Each time in recent history that Turkey's pro-Sunni neo-Ottomans opted for assertive foreign policy in this turbulent part of the world, there were more casualties and no happy ending for any state- or non-state actor, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey. As multiple asymmetrical wars in the triangle of Turkey, Syria and Iraq turn more violent and complex, with the U.S.-led international campaign fighting jihadists -- while Iran and Russia try to win proxy wars -- Turkey keeps raising the stakes with the risky nonsensical wish to revive its imperial past. Erdogan looks determined to fight any war in the hope that all will end with Turkish-Sunni dominance in the region. He is wrong.
In his recent speeches Erdogan often revisited a long-forgotten Arabic phrase that is so dear to every Turk's heart and mind: Misak-i Milli ("National Contract").
On February 12, 1920, the last Ottoman parliament proclaimed a set of decisions which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, adopted as "the main principle of our independence." Misak-i Milli, among other principles, set modern Turkey's borders; it was a guideline to determine where the borders of the Turkish Republic would start and end. It would be used as the basis for the new Turkish Republic's claims in the Treaty of Lausanne.
According to Misak-i Milli, "the future of the territories inhabited by an Arab majority at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros shall be determined by a referendum." On the other hand, the territories which were not occupied at that time and inhabited by a Turkish majority are the homeland of the Turkish nation. The status of Kars, Ardahan (Turkish provinces since then) and Batumi (a province in the Republic of Georgia) may be determined by a referendum. The status of Western Thrace (in Greece) will be determined by the votes of its inhabitants. Misak-i Milli also claimed that the former Ottoman province of Mosul should be a Turkish province. Instead, Mosul was first left to British control, then became an Iraqi province. Mosul is now Iraq's second largest city, but tenuously under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS).
At a cabinet meeting this month, Erdogan reportedly told his ministers:
"Turkey can no longer stay the same at this point. The status quo will change somehow. We will either leap with moves forward or we will be bound to shrink. I am determined to make forward moves."
In another speech, Erdogan said:
"Turkey is not just Turkey. Apart from its 79 million citizens, 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 ... Certain historians believe that the borders set by the National Contract include Cyprus, Aleppo, Mosul, Erbil, Kirkuk, Batumi, Thessaloniki, Kardzhali, Varna and the [Greek] islands of the Aegean."
What did all that mean, especially at a time when the Turkish president was reminding everyone of Misak-i Milli every other day -- and when the allies were planning to launch an offensive to drive ISIS out of Mosul? It means Sunni Turkey fears future Shiite (and Kurdish) expansionism along its southern borders with Syria and Iraq; to counter that, Erdogan hopes to build a pro-Ottoman, Sunni region against Iranian dominance.
Turkey's borders with its southern neighbor Syria, southeastern neighbor Iraq and eastern neighbor Iran total around 2,000 kilometers. Erdogan knows very well that he cannot convert nearly 80 million Shiite Iranians to Sunni Islam. But he fears that Iran can build a Shiite-controlled hostile belt across Turkey's Syrian and Iraqi borders (totalling nearly 1,400 kilometers). He also fears that Iran can logistically support Turkey's Kurdish enemies and spark further violence and chaos in Turkey. There have already been more than 1,000 casualties in the Kurds' separatist violence inside Turkish territory since the rebel group Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) ended a two-year-long ceasefire in July 2015.
Tensions between Erdogan's Sunni-ism and the Iranian-backed Shiism reached new a peak after Ankara insisted that Shiite forces should not take part in the Mosul offensive; instead, Turkey claims, Ankara-backed Sunni Islamist groups and friendly Kurdish peshmerga forces in northern Iraq should take part in the international campaign to take back Mosul from ISIS. There is one complication, though. Mosul is not Turkish territory, as envisaged in Misak-i Milli, but Iraqi territory. And the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government does not want Turkish or Turkey-backed Sunni boots on the ground.
As the allied campaign on Mosul took off, tensions between Ankara and Baghdad also rose to a new peak. Supporters of Iraq's Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr staged a protest in front of the Turkish Embassy on October 17, after the cleric called for protests to demand that Turkish troops leave the northern Iraqi Bashiqa camp, where a few hundred Turkish soldiers have been training Sunni militias to help retake Mosul from ISIS. Both the presence of the camp and the protests caused a row between the two countries. "Get out, Get out, occupier!" and "Yes, yes, for Iraq," chanted the followers of al-Sadr. Baghdad wants the Turkish troops out, but Turkey refuses to go. The whole adventure is increasingly becoming a Turkish-Iranian theater of proxy war.
At the Bashiqa camp in northern Iraq, a few hundred Turkish soldiers have been training Sunni militias to help retake Mosul from ISIS. Iraq's government wants the Turkish troops out, but Turkey refuses to withdraw them. (Image source: TRTWorld video screenshot)
Erdogan said on October 18:
"If we say we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason ... What you call 'Baghdad' is an administrator of an army composed of Shiites. Will we talk to them? They say 30,000 Shiite militants are coming. They should be prepared for what they will face."
As Shiite Iraqis protest the Turkish military presence in their country, the Turkish Air Force was taking part in air operations backing the Iraqi and Kurdish offensive to retake Mosul, according to Turkey's prime minister, Binali Yildirim. "Our air forces took part in the coalition forces' air operations in Mosul," Yildirim told his parliamentary group in Ankara.
Meanwhile, the Turkish military has been fighting behind an army of "moderate" Islamist rebels against ISIS strongholds in northern Syria since August 24. This is another proxy war: Turkey-backed "moderate" jihadists fighting the less moderate ISIS jihadists, with the "moderates" having seized control of some 1,240 square kilometers of territory from the less moderate jihadists.
In Syria, too, Turkey's strategic war is not against its tactical target, ISIS. By fighting ISIS and advancing with the army of "moderates" it backs, Ankara aims to break any future Shiite and/or Kurdish expansion into northern Syria.
Turkey's (non-Islamist) "National Contract," Misak-i Milli syndrome has found new spirit with the rise of Islamists under a new Ottoman flag. That is not good news either for the region, for Turkey's western friends or for Turkey itself.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.