish troop withdrawals from Iraqi territory, it should offer an alternative to limit PKK incursions into Turkish territory. Such an arrangement may in turn force Turkey to take extra precautions in limiting civilian casualties or combat in civilian areas, and above all, to restart its peace process with the Kurds.


*Note: All maps were created by the author from information available from open sources.


H. Akın Ünver ( is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir University, Istanbul and the author of Defining Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Discourse and Politics Since 1990 (Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics, 2015)

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10 thoughts on “Mosul: Turkey’s Fulda Gap

  1. Excellent maps, and a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis –thanks!

    Viewed in the purely strategic sense, it seems to me, if Turkey is going to be able to maintain (let alone improve) its position in and around the KRG (and beyond that, “Greater Kurdistan”), Ankara needs to find an ally in that cause.

    If the crisis with Russia were to blow up, that would make it a NATO crisis, which, of course offers its own uncertainties of escalation both across and outside the region.

    Another potential ally (or at least co-belligerent) for Turkey in regard to the Kurds would be Iran. Both nations’ regimes share a common interest in keeping down Kurdish nationalism.

    So, I ask: is there any sentiment in Ankara to reach out to Tehran in that way? (To extend the thinking inherent in the historical analogy in this article’s title: such a deal would be the equivalent of Turkey’s and Iran’s “German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.”)

    1. Dear Tyrone,

      My first article here; didn’t realize there was a comment section here. I accidentally over-scrolled down and saw your comments.

      Turkey and Iran share a very long history of rivalry. This stems from an ideological grand war between two imperial giants rooted in the Sunni-Shiite divide, which has been setting the tone of their relations since early 16th century. Both empires have fought both large and small scale wars along their borders, expanding their own interpretation Islam – a rivalry that still defines the Middle East today.

      In modern politics, Ankara and Tehran are at opposite ends with regard to Syria and Iraq, as Turkey is a US ally and Iran is a Russian ally. However, as I wrote elsewhere, I think there needs to be a soft-power reset on both sides as they minimize the influence of religion (hence, sect) in their foreign policies and try to emulate the secular/technical tone of relations of the 1930s, when Atatürk and Shah Pahlavi were in power.

      That said, it is a tall order. With the Russian jet downed, Moscow will push Tehran to deny Ankara as much influence as possible both in Iraq and Syria. Turkey ‘may’ use its geostrategic position to export Iranian gas to Europe through a pipeline, but it requires solid and smart vision – which has not been Ankara’s strong side for a while.

      So that’s my take. Sorry for the tardy reply, and be well.

  2. Has it become ‘official’ WotR editorial policy that its authors NOT answer any posted questions concerning their offerings?

    If so, please state that, and I’ll then make better use of my time in that regard elsewhere.

    1. Tyrone: Thanks for your question. I appreciate your comments on the site. The authors choose whether to respond to comments or not. It is entirely up to them. I can’t make them choose one way or the other.

      1. Sure you can. What you do is put a clause in your “Writer’s Agreement” (or “contract” or whatever you call it) which reads something like: “Author agrees to attend the page on which his article is published once a day for x number of days after it’s published. Author further agrees to answer all reasonable questions posted there. In return, the WotR editorial team will do the same, with their purpose being to immediately delete any unreasonable or threatening comments.”

        That leaves everybody some wiggle room, but it also clearly sets the stage for interactive publishing.

  3. I”m sure you know that the real Fulda gap, the one in Germany, was a little over 100 Kilometers from Frankfort and about 400 from both Hamburg and Munich. Its 1300 hundred to Ankara alone and over 1700 hundred to Istanbul and Bursa. Your Fulda Gap analogy seem forced and sloppy and untrue. Tell us what massive armed force threat to Turkey exists and where it is. Then we can intelligently go forward.

    1. I think the maps accompanying the article make it clear that the distance and measurements should be made vis: Hakkari-Şırnak line. I’m not sure where Ankara or Bursa came from. The porous border makes it very easy for 500-600 armed groups to pass at once and within a week, as much as 1500-2000 can be deployed once the strategic corridors are penetrated.

      I am not particularly in favor or against the policy of seeing Mosul as a Fulda Gap – the article simply outlines the strategic thinking behind the perception.

  4. Dear Dr. Akin Unver:
    With all due respect, I think I fundamentally disagree with your basic premise(s) here.
    1) Turkey and Iran are NOT and SHOULD NOT be competing in any sense. They are NOT rivals, and NEED NOT be rivals. And Iran is NOT necessarily aligned with Russia. If there is any sort of competition or shift in alliances, it is largely a consequence of outside influence, not a fundamental precept of these two nations. For example, its very clear that Erdogan has been handed a mission by the Saudi/Qatar/Israel to establish a land bridge to Saudi Arabia for a natural gas pipeline connection (to Nabucco, and then to Europe). Erdogan has been bribed to make this possible, BUT, this is NOT a fundamental strategic need for Turkey. Equivalent transit fees could be generated by piping Iranian gas…but Erdogan is personally financially motivated to pursue the land grab policy. This is bad for Turkey (but maybe eventually good for him). Its NOT the countries competing, its Erdogan being greedy.
    2) Iran and Russia may in the long run be competitors for gas sales to Europe. But if Turkey basically forces Iran to pipe through Azerbaijan and then through Russia, Turkey will in effect force Iran to align with Russia. Indeed, the lack of a U.S. response in Syria has also forced Iran and Russia to align there. The point is, historically, Iran and Russia have always been at loggerheads. Look at Iran’s land losses in Georgia and Azerbaijan. But Turkey IS polarizing the situation and forcing Iran into Russian hands.
    3) NO ONE is threatening Turkey. This is NOT a cold war situation. But maybe Turkey is making it so. The Fulda Gap analogy is not appropriate given that in fact there is no fundamental animosity here between the nations. If the PKK is a threat, its only because Turkey has been funneling arms and money to ISIS, AND, because Turkey is and has been physically providing access to ISIS to attack PKK stronghold cities like Kobane. TURKEY is creating the war conditions, NOT anyone else. TURKEY is the provocateur. Did Assad threaten Turkey? Has Iran done so? (Ever in history)
    4) In fact, Turkey and Iran need to become a lot more connected – and create a regional union like the European Union – where they are the founding members (like France and Germany – who set aside centuries of war and animosity, in favor of economic and political ties). And bring all the Stans into it, and establish what I have called the MEDIAN UNION (named after the MEDES who roamed the land long before there was an Iran or Turkey, and also because Median now refers to Central, and this region IS Central to the world, Central to Asia etc.). Surely this Union can connect Turks, Persians (Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, etc etc.) all the way from the Eastern Border of Israel all the way to China. Turkey and Iran CAN make this happen, and create a new UNION which can become significant in not just a regional context but a global context.

    THERE NEED NOT BE ANY ANIMOSITY between Turkey and Iran. If there is any, its Erdogan’s doing…NOT Iran’s, NOT Kurd’s, NOT Assad’s …

    Erdogan is leading Turkey in an incorrect strategic direction. Erdogan’s imminent invasion of Syria and Iraq will backfire. And will end up being the demise of Turkey. The consequences of Erdogan’s greed and arrogance will be paid for by ordinary Turks and have massive long-term negative consequences for Turkey.

    Joe Biden will tell him so on the 15th. The Saudis are misleading him, like they misled Saddam Hussein before his invasion of Iraq. His visit to Riyadh this week and the message the Saudi’s shared with him are completely misleading, and will be very bad for Turkey. He should NOT be a Saudi stooge. If it serves his personal pocket, it will NOT serve Turkey as a nation.

    Please find a way to convey this message to him and his mafia in Ankara. Turkey and Iran have a bright future potentially together as friends, allies, partners…. MORE War should be avoided at all costs.

    1. I do understand your arguments. Some of those are arguments I agree with, some are not. There is some long-rooted memories of animosity, which makes it difficult to disperse at times. I wish Turkey, Iran and all countries in the region could establish an intergovernmental institution that could set the parameters for long-term cooperation, but it isn’t happening for various reasons.

      That said, writing on how Turkey thinks about Mosul isn’t the same thing as necessarily supporting that policy. Ankara believes Mosul is important for the reasons I mention in the article: to me it is becoming a heavier burden for everyone concerned. But Ankara believes this setup helps mitigate PKK infiltrations and access.