As the campaign to take back Mosul from ISIS continues, the chorus demanding the division of Iraq is back centre stage. That chorus has a long history and has been heard on many occasions whenever Iraq, in its present form as a nation-state, has been in crisis. What is different this time is that voices that should normally be moderated by government responsibility are also heard within the chorus.
One such voice is heard from Ankara which is citing the Treaty of Lausanne as justification for its claim to have a right to take part in the liberation of Mosul and, beyond that, the future of Iraq’s territorial integrity. That claim could put Turkey on a slippery slope that could land it in untold problems with all its neighbours.
The Turkish claim has inspired noises in Tehran regarding another old treaty, that of Qasr Shirin that gave the Safavid Empire a “droit de regard” (right of supervision) to the Shiite “holy” shrines in Mesopotamia.
To be sure, there is no reason to reject Turkey’s offer of help to the Iraqi government in the current campaign which involves most of the NATO members plus, surprise surprise, the Islamic Republic in Iran. However, evoking old claims with regard to old treaties is the surest way for Turkey to arouse suspicion regarding its true intentions.
The campaign to take back Mosul is an attempt at restoring Iraq’s territorial integrity and strengthening its national sovereignty. Therefore, any hint that the Mosul campaign could lead to carving-up Iraq is in direct contradiction with its stated aims.
What Mosul should do is bring Iraqis closer together, a united people in all its diversity, fighting in a common cause. Mosul is not about Shiites triumphing over Sunnis or Arabs reasserting ascendancy over Kurds. Nor should it be an excuse for outside powers, notably Turkey and Iran, to throw their weight about and claim regional leadership. Mosul would only have any meaning if it is about the return of Iraq as an independent nation and a key player in the region.
There is no doubt that the Middle East as a whole is experiencing its deepest crisis since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Restoring durable stability won’t be easy, especially with old sectarian divisions reactivated in pursuit of political ambitions. However, the starting point of any enterprise to restore stability must be the preservation of the format within which the region’s post-Ottoman states have taken shape over nearly a century. A revisionist approach in the sense of demanding a re-drawing of frontiers could only add a further element of instability to an already unstable polity.
Turkey’s current musings about the Treaty of Lausanne is all the more puzzling because it is based on a pick-and-choose approach. Ankara demands its “droit de regard” (right of observation) over Mosul and Kirkuk but forgets the broader context of the Treaty of Lausanne. Signed in 1923, the treaty which came into force in 1924 is primarily about the recognition of the Turkish Republic as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire in new boundaries.
Most of the signatories have since undergone major changes in their own status. The British and French Empires no longer exist. The Japanese Empire has also morphed into a democracy with no claims in the Middle East. The kingdoms of Italy, Greece and Roumania have become republics with, at best, only marginal interests in the region. Under the treaty, the new Turkish state relinquished all claims to Egypt, the Sudan, Hijaz, Asir, Yemen and, of course, Mesopotamia and the Levant consisting of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and what later became Trans-Jordan. It also cancelled the Treaty of Ouchy under which the Ottomans claimed suzerainty over Libya.
The Treaty of Lausanne left a number of issues in suspension, including the fate of Hatay, a province left to French control but later annexed by Turkey. The fate of the Straits, of strategic importance to most European powers, was also left to the Montreux Convention.
The treaty was developed as a substitute for the Sykes-Picot draft, which Russia had also signed before getting out of the war as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, Sykes-Picot was never even approved by the British, French and Italian governments which had ordered its draft, let alone implemented as the folklore about the Middle East asserts.
The Treaty of Qasr Shirin was signed in 1639 between the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire after decades of bloody warfare over control of Mesopotamia and the Caucasus. It replaced the Treaty of Amasya (1555) and recognised Ottoman ownership of what is now Iraq and Syria. In exchange, the Ottomans recognised the Safavid ownership of Armenia, what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan, Georgia and what is not the Russian republic of Dagestan.
The fact that none of the signatories of the two treaties have survived in their form at the time of signature should be enough to convince anyone that the future of the Middle East cannot be invented on the basis of a murky past. There are no Ottomans and no Safavids although neo-Ottomans and neo-Safavids are a dime a dozen.
What everyone, especially the neo-Ottomans of Ankara and the neo-Safavids of Tehran, should realise is that we live in a world of nation-states in a post-Imperialist era. Imperialism, even in its heyday, was a lose-lose game for which former imperial powers are still paying the price in the form of unwanted immigrants from former colonies, terrorism and a tarnished global image.
Reviving old claims under old treaties could have a boomerang effect on the claimants themselves. A literal interpretation of the Lausanne Treaty in all its complex, at times contradictory aspects, could threaten the integrity of the Turkish republic itself. And the Qasr Shirin treaty, if fully revived, could pose a threat to Iran’s own position as a nation-state.
Carving up Iraq and Syria and creating zones of influence, whatever that means, for opportunist powers, including Russia, in the Middle East, is a recipe for further tension and endless conflict.
Turkey and Iran would be well advised not to stir the hornets’ nest further.