Opinion: Lessons from history in the fight for Mosul | Opinion | DW | 30.10.2016
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Opinion: Lessons from history in the fight for Mosul

The battle for Mosul is whetting territorial appetites in the Middle East. It is very risky to use the past as a basis for restructuring the region, DW's Kersten Knipp writes.

The battle for Mosul is taking us back in time. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared that Turkey could not stay out of the fighting. He justified this by arguing that Turkey had been forced to accept considerable territorial losses in 1923's Treaty of Lausanne, one of the international agreements responsible for the restructuring of Europe and the Middle East following World War I. The Ottoman Empire was one of the big losers of the war, and in 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne set the borders of modern-day Turkey. Mosul, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire, was allocated to Iraq.

This does not appear to be something that Erdogan is prepared to accept, not even a century later. "Insistence on (the 1923 borders) is the greatest injustice that can be done to the state and the nation," he has said. "If everything is changing in the world of today, we cannot consider adherence to the treaty of 1923 a success." His pronouncement has left the Iraqi government - which thanked him, but turned down his offer of Turkish military assistance in the battle for Mosul - very uneasy.

Knipp Kersten Kommentarbild App

DW's Kersten Knipp

Erdogan's historical excursion inspired another of Iraq's neighbors to go digging for more pieces of ancient history. Some Iranian officials have dusted off the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin, a venerable paper signed in the year 1639. It set the borders between the Persian and Ottoman Empires, within which lay territories that today belong to Iraq. At the same time, the treaty gave the Persians the right to take custody of holy Shiite Muslim shrines - even those that lay beyond the borders of their empire. Some have taken this as carte blanche for Iran to interfere all over Iraq, which certainly has no shortage of Shiite shrines.

The real issue being fought over in Mosul and in other cities is restructuring - not only of Iraq, but of the whole region. Its borders are to be redrawn, under invocation of the historical injustice that befell the Middle East during and after World War I. It is indeed true that the borders negotiated by the British and French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement were part of a deal that was callously hammered out over the heads of the Arabs and reflected only European interests - not those of the people on the ground.

Logic of globalization

The Treaty of Lausanne was a very different story. It was correspondingly painful for the Ottomans. However, redrawing borders in the 21st century would also result in extraordinary tensions. The current world order is based on the existence of nation-states. Invoking principles from earlier times could result in further destabilization of the region.

The emphasis lies elsewhere: namely in the capability to organize coexistence in multiethnic and multiconfessional states. Anything else contradicts the logic of globalization. As the current situation in Europe also shows, this is an extremely challenging task at which it is all too easy to fail.

After 15 years of war and violence, it is a task that Iraq is extremely poorly equipped to take on. It is therefore more necessary than ever - as a whole string of Arab commentators agree - to set aside cultural divisions. The borders are not the problem. The problem is the religious and racist jingoism that calls them into question.

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