Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cited an Ottoman-era manifesto to make a case for his country’s participation in a campaign to flush out Islamic State militants from Iraq’s second largest city, reinforcing suspicions about Ankara’s intention for expansion.
Two days into the long-awaited battle to reclaim Mosul from ISIS, the dispute between Turkey and Iraq shows no signs of subsiding. The American-backed operation saw steady military gains against the extremist group as Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi forces push from different directions toward the Iraq’s largest Sunni city.
On Wednesday, Turkish president argued for Turkey’s involvement in Mosul once again, claiming that Washington agreed to let Turkish fighter jets participate in the Mosul air campaign. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkish warplanes took part in the air bombardment of ISIS targets in Mosul on Tuesday.
President Erdogan’s reference to an Ottoman-era manifesto, also called Misak-ı Milli (National Oath) has brought diplomatic showdown into a new level, setting the stage for a controversy that could further upset relations between Ankara and Baghdad. With historical references that could may be interpreted as imperial claims over the city, Erdogan’s citing would likely stir nationalist sentiment and generate a public backlash in Iraq.
Before foundation of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, or Turkish Parliament today, on April 23, in 1920, a legislative body that led the war of liberation against occupying foreign powers in Anatolia, Ottoman Parliament in Istanbul gathered for the last time before it was dismantled by the British forces in Istanbul on March 16, 1920. The Ottoman Parliament then designated the borders of the country in a map, laid out in the six-point manifesto, as the basis of an independent political entity of Turks. It was designed to set the foundations and borders of a new state.
The manifesto also included clauses about Turkish minorities in neighboring countries, a reference Erdogan frequently makes while speaking about Mosul.
What is relevant to today’s row is the fact that the Ottoman map included Kirkuk and Mosul, which were given to the British mandate in Iraq after a separate settlement between London and Ankara in 1926, three years after the modern Turkish Republic was established. The loss of northern Iraq left a bitter taste and wound in the collective memory of Turks, with lasting effect still today.
At the end of the war against Greece and other invading forces, Turks won their independence and built a new republic, condemning the defunct empire to the dustbin of history. But the protracted and costly war between 1919 and 1923 failed to preserve all the Misak-i Milli borders, and the nationalist government in Ankara conceded to a compromise, and thus to loss of many territories, to secure the recognition of the new state by international powers at Lausanne Treaty in 1923.
The Misak-i Milli formed the basis of nationalist political movements in Turkey’s modern history with the aim of restoration of those borders one day. The rejection of irredentism in the foreign policy of the young republic left little place for such political aspirations, with the notable exception of taking Antioch back from France which established a brief mandate rule there following the Treaty of Lausanne.
Erdogan’s latest reference to Misak-i Milli borders represents a return to nationalist irredentism that may set Turkey against its neighbors, which are wary of the emergence of neo-Ottomanism permeated in Ankara’s regional policy discourse.
On Tuesday, followers of powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gathered outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad, chanting slogans like “Get out, get out, occupier!” and “Yes, yes, for Iraq.”
In his previous speeches, President Erdogan portrayed the Turkish military presence as a necessary response to the terrorism and underscored the need for a closer cooperation between Turkey and Iraq in the fight against ISIS. But his recent discourse with imperial flavors as ingredients may damage Turkey’s position in Iraq.
Ankara says it deployed a small contingent of forces at a military base, Bashiqa camp, two months after Mosul was captured in 2014, at the request of local rulers and the Baghdad administration. It was last year when Turkey sent additional forces and armored vehicles, a diplomatic crisis erupted, though it was resolved through diplomatic channels shortly after.
And two weeks ago, when the Turkish Parliament extended the duration of its military mission in Iraq and Syria for another year, it touched off heated debates in the Iraqi Parliament that ended up in a blunt warning against Turkey over military presence in Iraq. Political debates about national sovereignty swirled, with public sentiment quickly turning against Turkey.
Enraged Iraqi politicians called the presence of Turkish forces as a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and vowed to take action to ensure withdrawal of Turkish troops by force if needed.
The veiled US criticism, the efforts of Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani to mediate a consensus or cooling down the tension have yielded no result. Erdogan’s confrontational style does not help, Iraqi politicians and observers say. And how reference to an imperial era map would sooth concerns of Iraqis remains a matter of mystery now.