Mosul: Turkey’s Fulda Gap
“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.
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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)