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Global Economics Article

Putting Mosul Into Context: A Century-Old Economic Conflict Point

Man holding crude oil in his hands: Mosul, Iraq.

Why Is Mosul Important?

The foundations of the modern province of Mosul, the city that has been all over the headlines since a few months due to the international struggle to regain control over it, go back at least a century to the end of the “Great War”. When Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, landed in Samsun on 19th of May 1919, the empire he fought for in the First World War was completely conquered.

Mustafa Kemal and his fellow revolutionaries mobilised against the imperialist powers and claimed that there could only be one decision against the dreadful situation of the country: Establishing a fully liberated, independent Turkish State. This state’s borders were determined by “Misak-ı Milli”, the national oath, or officially the “National Pact”, which was accepted in the Ottoman Parliament on 28th of January, 1920. These borders were, as Mustafa Kemal expressed “determined by the stance of the national benefits of the country”. Thus, this sacred oath was built upon pragmatist, realist and non-expansionist ideas.

The city of Mosul is a region where Turkmens from Central Asia settled when they started to migrate towards Anatolia and Mesopotamia during the early centuries AD. It was ruled as a prominent Ottoman province for around 400 years. Due to this fact, Mosul never meant “petrol” or “exports” for the Turks. Instead, Mosul has connotations like “motherland” and “honour” for them. Thus, it is very normal for the Turks to include the Mosul province in Misak-ı Milli borders. The modern destiny of the Mosul Province however was sealed by the League of Nations’ decision in 1926: Mosul was to be a part of Iraq, which was established under British Empire mandate.

To understand the context of this struggle for power in the region, a passage from one of the articles which the UK Labour Party composed could be helpful:

“The trade between 1914 and 1918 showed us that our army and navy need petrol like never before. Without this raw material, our planes cannot fly, our ships cannot float… Therefore our Royal State should do whatever necessary for obtaining the rights to this raw material.”

Also, besides the British Empire, the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau once expressed during the First World War:

“One drop of oil is as important as one drop of blood of our soldiers.”

By the end of World War I, petrol had become the most crucial raw material in industry and war.

Sumerians and Assyrians (the ancestors of modern day Iraqis and Syrians respectively) gave sacred meanings to the fires which burned up on their own in the Iraqi desert, thousands of years ago. During the 20th century, petrol was again sacred and was fought for, with imperialist motives. The research of German experts in 1871 showed the potential of oil reserves in Mosul to the Western world, and Mosul became a genuine target for the Europeans. Before making aggressive moves, world powers like the German Reich and British Empire came up with different diplomatic ways to approach these rich reserves of natural resources. Indeed, the German Reich was granted a right to have an archaeological site in Mosul, as the Turkish Sultan of the time, Abdulhamid II wasn’t aware that they were indeed in a rush to set up a site for the excavation of crude oil. The ‘archaeologists’ sent fake objects as if they found them in the Mosul region, to the Sultan as gifts, not to draw attention to their real intentions.

Upon the end of the First World War, the Mudros Armistice was signed in 1918, and the Mosul Province was occupied, despite being under the control of the Turks before the call of armistice. Then, between 1920 and 1922, the War of Liberation was fought by the Turks against the invading powers with the defence victory of Mustafa Kemal’s armies and the prospect of a modern Turkish Republic.

Now it was time for a peace treaty, which was to be signed in Lausanne. The negotiations were challenging because Lord Curzon, the head of the British side, was as eager to seal the Mosul deal as İnönü, the head negotiator for Turks. The British Empire was willing to give up some royalties from the Mosul petrol to the Turkish Government, yet there was no sign shown of stepping back from Mosul by the British. The problem couldn’t be solved in Lausanne as it was postponed to be negotiated between the two parties a year later.

The British Empire was successful at Lausanne in removing the Mosul issue from the conference plan. This was due to numerous reasons:

  1. As the leader of the conference, Lord Curzon was able to influence the agenda, so that the Turks were forced to negotiate over their weakest points at the beginning of the conference.
  2. Curzon was aware of several imperative points, which supported him in his bluff. They were;

First, that the British Empire was advanced in military technology particularly in terms of naval and air technology;

Second, the Greeks, who still had potent forces in Thrace, could be rearmed and unleashed by the British Empire.

Third, the Turks needed to launch good relations with the British Empire if they wanted to strengthen their position in global politics.

Fourth, regardless of the fact that the Soviet Union was Turkey’s ally at the time of the Lausanne Conference, this alliance was problematic and the Turks did not completely rely on the Soviet Union. Turkey needed a British counterbalance to Russian power.

Fifth, British Empire intelligence, managed to seize messages between Ankara and the Turkish delegation, aided diplomats of the British Empire to determine how far they could press.

Sixth, and lastly, the British Empire knew very well that the Ankara parliament under Mustafa Kemal hesitated to engage in military activity in the Mosul district while İstanbul and the Straits were still under invasion.

On July 24, 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, and the Mosul problem was left to direct negotiations between the two governments with the arbitration of the League of Nations. Turkey did not jeopardise what it achieved in the War of Liberation, by making an expansionist move for Mosul. Mosul was officially lost in the League of Nations in 1926, as expected, mainly due to the influence and manipulation of the British Empire. “The Brussels Line” became the official border of Iraq and Turkey.

Turkey had to find consolation in the 10% royalty of Mosul’s petrol for 25 years, which it obtained from the Ankara Treaty. The treaty officially terminated the Mosul problem, and Mustafa Kemal and his associates gave up Mosul to the British Empire.

World Crude Oil Production

As much as it was a demoralising loss for the Turks, one could argue that maybe the lack of petrol (and a lot of it, given Mosul represents a significant proportion of worldwide reserves) was a blessing in disguise. Turkey has never been a commodity-rich country since its foundation and thus had to industrialise in order to develop. The lack of resources therefore, pushed Turkey to spur up a “real-economy” based on production, industry and commerce oriented towards trade with Europe rather than becoming a typical oil-rich Middle Eastern state. Oil, as much as it is tempting to possess, proved in many cases (most clearly in Venezuela or Saudi Arabia) that it could make an economy complacent and non-diversified. The destiny of a country (at least economically and at times politically) may become almost pegged to the international oil prices — creating a huge risk for economic sustainability.

It could therefore be argued that one of the reasons Turkey, despite many of the problems its facing at the time of writing, is the largest sovereign industrial production power around Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is the fact that it does not sit on large oil or gas reserves. It may sound ironic, but given the scores of examples from around the world, this would not be an unfounded assumption. In economics therefore, there are never true losses — only foregone and created opportunities.

About the author

ONAT KİBAROĞLU

ONAT KİBAROĞLU

Onat Kibaroglu is a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore and a weekly contributor at the Global Times in Shanghai, one of the largest newspaper establishments in the PRC. At the time of writing he is working part-time at a Public Affairs & Relations consulting agency “Hume Brophy” at their Asian HQ in Singapore.

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