"Tell me how this ends" is a familiar presidential refrain. U.S. President Barack Obama used it often throughout his administration to justify his policy of restraint in the Middle East, troubled by the second- and third-order effects of deepening any intervention to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State. The next U.S. president will have to make the same solicitation next year. By then, Mosul will likely have been wrested away from the militant group. But the question of whether to widen the scope of the United States' activities in Syria — from counterterrorism to taking down the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad — will loom as large as ever.
Perhaps a more instructive question to lead with is, "How did this begin?" When planning for the future, a president must be as conscious of the past as he or she is gripped by the present. This does not mean fixating on voting records over the Iraq war or on contemporary leaders such as al Assad or former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. To understand the current map of the Middle East beyond the battle for Mosul, we must reach back nearly a century to an epic diplomatic showdown in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The Fight for Turkish Redemption
In 1922, Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dispatched his foreign minister, Mustafa Ismet Pasha, to Lausanne to save the fledgling Turkish republic from the jaws of voracious European colonialists. Two years earlier, the Treaty of Sevres had dismembered the Ottoman Empire, ceding big chunks of territory to the leading Allied powers along with the Greeks, Armenians and Kurds. Deeply traumatized, Turkey — under the nationalist command of Ataturk — was determined to return to the negotiating table, not as supplicant but as Europe's equal, to re-carve its post-colonial boundaries in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Though the country regained control of Anatolia and the strategic straits through the deal, Turkey left some critical unfinished business at Lausanne: the former Ottoman vilayet of Mosul.
The Turks demanded that the British, represented by Foreign Secretary Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, return the expansive territory, which stretched from Anatolia beyond the mountains of upper Kurdistan. From there, it followed the Tigris southeast from the Sinjar Mountains near the Syrian border, across the Nineveh plain through Mosul to Arbil and Kirkuk before butting up against the Zagros Mountains along the Iranian border. Ismet Pasha insisted that this swath of land was the natural dividing line between Anatolia and Mesopotamia, a strategic frontier where most inhabitants were intricately bound with Turkey by trade, tongue and culture. "Mosul has become more closely connected … with the ports of the Mediterranean than with those of the Persian Gulf," he argued. The region's oil wealth, in no small part, influenced the Turks' interest in Mosul. At the same time, they were also trying to extend the strategic depth of their new republic as far as possible, knowing that an array of adversaries could pit ethnic minorities in the Turkish periphery against the newborn state.
Lord Curzon, armed with his own demographic and ethnographic studies, struck down the Turkish argument at every turn. London could not afford to let the threat of Turkey's expansionism thwart its own goal of establishing a strategic foothold in Mesopotamia and monopolizing the region's energy resources. Looking at the region demographically, Lord Curzon saw the Mosul vilayet as a land full of Arabs and ethnic minorities who were more willing to fight the Turks than to assimilate with them. "Why should Mosul city be handed back to the Turks? It is an Arab town built by Arabs. During centuries of Turkish occupation it has never lost its Arab character," he maintained. He also insisted that the Turkish argument for a natural mountainous buffer along the Sinjar-Mosul-Arbil-Kirkuk line was disingenuous:
"Ismet Pasha has suggested that the Jebel Hamrin will make a good defensive boundary. But it is well known that this is not a great range of mountains, but merely a series of rolling downs. Is it not obvious that a Turkish army placed at Mosul would have Baghdad at its mercy, and could cut off the wheat supply almost at a moment's notice? It could practically reduce Bagdad by starvation."
Ismet Pasha, known for driving Lord Curzon mad with his penchant for wearing earplugs while his British counterpart spoke, responded with utmost innocence:
"Turkey, which has now ceased to be an Empire and become a national State, cannot think of attacking and conquering a country whose population belongs to a different race… [T]he Turkish and Arab people who have lived together like brothers for centuries would obviously never think of attacking each other when left to themselves."
London and Ankara sparred for another three years over the Mosul Question, as it was called. The League of Nations finally put the matter to rest in 1926, and Turkey begrudgingly ceded rights to the Mosul vilayet to the British Mandate in Iraq in exchange for a few economic concessions. But Turkey's obsession with Mosul and its surroundings never ceased.
A Turkish-Iranian Rivalry Reborn
Decades later, Turkey again staked its claim in the region. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) began using Iraqi Kurdistan as a staging ground and refuge to carry out insurgent attacks in Turkey in the 1990s. To keep the Kurdish militant threat in check, Turkish forces set up a handful of small forward operating bases and intelligence posts scattered across northern Iraq. Then came the economic invasion. Over the past decade, Turkish construction crews, energy investors and merchants have flooded into Iraqi Kurdistan, getting a tight economic grip on prominent figures such as Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani to sanction their presence politically.
With Mosul soon up for grabs and northern Syria in disarray, Turkey's military footprint is now set to expand significantly in its former Ottoman vilayets. In northern Syria, Turkish forces are racing southward in Aleppo province against Syrian government troops and Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), hoping to capture territory from the Islamic State without running into Russian forces. Meanwhile, Turkey is proceeding apace with its plans to establish a so-called safe zone along the border, and Turkish construction crews are busy building housing for Syrian refugees. Ankara is not waiting around for an international endorsement for these plans. Turkey will focus on developing a strong military anchor in northern Syria to curb Syrian Kurds' ambitions for statehood while expecting the West to thank it later for containing migrant flows across its borders and into Europe.
In Iraq, Turkey will use the threat of demographic re-engineering to try to establish a Sunni protectorate over its former vilayet. Mosul is a majority Sunni Arab city, and the Islamic State has driven out most of its Kurdish, Shiite Arab, Turkmen, Yazidi and Shabak minorities. When the complex cast of U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces, Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Turkish-backed Sunni militias eventually recapture the area, they will open the door to property reclamations and revenge killings of Sunni Arabs even remotely suspected of abetting the Islamic State. The group directly responsible for retaking and securing a certain area will attempt to claim the territory for itself, populating it with its own ethnic and sectarian kin. From Ankara's perspective, if the Kurds and Shiites were to expand into Mosul, they could threaten the belt of influence that Turkey is trying to re-establish along the Sinjar-Mosul-Arbil-Kirkuk line. To prevent that outcome, Turkey will frame itself as the Sunni Arabs' protector, with quiet support from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as they band together (for now) to counter Iran's influence in the region.
The Iranians will naturally push back, using their influence in Shiite-dominated Baghdad and among pliable local governors and rival Kurdish factions to stress Ankara's tenuous web of alliances in the region. But if it took a powerful British empire to keep the Mosul vilayet out of Turkey's grasp, the Turks are not about to let a broken sectarian pseudo-state such as Iraq deny them their historical objective of doubling their strategic depth. For Ankara, this land is either a buffer in Turkish hands or a menace in the hands of its adversaries. And between Tehran, Damascus, Moscow, the PKK and the Islamic State, Turkey has no shortage of foes, each of which has no shortage of proxies to weaken the Turkish state.
A Fluid Battlefield
Well beyond the conflict of the day, Turkish and Persian spheres of influence have been colliding for centuries over the Mosul vilayet. As Turkey deepens its presence there, chipping away at Iran's Shiite crescent, that competition is bound to intensify. The Turks and Iranians are not abiding by the political borders of a contemporary map. Neither do they intend to draw up a new one, post-Sykes Picot, with states neatly repartitioned along ethno-sectarian lines that would threaten their own territorial integrity, particularly when it comes to the Kurds. On this fluid battleground, cranes, tanks and cash will shape the ebb and flow of competition among the strongest regional players, while the weak and fractious remnants of former empires try to stoke their own nationalist embers in defense.
The more distant powers operating in this theater have more modest aims than rescripting history in a sectarian battle for influence. Instead, the United States and Europe are focused on denying the Islamic State the richly symbolic territory it uses to draw recruits from abroad, tax its citizenry and emulate a functioning government in its self-styled caliphate. But their goal, however limited, is no less thorny. As the black ink blot across Iraq and Syria gradually fades under twin offensives in Mosul and Raqqa and tighter border controls, many fighters will go underground, encouraging more resourceful attacks beyond the Islamic State's core. Once the Islamic State threat has been reduced, territorial and sectarian disputes will reignite in the absence of a common enemy, and rival jihadist groups will see an opportunity to assert themselves. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, remains a formidable presence on the Syrian battlefield. Meanwhile, in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has managed to leverage the Saudi-led military campaign against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi rebels to extend its tribal ties and territorial reach in the country. Consequently, as custodian of the two holy mosques, Saudi Arabia will face an enduring jihadist threat on the peninsula on top of its struggles to diversify its economy and employ its youth, balance political and social reforms with the demands of the Wahhabi religious establishment, and contain militant spillover from deeply fractured Yemen.
No matter the brand of jihadism, battle cries against the Ottoman, Safavid and Western occupiers will have a potent rallying effect on potential recruits. Distant powers such as the United States will resist Turkey's and Iran's fluid interpretations of the map, preferring instead to whip up nationalism to temper sectarianism, create a bulwark against competing influences and manage the local balance of power through state institutions. But sectarian violence enflamed by regional rivalries is more likely to draw locals to unsavory strongmen for protection than to weak and fractured institutions. This will make it exceedingly difficult to dislodge the al Assads and al-Malikis who fuel the sectarian cycle while enfeebling and exploiting the institutions around them to enrich and empower their patronage networks.
As the United States tries to avoid getting more entangled in the Middle East so that it can deal with developing crises farther afield, Russia will keep searching for opportunities to bargain with the West while deepening its military foothold in the Mediterranean. But distant powers have only so much clout to wield on the ground, putting Russia in a better position to play the role of spoiler than of healer in these conflict zones. That, in turn, makes it harder for Moscow to leverage the battlefield to exact concessions from the West. As the United States makes more headway in degrading the Islamic State, distant powers will seize another chance to pull back their support, hoping that enough exhaustion will eventually set in to make feuding parties negotiate seriously. But that will require an understanding between the United States and Russia that bleeds well beyond the Middle East, and the regional powers competing on a sectarian scale will still have the means to prolong their proxy battles. And so, in many ways, this conflict ends the same way it began: with a mold of historical redemption, baked in an ethno-sectarian furnace and coated in great power intrigue.