Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just delivered one of the most bizarre speeches on foreign policy of his whole eccentric career.
Speaking at the newly opened University of Rize in Busra, he staked claims on behalf of Turkey to vast regions extending far beyond Turkey’s borders.
Referring to the National Covenant – a 1920 declaration by the last Ottoman parliament, which was used by the newly formed Turkish Republic as the basis of its initial negotiating position at the conference of Lausanne, which eventually established Turkey’s present borders – he claimed that according to “certain historians” it had included within Turkey’s borders:
“Cyprus, Aleppo (in Syria), Mosul, Arbil and Kirkuk (in Iraq), Batum (in Georgia), Kardzhali, Varna (in Bulgaria), and Thessaloniki and the Aegean islands (in Greece).”
The Duran’s Alex Christoforou wrote earlier on the claims made by Erdogan about Turkey’s right to certain Greek islands. He also used historic, linguistic and religious ties to claim for Turkey a gigantic zone of influence for itself
“Turkey is not only Turkey. Not only for 79 million citizens, but Turkey bears also responsibility towards our hundreds of millions of brothers in the geographical area to whom we are connected through our historical and cultural ties.
It is a duty, but also a right of Turkey to be interested in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Crimea, Karabakh, Bosnia, and other sister areas (NB: this is a reference to Azerbaijan and former Soviet Central Asia – AM). The moment you give up this, it will be the time when we lose our independence and our future”.
It is however Erdogan’s extraordinary comments about Mosul in Iraq that will be the cause of the greatest concern in the major world capitals
“Our territories were as large as 2.5 million square kilometres, and after nine years at the time of the Lausanne Treaty [the international document of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey] it diminished to 780,000 square kilometres with the inclusion of Hatay [which joined Turkey in 1939].
When we had started the National Liberation War [in 1919], our aim was to lay claim to the frontiers of the National Covenant [adopted by the last Ottoman parliament in 1920, which included the Mosul Vilayat of the Ottoman Empire].
Unfortunately, we could not protect [those borders]. … We cannot act in the year 2016 with the psychology of 1923. To insist on [the borders accepted in 1923] is the greatest injustice to be done to the country and to the nation. While everything is changing in today’s world, we cannot see to preserving our status of 1923 as a success.”
To that end Erdogan claimed a direct role for Turkey, both in the military operation to free Mosul from ISIS, and in any negotiations concerning its future
“We will be in the field and at the negotiating table, too. We have to resolve the Mosul issue in Mosul. … If we sacrifice Mosul to sectarianism (NB: this is clearly a reference to the Shia dominated government in Baghdad – AM), we cannot prevent the problem from reaching our borders.”
This incredible speech has already triggered a storm of complaints from neighbouring states including Greece. There have also been criticisms of Erdogan’s seemingly shaky grasp of history, though it is doubtful Erdogan cares much about that.
Erdogan is not laying physical claim to the vast regions he is talking about. What he is saying is that Turkey should establish some sort of sphere of influence over these regions. Nor is Erdogan saying that he wants to conquer Mosul so as to incorporate it into Turkey. However he does seem to think that Turkey is entitled to some sort of paramount position of influence in Mosul, and that it should be allowed to determine the shape of the eventual political settlement there.
It is clear that Erdogan does not want Mosul to fall fully under the control of the Shia dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad, and nor does he want Kurdish influence to be extended there. To the extent that it is possible to understand Erdogan’s thinking, it seems he wants Mosul to become a kind of de facto Turkish dominated Sunni Arab protectorate within Iraq, tenuously connected to the central government in Baghdad through some sort of loose confederal arrangement, but actually under the control of the Turkish government in Ankara.
This is of course very much the same arrangement Erdogan is trying to create in north east Syria in the ‘safe zone’ the Turkish military is busy setting up there. It is incidentally also the same arrangement the Turks have for a long time been working towards in northern Cyprus.
Needless to say Erdogan’s project for Mosul is fiercely opposed by the government in Baghdad, as well as by most of the Iraqi Kurds.
Erdogan’s speech in fact seems to have been triggered by a furious public row Erdogan has recently had with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in which Erdogan has insisted on a role for the Turkish military in the liberation of Mosul from ISIS, only to be rebuffed by al-Abadi, who clearly does not trust the Turkish army to leave Mosul if they ever go there, and who has publicly told Erdogan to mind his own business and stay out.
As is often the case with Erdogan this public rebuff from al-Abadi – who Erdogan seems to have trouble taking seriously – seems to have completely infuriated him. Typically his response has been ludicrously over the top, resulting in a speech of almost preposterous grandiosity bordering on outright megalomania.
At a practical level Erdogan’s plans for Mosul are going to complicate its liberation from ISIS. The Iraqi military as it advances on Mosul now has to worry about the possible reaction of the Turkish army. This is actually located illegally on what is Iraqi territory nearby, putting it in a good position to intervene in the fighting in Mosul were Erdogan to order it to do so.
As they close in on ISIS the Iraqi military now have to worry about what Erdogan might order the Turkish army to do behind their back. Inevitably that means that with one eye on the Turks the Iraqi military will not be able to focus single-mindedly on defeating ISIS, which is what the complicated nature of the battle to liberate Mosul requires them to do.
The US for its part must be seriously concerned that the quarrel between Turkey and Iraq caused by Erdogan’s overweening regional ambitions is going to delay the liberation of Mosul. Though it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Mosul can be liberated from ISIS before the US Presidential election in November, the threats from Erdogan now threaten to extend Mosul’s liberation beyond January, when Obama steps down. That would be a bitter disappointment for Obama, who must be hoping for a victory over ISIS in Mosul to end his Presidency on a high note.
US diplomats must now be working over time to try to smooth over the differences between Erdogan and the Iraqis to enable the Mosul operation to go ahead as planned. Given the extreme language Erdogan is using and the overweening nature of his ambitions, it looks like they have a hard job ahead of them.
As for ISIS – the other big player in the battle for Mosul – not for the first time Erdogan’s regional ambitions are de facto aligning him with ISIS, which is the immediate beneficiary of what he is doing. Whether Erdogan wants to admit the fact or not this has always been true in Syria, and it is now turning out to be true in Iraq.
Erdogan’s speech is in fact very much in line with the “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy which his government has been pursuing ever since he came to power.
The speech shows that despite glimmers of understanding a few months ago that Turkey is over-reaching itself, and needs to improve relations with its neighbours rather than go on alienating them as it has been doing by pursuing this neo-Ottoman policy, Erdogan himself remains far too emotionally committed to it ever to give up on it.
On the contrary the defeat of the recent coup attempt and the – probably ephemeral – success of Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria seems to have gone to his head, causing him to double down on his neo-Ottoman policy, staking out vast claims for Turkey which it can never hope to realise.
As for the Russians, as they ponder Erdogan’s speech they will doubtless downgrade their expectations of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement even further, correctly assessing that Erdogan’s overweening regional ambitions and unstable personality make him in the end an impossible partner to place any long term reliance upon.