Is Ankara really irredentist now?

Is Ankara really irredentist now?

Dictionaries define “irredentist” as “a person advocating the restoration to their country of any territory formerly belonging to it.” What makes this relevant to us today is that there are some political commentators who suggest that Ankara has lately become “irredentist.” Are they right?

The irredentism in question is related to Syria and Iraq, especially the latter. Turkey has been involved in the Syrian civil war quite directly since early August, both with its own forces and with the support it gives to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), pushing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdish PYD forces away from its territory. Moreover, Ankara has been insistent in joining the battle to save Mosul from ISIL, despite being unwelcomed by the Iraqi government in Baghdad. 

Normally, Turkey has quite legitimate reasons for its involvements in both neighboring countries. ISIL and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), both of which threaten Turkey with brutal terror attacks, control territories in these nations that lie right on the Turkish border. Moreover, Turkey, which already harbors more than three million refugees from Syria and Iraq, is rightly worried about the flow of more refugees. Creating “safe havens” inside Iraq and Syria, to harbor potential refugees there, would be a more and legal right. 

However, recent statements by President Tayyip Erdoğan, which were amplified by a media empire that is already dedicated to nothing other than amplifying the points made by our president, complicated the scene. While defending Turkey’s intention to engage deeper in Iraq, Erdoğan referred to a century-old yet ever-touchy concept: The Misak-ı Milli, or “National Oath.” 

This was a declaration made by the last Ottoman Parliament in 1920, in order to protect the Ottoman borders as they were at the very end of World War I. It defined a country that is slightly larger than today’s Turkey, with more territories in the Balkans and Iraq. 

Mosul, in particular, was a key element in the “National Oath” that Turks were determined to keep. But the gap between the ideal and the reality worked against the newly founded Turkish Republic, and Mosul was unwillingly left to the British-dominated Iraq in 1925.

If I were an advisor to our president, (which must be a very difficult job that I have honestly never fancied), I would urge him not to bring the National Oath element into discussions about Mosul. It is not going to help Turkey in any sensible way. It is not an international agreement on which we can claim any right. It is merely a national aspiration that did not fully work. It will, in fact, only help create worries about “Turkish imperialism,” blurring the legitimate arguments we already have. 

But we must all note something: The primary audience of our president is not other capitals, the international media, or Turkey’s foreign policy wonks. No, his primary audience is his voter base. And within that base, which can broadly be called the “Turkish right,” nationalism and nationalist sentiments about the National Oath always sell. 

You should note something else: Soon there will elections in Turkey about the “presidential system.” (Guess who wants to bring that system, and thus make himself an all-powerful president?) Stoking nationalist emotions in this context is a smart thing to do.

Based on all that, here is my humble advice to all foreign governments, especially the one in Bagdad, and all other foreign obverses of Turkey: Don’t worry too much about Ankara’s irredentist rhetoric. It is really more about domestic consumption than international use.