Arab World: Turkish ambition

Ankara is pressing its desire to influence a post-ISIS Mosul and northern Iraq as part of a new policy in the region.

Man sits in front of Turkish flag hours after coup in Turkey thwarted (photo credit: REUTERS)
Man sits in front of Turkish flag hours after coup in Turkey thwarted
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had strong words for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently. “The army of the Republic of Turkey has not lost its standing so as to take orders from you,” he said in a speech to the Eurasian Islamic Council in Istanbul.
Erdogan was responding to demands from Baghdad that Turkey withdraw troops that have been based in northern Iraq near the front line with Islamic State and which seek to play a role aiding Sunni Arabs to retake Mosul from the extremists.
“It’s not important at all how you shout from Iraq. You should know that we will do what we want to do,” Erdogan was quoted as saying. “First know your place.”
Strong words. But these are part of an agenda taking shape in Ankara that harks back to opening old wounds from the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.
He was quoted by the Athens-Macedonia News Agency as claiming that “Turkey is not just Turkey... it is also responsible to the hundreds of millions of our brothers in the geographical area to which we are connected by historical and cultural ties.” That refers to Turkmen who live in Syria and Iraq, as well as what Erdogan called “Western Thrace,” a part of Greece, and of course the Turks in Cyprus. “If Iraq and Syria are in trouble, it is Turkey’s utmost responsibility to put all kinds of efforts into solving the problem and take measures,” Erdogan has said.
The Turkish leader was more candid speaking to a law congress last week, according to reports at Kurdistan 24 TV. “A history lies for us” in Mosul province, he noted. “They say Turkey should not enter.... I have a 350-kilometer-long border with Iraq, and I am under threat from that border.”
According to researcher Peter Sluglett, who wrote a book on Britain in Iraq, the province of Mosul was disputed by Turkey and the British Mandate that came into power in Iraq in 1920. According to the Treaty of Sèvres signed between the allied powers and the Ottoman Empire, the empire was to be broken up. But there were calls for a referendum in Mosul province, an area of more than 40,000 square kilometers, a bit smaller than the US state of West Virginia.
Eventually, the Iraqi government of King Faisal and his British advisers decided that it would be best to keep Mosul as part of Iraq, as it would bolster the Sunni population of the country. A League of Nations commission agreed with the British in 1925, and any disputes with Turkey lay dormant. Turkey’s claims to other areas did not lie dormant. Between 1920 and 1925 Ataturk was busy consolidating power in Turkey and taking back areas occupied by Greeks, sending 400,000 Greeks fleeing Smyrna in 1922, and retaking Istanbul from the allies in 1923. He pressed the Turkish claim to Alexandretta province in northern Syria, annexing it in 1939 and calling it Hatay province.
Erdogan’s ambitions have commonalities with Ataturk, but they have other origins as well. When the AKP came to power in 2002, it was an Islamic-style party. Ahmet Davutoglu, the influential foreign minister from 2009 to 2014 and then-prime minister, advanced a concept of “neo-Ottomanism” that sought to build up Turkish power, influence and grandeur. He also sought an era of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors, cultivating closer relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, as well as Islamic parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
But zero problems didn’t work for Ankara. Syria sunk into civil war, and Turkey was an early backer of the Syrian rebellion. Turkey was a conduit for refugees, volunteers, logistical support and weapons to sustain the rebellion against the regime of Bashar Assad. After Davutoglu was moved out of the prime minister’s office, Turkey embarked on a more robust policy in Syria, moving troops and tanks into the country in August. Erdogan had to confront a coup, and he is fighting a renewed war with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, but his ambitions in Syria and Iraq have grown.
The Turkish policy to help train mostly Sunni Arab volunteers to retake Mosul from Islamic State has been active for almost two years. But initially it was a quiet, secretive role. Since December 2015 it has been a much more open and robust role. Now there is open talk of Turkey’s desire to be “at the table” when the Mosul offensive launched this week is over. Turkey wants to be at the table in Syria as well, as Islamic State is rolled back.
Turkey’s policy seems to admit the truth widely noted across the region that the old borders of Sykes-Picot, drawn in 1916, are no longer relevant. Juliet Samuel wrote in The Telegraph on October 18 that the “West needs to accept that the borders it’s defending in Iraq have disappeared.” Islamic State showed how weak those borders had become, as the nation-state crumbled in Syria and Iraq and sectarianism was unleashed.
The end goal of Turkey’s policy is as opaque today as in the past.
The idea of establishing a “Sunnistan” in Iraq, or a Sunni autonomous region similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, is not something that anyone seems seriously interested in.
So when Ankara says it wants to influence decisions in northern Iraq, it is clear that what it primarily entails is similar to what the Russians have done in Syria. It is about projecting power beyond borders, while US and EU influence remains tethered to diplomacy and adheres to old policies.
Turkey recognizes the new rules of the game in the region. If you don’t intervene, if you don’t train local militias, if you don’t have men on the ground, you are not at the table.
Turkey is at the table now. The question is how much of an appetite it has.