What drives Erdogan?
As the very ground of democratic orders seem shattered by the advances of populist neo-authoritarianism worldwide, irredentism is rising from the dead, dragging revanchism with it.
In war-stricken Syria and Iraq, this is exposed in the loudly presented speeches by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, apparently with what he sees as the unsettled scores after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, repeatedly questions current maps of Turkey.
In concrete terms, his words were focused on the fate of Mosul, the current epicentre of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) and its derivative jihadist branches, which Erdogan made clear Turkey had the right to claim as part of the post- Ottoman territory.
He referred repeatedly to the National Pact (Misak-i Milli), signed by parliament in Istanbul in 1920 after the defeat of the Ottoman Army, claiming parts of it and pledging a fight to add them to the territory. But the Lausanne treaty ended up with some portions, such as north of Aleppo through the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and Western Thrace of Greece, left out of the map of Republican Turkey.
“When we had started the National Liberation War [in 1919], our aim was to lay claim to the frontiers of the National Pact (which included the Mosul province). We cannot act in 2016 with the mindset of 1923. To insist on (the border lines of 1923) is the greatest injustice to be done to the country and to the nation. In today’s world, where all else is changing, we cannot see to preserving our status of 1923 as a success,” Erdogan said at a recent public appearance.
Almost the country’s entire media — up to 95% now controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — followed enthusiastically in suit. As the rift over Turkish military presence and further interventions develop between Damascus and Baghdad versus Ankara over the fate of Mosul and Aleppo, and a concerned Greece issued a call for respect of the Lausanne treaty, TV channels have been dominated by the debates over “the losses Turkey was inflicted” after World War I.
New maps, or, rather, the old ones, were shown on the screens, with a Greater Turkey including Mosul in the south-east and going beyond Thessaloniki in the north-west.
“Let us place our own map on the table,” wrote Ibrahim Karagul, the editor of pro-Erdogan daily, Yeni Şafak in an earlier column. “The Mosul issue is one of Turkey’s most essential causes. Mosul cannot go under the control of a country foreign to the region… Mosul cannot be sacrificed for the US and UK’s oil games. Mosul cannot be left subject to Iran’s Shia identity-adjusted disposal. Mosul cannot be left to the mercy of Baghdad, which is acting completely along the Iran and Shiism axis.”
In later column, Karagul raised the stakes, writing: “In a nutshell, it is this: The northern belt (of Aleppo through Mosul) will not be under the control of Syria and Iraq. There is a game set, by letting in the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)/Democratic Union Party (PYD)] and Daesh, to inactivate Turkey… Then, whoever is behind this game-setting, Turkey must seize control over this belt and taking this region under its influence.”
Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
These sort of exercises look utterly familiar to those who know history. It evokes memories of German resentment of the Versailles treaty after World War I and the rise of Nazism as a partial consequence of that. As indicated by Erdogan’s rhetoric, it also raised concerns of revanchism — twin brother of irredentism — often leading to hostilities and war.
The question is to what end Erdogan intends to use this steady escalation of rhetoric. Reactions differ.
One point is clear. Acting with the knowledge that the issues regarding Mosul and Kirkuk as well as anti-Kurdish sentiments operate as a largely uniting element within the Turkish psyche, Erdogan’s primary aim is to forge a solid voter base for the referendum that will abolish the parliamentary system of Turkey by introducing a fully empowered presidential rule. The high decibels of the chorus in support of his outbursts come as a confirmation that he for his own purposes is on the right track.
“Erdogan’s use of the National Pact also demonstrates how successfully Turkey’s Islamists have reappropriated, rather than rejected, elements of the country’s secular nationalist historical narrative,” wrote Nicholas Danforth, a senior analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, in Foreign Policy.
“Turkey won’t be annexing part of Iraq anytime soon but this combination of irredentist cartography and rhetoric nonetheless offers some insight into Turkey’s current foreign and domestic policies and Ankara’s self-image… But if the past is any indication, the military interventions and confrontational rhetoric this nationalism inspires may worsen Turkey’s security and regional standing,” Danforth said.
With the Kurdish advances his outmost concern, Erdogan may have in mind keeping the gates of revanchism open, to block, by military force, a Kurdish belt along Turkey’s long southern borders. Two failing states, Iraq and Syria, and the regional vacuum left by the United States distracted by its own elections may be tempting.
The real danger is once you at home unleash the forces of aggressive nationalism, this time spiced by Sunni sectarianism, you never know where you will be ending up.