Unnoticed by the international media, a brief controversy flared up in the Middle East during early May 1995, when Turkey's President Süleyman Demirel gave several interviews with Turkish journalists in which he called for a change in Turkey's borders with Iraq. While the controversy quickly disappeared, it raised an issue that could return.
In the aftermath of World War I, the victorious Allies in August 1920 imposed the Treaty of Sèvres on the defeated Ottoman Empire. This treaty placed the Dardenelle Straits region under international control, then carved up Anatolia into Greek, Italian, French, Armenian, and Kurdish zones; Turks remained sovereign only in a rump state in northwest Anatolia to be constrained by many limits on its authority.
Borders in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres.
Thanks to Kemal Atatürk's military victories in the period May 1919-October 1922, however, Sèvres was never implemented. Instead, the much more balanced Treaty of Lausanne was signed in July 1923, confirming most of Turkey's present borders.
Delegates working on the Treaty of Lausanne.
Indeed, the Lausanne treaty specified all of Turkey's boundaries except one - that with Iraq, where only a provisional frontier (called the "Brussels line") was in place. This issue was left open for a "friendly arrangement to be concluded between Turkey and Great Britain within nine months." Failing that, the issue would be referred to the League of Nations.
The Turkish government resisted giving up its old province Mosul, on several grounds: the political wishes of Mosul's inhabitants, its many Turkish-speakers, its oil reserves, and the direction of its trade. In addition, British forces were twelve miles away from the city of Mosul on 30 October 1918, the day London signed the Armistice of Mudros that ended its war with the Turks; this made the legality of the British presence in Mosul very dubious.
Despite Turkish claims to Mosul, London claimed the province in its entirety for Iraq; it also turned down Ankara's proposal that a plebiscite be held to measure views in the province. Unable to reach a "friendly arrangement," the two parties referred the dispute to the League of Nations, which endorsed Mosul's becoming part of Iraq. After prolonged tensions, which included threats of armed confrontation in the Turkish press, Ankara eventually signed a treaty in July 1926 that made the Brussels line the international frontier, leaving the Mosul region and its 600,000 or so inhabitants in Iraq.
The issue then died down for sixty years, only to revive during the Iraq-Iran War, when Saddam Husayn's government lost effective control of northern Iraq. Four times after May 1983, he gave permission for Turkish troops fighting insurgents from the Kurdish Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerana Kurdistan-PKK) to engage in hot pursuit onto Iraq territory. The Turkish press began to raise the issue of Turkey's claims to the Mosul region, and the government reportedly informed its allies of an intent to take control of Mosul in case the Iraqi regime should fall. The Kuwait war of 1991 and the subsequent collapse of Iraqi authority north of the 36th parallel stimulated Ankara's warnings that it would not countenance Syrian or Iranian encroachments on the Mosul area. During the period March 20-May 2, 1995, in an effort dubbed Operation Steel, some 35,000 Turkish troops moved into northern Iraq attempting to clean out PKK strongholds.
The Demirel Statements
Just as the Turkish forces were leaving Iraqi territory, Demirel made a dramatic statement to an Istanbul newspaper:
The border is wrong. The Mosul Province was within the Ottoman Empire's territory. Had that place been a part of Turkey, none of the problems we are confronted with at the present time would have existed.
In another meeting, with newspaper columnists, Demirel pointed to a map of the current border area and elaborated:
The border on those heights is wrong. Actually, that is the boundary of the oil region. Turkey begins where that boundary ends. Geologists drew that line. It is not Turkey's national border. That is a matter that has to be rectified. I said some time ago that "the area will be infiltrated when we withdraw [from northern Iraq]."... The terrorists will return. We will be confronted with a similar situation in two or three months. So, let us correct the border line. Turkey cannot readjust its border with Iraq by itself. The border line on the heights has to be brought down to the lower areas. I only want to point out that the border line is wrong. Had it been in the low areas at the foot of the mountains, the [PKK] militants would not have been able to assemble in that region.
In a third interview, Demirel accused the West of still wanting to implement the Treaty of Sèvres: "It wants the area beyond the Euphrates."
Middle Eastern Reactions
These comments roused immediate, strong reactions in the Middle East. A spokesman for Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council said that "Iraq rejects any discussion of the issue and warns Turkey against any unilateral step that would breach the national border. Iraq will resist any act of this kind by all legitimate means." The Iraqi News Agency warned that "the Iraqi people, who are rallying around their leader, will resist any encroachment on Iraq's national borders and territorial integrity by all legitimate means. Mesopotamia will always remain united from the far north to the far south." An Iraqi daily warned the Turks that they are "playing a dangerous game and endangering the security of both Iraq and Turkey." A columnist revived the "sick man" sobriquet for Turkey and warned of Iraqi retaliation ("We will cut off the hands of those who try to harm us").
Opposition forces agreed with Baghdad on this issue. The Iraqi National Congress denounced Demirel's statement, which, it said, "runs counter to... the UN Charter and violates the policy of good neighborliness and the history of Mosul." The Kurdish response was wary. Bruska Shaways of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) offered an analysis more than a condemnation: "If the Turks come [to northern Iraq], then they do not come because of the PKK but because of their old claim to the Ottoman province of Mosul in northern Iraq, which they would like to integrate into Turkey."
The Iranian regime made its sentiments known through the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), its anti-Saddam movement of Iraqis. SAIRI called the Turkish president's statement "a serious threat to the sovereignty of a state that enjoys internationally recognized borders," condemned "any threat to Iraq's sovereignty and geographic integrity," and called on the Turkish government "to give a satisfactory explanation for these statements and their motives and to apologize to the Iraqi people."
In Egypt, Foreign Minister 'Amr Musa declared his government's opposition to "any encroachment on Arab territorial integrity, including that of Iraq." An unnamed Egyptian official commented that "talk about historic rights to Arab territories is an old tune" and urged Ankara to refrain from "talking about historic rights" and "harming Iraqi territorial integrity." The chief editor of a Cairene daily characterized Demirel's words as a demand that part of Iraq be annexed to Turkey and blamed this mainly on Saddam's "sinful aggression against Kuwait." But what "really causes anger," he noted, "is the silence of the Western countries, notably the United States."
Demirel responded to these and other comments with further interviews. On May 8, he backtracked slightly: "Talk of changing [the border] must proceed through dialogue and coordination with the countries concerned." (Use of the plural - "countries" - suggests bringing the United States into the discussions, which makes sense, for it partially controls Iraq north of the 36th parallel.) When this statement failed to quiet his critics, Demirel went further and effectively denied that he meant what he had earlier said:
The views I outlined have been misunderstood. The border between Turkey and Iraq is a problem. However, that state of affairs is not a matter that can be solved now. Turkey does not plan to use force to either solve the problem or gain territory. Nevertheless, something could have been achieved through the cooperation of the peoples of the two countries. That is what I suggested some time ago. We maintain that approach now.
The Turkish ambassador in Tehran explicitly denied a Turkish intention to occupy Mosul and interpreted Demirel as having done nothing more than "implied that a minor change can be made with the concurrence of the two sides in some parts of the border." Demirel himself more emphatically retracted his earlier statements to an Arabic newspaper:
Turkey has no regional claims on any of its neighbors, including Iraq. The question of Mosul was settled in 1926 and it is not now considered an item on the Turkish foreign policy agenda.... Turkey has no policy about any new border arrangements and has no plans to reconsider such matters.
This emphatic retraction evidently pleased Baghdad, which replied with soothing words. An Iraqi parliamentarian visiting Ankara declared the two countries had turned over a new leaf in their relations. Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan declared his government's interest in "strong good-neighborly ties with Turkey." And so, the incident apparently came to an end, at least temporarily. But nothing was actually resolved and the Mosul issue could flare up into a crisis, especially if the Iraqi government continues to weaken.
Sep. 30, 2016 update: Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday (according to the Associated Press) that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne "cannot be considered a 'victory' because Turkey had lost to Greece several islands near its coast."
Oct. 17, 2016 update: Erdoğan formally raised Turkish claims to many of its neighbors by referring to a 1920 document, the National Pact (Misak-i Milli) which defined what the Ottoman government of the time asserted it would fight to retain. Atatürk's victories achieved much but not all of this ambition, and especially not in Iraq. Erdoğan urged the Iraqi prime minister read the National Pact to "understand what [Mosul] means to us."
The 1920 National Part's map of Turkey includes parts of today's Armenia, Iraq, Syria, Bulgaria, and Greece.