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A century later, Mosul is a battle for the region's destiny

As the order imposed in the Middle East after the First World War collapses, it threatens to explode where Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet

The Great War, or the First World War, engulfed the entire Arab Islamic east - or what has become known in the Western lexicon as the Middle East and North Africa.

For the US and European allies, Mosul represents a battle against IS. But for other forces, it is yet another round in a series of battles over the region's destiny

The Ottoman Sultanate was a principal party to the war, calling about a million recruits from its various peoples to arms throughout the war. Following two failed attacks on the Suez Canal and the Caucuses, the Ottoman territory itself became a fighting arena.

The fire engulfed Egypt, which had been an Ottoman target from quite early times, and also Libya, which was claimed by various parties in the conflict. Even Tunisia and Algeria, which were under French hegemony at the time, bid farewell to thousands of their sons who left for the battle field. 

Perhaps the Great War may be said to have been the first world war according to modern standards. It raged across four continents, even though Europe was the main battleground.

In 1914, Ottoman forces prepare for the attack on the Suez Canal (Wikipedia)

Modern technologies of killing, communication, transportation, registration, classification, research and diplomacy, not only shifted the level of war to total destruction, but also played a major role in the process of rebuilding the international order. 

After the war ended, the US rapidly withdrew from the international arena, the Russian Czarist, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed and, with the defeat of Germany, Britain and France emerged as the two main powers in the postwar order.

Since the fate of the Ottoman Sultanate was on the table right from the start of the battles, it was only natural that the British and French would seize control of its treasures and lay down the foundations for a new regional order.

Arbitrary lines, vague foundations

Over the past century, this order has aroused much debate among those who live in the region, and among the Western scholars of the history of imperialism.

People who lived in the shade of imperial order found themselves squeezed within the borders of a national sovereign state, built upon foundations that were never clear

Those who defended the postwar order say that no division or partition had taken place because the entities of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - and perhaps also to a lesser extent Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan - were based on an old geopolitical legacies.

Their transformation into states, goes this line of argument, was accomplished through close cooperation among the elites and dignitaries of their cities. On top of that, they claim, foreigners soon left and these countries enjoyed independence with their fate in the hands of their own people.

However, the issue that should not be ignored is that the new regional order was created in isolation from the will of those living in the sultanate. People who lived throughout their history in the shade of imperial order suddenly found themselves squeezed within the borders of a national sovereign state, built upon foundations that were never clear.

Why, for example, were tribes, clans and families divided between Iraq and Syria or between Syria and Jordan or between the southern Palestine and Sinai or between northern Palestine and Lebanon? Why were Arabs given more than one state? The Turks were given their state, but why weren't the Kurds allowed to establish their own?

In most of the new states, and in Turkey, Iraq and Syria in particular, the elites who took over did not know how to deal with the ethnic, religious and sectarian pluralism that had flourished and resorted to using armed force. 

Additionally, a Zionist project was planted in the heart of the new regional order right from its inception. As a result, seeking peace and stability in the region, even if its states managed to tackle other thorny issues, turned into a futile affair. 

Crumbling order

Today, the region is witnessing a multi-level, multi-dimensional explosion, one that reflects the inability of the first postwar regional order to survive and continue.

In the small triangular spot squeezed between southern Turkey, northern Iraq and Syria alone is an example of the extremely complicated overlap of conflicts 

In the small triangular spot squeezed between southern Turkey, northern Iraq and Syria alone is an example of the extremely complicated overlap of regional and sub-regional conflicts not only among the states but also among sub-state entities and international powers trying to maintain their influence in the region. 

In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, Syria is no longer able to behave as a fully sovereign state or to impose its full hegemony on its people and its borders. Iraq lost these characteristics in the aftermath of the Gulf war in 1991, with the US invasion and occupation only augmenting the crisis. 

During the Gulf War, British engineers blow up a mine shield in January 1991 in Saudi Arabian desert (AFP)

Although Lebanon emerged from its civil wars maintaining its image as a state, it has existed for a long time inside an intensive care unit, disputed by armed organisations, sectarian divisions and profound political disagreements. 

In Turkey, the Kurdish problem exploded once more in the summer of 2015 following years of stumbling peace endeavours. 

Ideological and sectarian ambitions as well as geopolitical concerns have driven Iran to adopt expansionist policies in its brittle Arab neighbourhood - in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, but also in the fragmenting Yemeni state. 

The Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, find that the collapse of states such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on the one hand and Iran’s expansionist push on the other constitute an imminent danger to their existence and stability. 

The most explosive spot on earth

This climate of decline and fragmentation has its greatest impact on the crises of Iraq and Syria, which had served as foundations in the postwar order. And this is exactly why the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish border triangle is the most complex and potentially explosive spots on the face of the earth. 

After hesitating at length, Turkey intervened in northern Syria not just for the sake of confronting the danger posed by the Islamic State (IS) group, but also to tackle its considerable fears that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party, closely associated with the PKK, may establish an entity in northern Syria that will separate Turkey from its Syrian Arab neighbourhood. 

Through its military intervention, Turkey also seeks to maintain its role in determining the future of Syria, the most intractable geopolitical problem of the region. 

Further to the east, Ankara is ready to take part in the battle to liberate Raqqa, IS's de facto capital, for the same reasons that motivated the Turkish special forces to march toward Al-Bab and Manbij. 

Iraqi families, displaced by the ongoing operation by Iraqi forces against IS to retake Mosul, gather near Qayyarah, south of the city, on 24 October (AFP)

In northern Iraq, Iraqi, Kurdish, Iranian and Euro-American troops prepare to join the battle in Mosul, while ignoring Turkish demands to participate.

For the Americans and their European allies only, Mosul represents a battle against IS. But for the other various forces, Mosul is yet another round in a series of battles over the region and its destiny. 

The Kurds believe that their participation in the battle will lead to a reconsideration of the borders of the Kurdish region and repaired relations between Erbil and Baghdad.

Iran and its allies in Iraq hope that Mosul will provide an opportunity to draw a new demographic and geopolitical map in northern Iraq that will reinforce the Shia population in the Sunni north and will open a safe and permanent passage linking the Iranian borders to the Mediterranean in Syria. 

The stakes in Mosul

Although it would be an oversimplification to claim that Turkey’s objective in Mosul is to regain what the Lausanne Treaty stole from it, it is obvious that Ankara is extremely concerned about the danger threatening Iraqi Sunnis and the ambitions Tehran seeks to achieve in the north. 

Baghdad on the other hand, which right from the onset represented a secondary party in the war with IS, continues to be a secondary party in the raging interplay in the north.

The First World War lasted less than four years, but four more years were needed for Western imperial powers to agree on a new order in the region. This time, the role of Western powers is significantly reduced.

The main regional powers are living in a moment of delicate balance. Still far from agreeing on the lines that mark their interests, the region and its people still have a long way to go before reaching the shore of safety and stability.

Yet no one should have any illusions about the possibility that the old regional order may remerge or the potential for its survival. 

- Basheer Nafi is a senior research fellow at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: 'The Big Four' - David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France and Woodrow Wilson of the US - at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 after WWI (Wikipedia)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition