October 26, 2016

Erdoğan and Mosul - symptom of a larger problem?

"National Oath" map - 1920

During an address explaining why Turkey must be involved in the Iraqi military operation to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set off alarm bells by displaying a 1920 map of Turkey based on what was then called the misak-i milli ("national oath").

On the "National oath" map, the borders of Turkey include portions of what is now Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of this territory was part of the Ottoman Empire prior to its defeat in World War I. The map designates what the Turks believed should be the new borders of their new country.

President Erdoğan has argued for several months that Turkish troops must participate in the Iraqi military operation against ISIS in Mosul, based on Turkey's historic ties to that city, as well as the city of Kirkuk, also included in the "national oath" area. Both Mosul and Kirkuk have large Turkmen populations.

Although the Turks claim that the two cities are majority "Turkmen," thus validating their claims to the cities or at least to have a say in their future status. However, over the years, Iraq has successfully "Arabized" the cities over the years to alter the demographics -- they are now Arab cities.

To further complicate matters, the Kurds have also laid claim to Kirkuk and have tried to "Kurdize" the city by expelling Arab citizens. During the rapid ISIS advance into northern Iraq in 2014, Kurdish peshmerga took control of Kirkuk to prevent it from falling to the group. I suspect they will be extremely reluctant to relinquish their claim to the city, claiming it now as a part of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

The term "Turkmen" itself is illustrative of the issue. After the war, most of the non-Turkish area of Ottoman Empire was divided up into the modern nations of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine (Israel), and the borders with Greece and Bulgaria were adjusted. The British - victors in the war against the Ottomans - coined the term to differentiate the ethnic Turks in what was to become northern Iraq from the population of what was to become modern Turkey. The Turks still bristle at the imposed terminology.

Erdoğan is not only concerned with the Iraqi military campaign in Mosul - I am sure his military advisers and intelligence service have briefed him on the reality that the Iraqi forces, with U.S.-led coalition support, will eventually retake Mosul. Although the final cost in resources and human life is not yet known, the outcome is not in doubt - the Iraqis will prevail.

What Erdoğan wants is a say in what happens in northern Iraq after ISIS is expelled. In other words, the Turkish president wants to ensure that the Kurds are kept in check. He is concerned about increased Kurdish influence in Iraq based on their contributions to the Iraqi military effort against ISIS - the Kurds are undoubtedly the most effective arrow in the Iraqi quiver.

Further, Erdoğan wants to head off any thoughts of a unified Kurdish entity in what is now northern Iraq and northern Syria, called Rojava by the Syria-based Kurds. After ISIS is expelled from Iraq and Syria, as they will be, the Kurds are going to want a reassessment of their status in both Iraq and Syria. Turkey wants to make sure that status is agreeable to Ankara, agreeable to Erdoğan.

That said, I believe it Erdoğan wants more than just having a say in the future of northern Iraq and northern Syria. The use of the 1920 "national oath" map at his presentation was not accidental - it was there for a reason.

Turkish demands for a role in northern Iraq, and its military actions in northern Syria are complemented by a series of Turkish air provocations against fellow NATO ally Greece. On at least two occasions, Turkish Air Force F-16's have penetrated Greek airspace, drawing reactions from the Hellenic Air Force. One incursion is possibly a navigational error in an area of meandering borders, but two distinct incursions in the same area raises the "deliberate" flag.

At the same time, Erdoğan does not assuage the apprehensions of his neighbors when he openly encourages his young population to question the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which effectively defined Turkey's borders with its neighbors. These are the borders that define the Middle East as we know it today. As part of that treaty, Turkey relinquished claims to the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, effectively ending the border conflicts that continued for several years after World War I.

There was a subsequent agreement to the Treaty of Lausanne that dealt specifically with the city of Mosul. The Ankara Pact (1926), based on a commission report of the League of Nations, stated that Mosul should remain part of Iraq. The pact was ratified by Iraq, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

One cannot help but think of the actions of a recalcitrant Germany in the 1930's, bristling at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty imposed what the Germans considered to be egregious conditions and sought to to subvert them clandestinely, eventually leading to the birth of a movement that led to the creation of the National Socialist (Nazi) party.

A segment of the Turkish population, encouraged by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), are echoing a similar refrain, bristling at the terms - imposed or agreed to, depending on where you stand - of the Treaty of Lausanne and the Ankara Pact.

We should not dismiss Erdoğan's words as mere rhetoric. He has shown himself to be a capable - if distasteful - political force with a vision for Turkey's future. His attempts to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to include Turkish troops in the operation to recapture Mosul is a tactical maneuver to stem Kurdish nationalism. Erdoğan considers increased Kurdish influence in Iraq or greater autonomy to be a threat to Turkish national interests.

What we should be concerned about is Erdoğan's long-term, strategic vision of Turkey. Are his display of the "national oath" map, decision to provide military support to the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria, Turkish air attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria, Turkish Air Force seemingly deliberate incursions into Greek airspace, and not-so-subtle encouragement of Turkish nationalists to challenge the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne and the Ankara Pact a harbinger of things to come?

Are the Turks intent on at some point reclaiming what they consider to be Turkish territory "stolen" from them almost a century ago? I hope not, but I would not put it past Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.


Personal anecdote: When I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I had virtually no contact with the Syrian military. One exception was the monthly attaché dinner at the Syrian Officers Club to welcome new attachés and bid farewell to those about to depart. Departing attachés were presented a small inlaid wooden box, a Syrian specialty. On the top of the box was a medallion with a map of Syria.

The map included a part of Turkey known as the sanjak of Alexandretta, an area ceded to Turkey by the French mandatory authorities in 1936. The Syrians have never recognized that agreement and believe the territory to be still part of Syria.

At every presentation, the two Turkish military attachés (one seen with me in the photo) would stand at attention and march from the room in protest of the inclusion of what they considered to be Turkish territory on a map of Syria.