Misak-ı Millî or the ‘National Oath’: Turkey’s new foreign policy compass?

Misak-ı Millî or the ‘National Oath’: Turkey’s new foreign policy compass?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s references to Turkey’s early republican era, and especially to the “National Oath” (Misak-ı Millî) adopted in the last session of the Ottoman Parliament in 1920, have recently been increasing. 

While expressing some political features, the National Oath also retraced the specific geographical borders of the future independent Turkish land. This map was drawn according to the direct influence zone of the defeated Ottoman state, encompassing the actual political borders of the Turkish Republic, but also provinces such as Kirkuk, Thessaloniki, Aleppo and Mosul. 

One could say that Turkey’s military presence in northern Syria and now its willingness to join the coalition forces engaged in the Mosul operation both result from a revival of the National Oath.

As the Middle East is reshaping itself once again, after a tumultuous century full of coups, assassinations and wars, Turkey once again aims to expand its influence in ancient and strategically important Ottoman provinces such as Aleppo and Mosul.

Whereas Mosul is an Iraqi city with a large majority of Sunni Arabs, the actual coalition that intends to “liberate” Mosul from Daesh is essentially composed of Kurdish and Shiites militias (including the Iraqi army). The main problem regarding Mosul is not the “liberation” itself, but rather the aftermath of its liberation. This large city with significant Sunni demographics will have to live under the rule of Shiite groups such as Hashid Shaabi and/or Kurdish Peshmerga forces that could destabilize Mosul’s demographic fabric in the coming months and years. In other words, if the coalition forces fail to firmly establish law and order in the aftermath of the liberation, the population of Mosul could perhaps even regret it.

President Erdoğan’s recent stance and references to the National Oath may be irritating to some foreign and domestic figures. But they come at a time when Iran is aggressively putting its old imperial Persian reflexes into practice and aiming to create an enlarged Shiite Lebensraum across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and even Qatar, with the help of their financial power, are also playing a greater role in organizing their respective networks on the ground. Iran’s activities are largely tolerated by Russia, whereas the Saudis and Qataris have the support of the U.S. Regarding Turkey, things are more complicated. Even if ties with Russia are strengthening, they are not quite based on mutual trust yet. Turkish-American relations, meanwhile, have suffered greatly from the recent Gülenist coup attempt. 

Sometimes it is not just realpolitik, nor pure idealism in foreign policy, that dictates the conduct of a state. Sometimes history itself plays a role. Turkey is currently situated on one of the crossroads of history, which is why perhaps all national political forces in Turkey should stick to the vision depicted by the National Oath of the 1920s.

The Republic of Turkey will either broaden its influence or lose it completely. That is why Mosul and Aleppo are critical, and that is also why President Erdoğan’s historical references to the National Oath are vital.