Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 2)

This is Part Two of a two part series on the topic by Dr. Rod Thornton.

Dr Rod Thornton

Throughout Ottoman times and from probably much earlier, it was the agricultural produce of the Mosul vilayet that fed the people of the less fertile vilayets of Baghdad and Basra. Finished-goods trade went the other way. The three vilayets were thus an economic unit (hence they were referred to as the collective of Al Iraq). Therefore when Anglo-Indian troops seized Baghdad in March 1917 they had compounded a problem that had begun with their initial capture of Basra in 1914. If Mosul vilayet and its grain were still in Ottoman hands then how were these two cities and the rest of British-occupied Mesopotamia to be fed? Bringing in the necessary supplies through Basra port could only ever be a temporary expedient. This issue was adding to the general economic dislocation created already by the exigencies of war. There was the very real possibility of mass starvation and certainly of unrest caused by shortages. Lt.-Gen. William Marshall, commanding the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, and Arnold Wilson, the civil administrator there, realised that if they were ever to effectively control not just occupied Mesopotamia, but also any post-war Al Iraq that was designed to emerge from the war, then the ‘granary’ that was Mosul vilayet had to be seized from the Ottomans; and it had to be seized as quickly as possible.

Marshall and Wilson also wanted to have British troops occupying Mosul vilayet in order that its Christian minority stayed in place. If the vilayet was not occupied by British forces when the war ended then there would very likely be a mass exodus of these Christians south into those areas of Mesopotamia that the British had already occupied. Christian refugees had, throughout the war, been fleeing Ottoman excesses and moving down from Anatolia through neutral Persia and into British-held Mesopotamia. A vast refugee camp to house these refugees had been set up at Baquba. To keep these refugees fed even British troops had to go short of rations. Thus what Marshall and Wilson could not afford was another influx of Christians – fearing Turkish reprisals – as British forces closed in on Mosul. The whole vilayet had to be seized and, again, swiftly, in order to keep these Christians in situ.

Linking these two above rationales to occupy this vilayet was the important fact that it was predominantly the Christians who farmed the land of Mosul vilayet. Thus if they did flee, or if they had been massacred in Turkish reprisals, then who would grow the food that was vital in maintaining order in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Kerbala, et al? If British troops were in occupation of the whole of the Mosul vilayet, and not just the city, then the Christians would not only stay there but they would also keep farming and the situation could be saved.

For these above reasons, Marshall, was desperate to push on Mosul in October 1918. He was not, however, ordered to take the city, let alone its whole vilayet. He was actually told by the War Office in London to go in two directions – towards Aleppo and also (and merely) ‘up the Tigris’ (on which river Mosul sits).

Marshall convinced higher authorities in London that transport difficulties prevented him from moving towards Aleppo, but he could advance on Mosul. This was accepted by the War Office. So the aim now was to take Mosul in order, as Marshall himself put it in a letter home, that ‘the great granary of the Turks, i.e. Erbil district, would come under our control’. But his forces were being stretched and Marshall was moving on a city that he had no specific orders to take. He was thus sticking his neck out on two fronts. As he wrote to his brother on 30 October 1918, ‘there must be supplies in Mosul and we must risk the venture’.

The ‘whistle blew’ the next day, at midday on 31 October 1918. The Turks had finally sued for peace and the Armistice of Mudros had been signed. The negotiations for this agreement had been left in the hands of Royal Navy officers. The terms they produced were confusing and open to interpretation. At that time, Marshall’s troops were still some 12 miles short of Mosul city. According to the Turks, these troops should have maintained their position as per the armistice agreement. However, after a series of discussions between British and Turkish commanders and the application of force majeure, British troops went on to move in and occupy the city on 8 November. This was galling enough for the Ottoman high command but then, during the first two weeks of November, British forces went on to take possession of the whole of the rest of Mosul vilayet as well. They went right up to the rough line that constituted the northern border of Mosul vilayet (i.e. where Turkish-majority areas began). This line is almost exactly the border today between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall and his men had thus created ‘facts on the ground’ which were in his and Wilson’s interests rather than being the result of direct orders from London.

The Turks felt that they had been cheated by the British out of the Mosul vilayet. In 1920, the Ottoman parliament declared the Misak-i-milli (National Pact). This was a statement about the nature of the post-war boundaries of the new Turkish state that was still then being formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This Pact had originally been proposed by Kemal Ataturk, who was soon to lead his revolution and become president of Turkey. The first stipulation of the six-point Pact covered the controversy over Mosul’s seizure (although without mentioning the region). ‘The future of the territories’, it stated, ‘inhabited by an Arab majority at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros will be determined by a referendum. On the other hand, the territories which were not occupied at that time and inhabited by a Turkish majority are the homeland of the Turkish nation’. The crucial phrase here is ‘at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros’. At that point, of course, British troops were still 12 miles short of Mosul – a city with an ‘Arab majority’. A referendum to decide the city’s future never happened. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, this Pact appears to be claiming most of the Mosul vilayet as part of the ‘Turkish homeland’. This is because the Kurds – forming the majority of the vilayet’s population – were then known by the Turkish state merely as ‘Mountain Turks’, and not as a separate ethnic group. Again, by this logic the large measure of the vilayet not occupied by British forces at the time of Mudros should still therefore be part of Turkey given that it was populated by ‘Mountain Turks’.

According to many in today’s Turkish body politic – one now suffused, thanks to President Recep Erdogan, with neo-Ottomanist sentiment – there should be no border between Turkey and what amounts to today’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). It is the KRG which currently controls all of what may be seen as the old Mosul vilayet; bar, at the time of writing, Mosul city itself (in the hands of IS). In the future, there is always the danger that Ankara may, for a variety of reasons, feel that it has the right to ‘re-incorporate’ the KRG ‘back’ into the Turkish state with all the dangers that entails in terms of regional geo-politics.

 

Image: Wider strategic map showing the offensive in relation to the Northwestern offensive, as well as including the potential objectives of Kafriya and Al-Fu’ah. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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