The Battle of Mosul and the Long History of Persian-Turkish Rivalry

Wednesday 2 November 201608:38 am

On the morning of the 17th of October, the battle for Mosul officially began. Both locally and internationally, there has been a lot of media attention on the logistic preparations.

The hostile statements exchanged between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi are perhaps the most salient examples connected to the preparations for the battle on the media.

Many of those following the exchange described it as another episode in the sectarian division between Sunnis and Shiites that the region has been suffering from for the last years. But the question of whether the conflict in Iraq is simply a sectarian one or if it has other facets remains to be answered.

It is also possible to claim that there is some sort of conflict happening in Iraq, between two large groups: The Persians and the Turkish.

It is well known that Haider al-Abadi is a strong supporter of Iran, his strongest ally in the battle against ISIS. It is also known that Major general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is the true leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq.

The battle in Mosul involves both Iran and Turkey, the largest two regional powers who will determine the outcome, and perhaps the future of Iraq as a whole. This article gives a simplified version of the history of the Persian and Turkish conflict over Iraq.

Persians, Turkish and the Muslim state

The Turkish and Persians peoples have both had a crucial influence on the region’s history. Due to their massive material and human capacities they were able to change the course of history in this dynamic part of the world.

Perhaps the most important historical connection between these two peoples is Islam. With the Islamic expansion towards Asia during the first century of Hijra, the Persian lands were conquered and so were some of the Turkish ones.

During those early days of Islam the Arabs were the ones who held sway within the Islamic State. Other groups were simply subjected to Arab rule while mostly isolated in their lands, hoping simply to be able to live in peace.

With the rise of the Abbasid State in the year 132 of Hijra, the Persian influence also appeared. According to Al Tabari, Ibn Athir, and Al Massaoudi, Persians were at the core of the Abbasid revolution. Subsequently, they took the place of the Arabs at the center of the political scene with ministers, writers, statesmen, and military commanders such as Abu Muslim Al Khorassani, and Al Hassan Ben Sahl, and others.

Soon after, things changed once again. The Abbasid Caliph Al-Mu'tasim started relying on the Turkish for all military matters, using them as soldiers and generals. According to Ibn Qutaybah in his book Al Maaref the Caliph even built them their own city, Samara.

Persian science, and Turkish strength

Each of the two peoples has been known for a particular trait. While the Persians were known for their love of science and knowledge, as Ibn Khaldun writes in his Muqaddimah, the Turks were known for their strength, courage, and military skills. The famous poet, Al Jahiz wrote that Turks are in war as the Greeks are in wisdom, the Chinese in industry, Arabs in Maths, and Sassanids in governance.

In a number of Hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, one finds this essentialism in the description of each group’s traits. This is also found in Ibn Khaldun’s treatise, and Sinan Abi Daoud’s writings: Persians are always associated with science and knowledge and Turks with strength.

These were after all two of the main forces in the Islamic world. While the Persians gave us many scientists, historians, philosophers and jurists such as Al Bukhari, Moslem, Al Tarmadi, Al Razi, Avicenna, and others, the Turks provided fighters, soldiers, and great military commanders such as Tughril, Alp Arslan and Osman I.

A long rivalry

The rivalry soon turned into a Persian-Turkish conflict with the decline of the Abbasid empire. With the weakening of the Arabs in the Muslim world, the two rivaling groups would alternate in leading the Muslim world.

Persians who were more urbanized would call Turks backward and barbaric. It was the common belief that anytime there would be waves of Turkish people coming from central Asia to Iran, destruction and damage would follow. Dr. Abdel Wahhab Al Azzam, in his book The Arab-Persian Relations, explains that the name Turk in Persian became synonymous with injustice and aggression. In fact, a number of words with Turk as their root signify destruction, raids, injustice, aggression, and hurting.

Some stories recount how the Turks abused Persians during the Seljuk occupation of Iran. One such story is mentioned by the Iranian historian Farhad Daftary in his book Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Societies:One day the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah saw a Persian boy crying on the street. When he asked him why he cried, the boy explained that he had bought a watermelon to sell it and make some profit to support his family, but a Turkish soldier stole it from him. Malik Shah responded with a loud laughter as he looked at the boy’s sad eyes.

The meaning of Iraq

Iraq has a special value for both Turks and Persians. Both always had ambitions to expand into Iraqi territory during its period of prosperity and power. The Buyid kings coming from Iran tried to take control of Iraq at the beginning of the 4th century of Hijra. The Seljuks as well, tried to occupy Iraq after that.

Iraq was the prize that both wanted to win. It was the seat of the Abbasid Caliphat, which represented the officially recognized Islamic power, and the Abbasid caliph, who had lost his monetary power, but still had a spiritual one. Controlling him meant gaining the legitimacy to take control of all the Muslim lands.

Iraq is also a strategic prize. For the Persians it meant that they were closer to the Levant and the Mediterranean sea with its trade routes and profit. For the Turks it meant taking control of Asian Muslim territories and securing the Levant.

Safavids and Ottomans: the height of the conflict

Among the many historical moments of conflict between Persians and Turks, it was the confrontations that took place between the Safavid and the Ottoman empires that count as the most important, bloody, violent, and influential on today’s Middle East.

In the beginning of the 16th century AD, a new Persian power appeared in Iran: The Safavids worked to convert the majority of Persians to Twelver Shiite Islam. They had the ambition to expand their reign but they were faced with the Ottoman control that reached Iraq and Diyarbakir.

In reality, the dangers of the Safavid-Ottoman conflict was that it was not simply another episode of the Persian-Turkish rivalry, but that it took a clear sectarian aspect between Shiite and Sunni Islam.

The first confrontation was the battle of Chaldiran close to Azerbaijanin 1514 AD. The Ottoman Sultan Selim I won over the Safavid Shah Ismail. This led to the Ottoman taking control of the whole of Iraq.

Confrontations took place again during the reign of Sultan Suleiman. A number of battles took place against the Safavid Tahmasp I. While the majority of these battles ended with the Ottomans winning, the Safavids still presented a great threat to the Ottoman state which was preoccupied with its European expansions. This led to the signing of the treaty of Amasya between the two empires in 1555 AD. According to the treaty the two states would agree on the borders but did not put an end to the conflict which continued until the end of the Safavid state in 1736 AD.

The importance of this period is described by Dr. Mohamed Suheil Taqoush in his book The History of the Safavid State where he explains that the influence of the conflict continues to this day with the sectarian dimension that the conflict has taken.

One of the side effects of the Safavid-Ottoman wars was that the Ottomans could not finish their European conquests. Dr. Mohamed Abdelatif Al Huwaidi, in his book The Ottoman-Persian Wars talks about how the Safavid surprise attack on Bagdad led to the lifting of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1532 AD by Sultan Suleiman.

Today the question is whether the Turks will give up their long historical ambitions over Iraq and leave it to the Iranians and their allies. Can we assume that there is a real chance for a treaty similar to that of Amasya or is the general situation too tense to allow it? For now, the only thing that we can hear are the loud sounds of inherited war drums.

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