By David Davidian
History is usually neglected for the sake of instant perception of world events. It takes more than a New York minute to understand that continued hinting of an American isolationist policy will allow Turkey to solidify its military presence in both northern Syria and Iraq. Even ignoring the perceived neo-Ottoman outlook by Turkey's current ruling party, AKP, Turkish foreign policy and engagement have not changed for almost a century. It plays like the game of Go. Turkey used to claim its incursions into Iraq were based on hot pursuit of PKK Kurds; today those rules have changed as Turkish forces stationed outside of Mosul, Iraq are demanding to be included in its liberation. Regarding rules, Syria is a sovereign state and one which Turkey invaded. Both these military incursions now represent a strategic fait accompli. Why might this be?
As far back as the 1920s, Turkey sought to increase its influence either by land acquisition or agreements made in smoke-filled rooms. Turkey's lead negotiator Ismet Inonu's 1922-23 performance at the Treaty of Lausanne was an act to behold: Ottoman Turkey was on the losing side of WWI, exterminated and plundered its Armenian citizens, yet came out unscathed and renovated itself into the Republic of Turkey. The founder of the Republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's outward appearance of being an anti-imperialist so impressed Vladimir Lenin that Russian Bolsheviks shipped gold to Ataturk's forces who were in the process of “cleaning up” what remained of Anatolian Christians. Turkey even wrestled sovereignty over the smaller Mt. Ararat in a land swap with Iran at the 1932 Tehran Convention. Ironically, three of the four 1932 land swaps were in favor of Iran.
During the rise of Ataturk, the 1920 Turkish National Covenant maps included the province of Mosul and other areas near where the Turkish military just happens to be positioned or stationed nearby today. Based on the 1926 Ankara Agreement, the Republic of Turkey dropped its demand for the province of Mosul from the British. This British mandate covered Iraq and much of the Middle East. Some Turkish historians report the 1920 claims includes areas as far apart as Bosnia, Nagorno-Karabakh (between Armenia and Azerbaijan), Varna (Bulgaria), Crimea, Cyprus, and Georgia's Batumi. Turkish President Erdogan added to this list much of the Greek Aegean, however outrageous – or not.
The next time the region appeared in opportunistic flux was in the late 1930s when the world was on the brink of WWII. Turkey had always demanded the French-administered, and mainly Arab populated, Mediterranean coastal province of Alexandretta, where today one finds the Turkish resort of Antalya. It was at the southern tip of this province where the Turks shot down the Russian SU-24 jet last year. Anti-Nazi powers juggled for political allies and jockeyed for influence anywhere they could. Through creative demographics, with Turkish soldiers and police stationed throughout Alexandretta, this province “voted” (including Turkish soldiers, police, expats, imported bodies, etc.) for annexation with Turkey. The French relinquished the region of Alexandretta (a pseudo-republic by then) to Turkey in 1939 with assurances by Turkey that it would not enter WWII on the side of Nazi Germany. Subsequently, however, Turkey signed a friendship treaty (Türkisch-Deutscher Freundschaftsvertrag) with the Nazis in 1941. Turkey's so-called neutral position during WWII so angered the Allied powers that plans for an invasion of Turkey were close to being executed. Among other things, Turkey supplied the majority of Germany's chrome and other essential material aiding the Nazi war effort. Regardless, Turkey exited WWII with a larger landmass and eventually joined NATO in 1952. Excuses abound, but only two decades later, in 1973, Turkish armed forces invaded and occupied about 40% of the Republic of Cyprus. While not annexed outright, Turkish occupation continues to this day and influences events throughout this island republic.
The Assad and Erdogan families used to vacation together. However, this ended as the Arab Spring began. Turkey clearly supported anti-Assad forces, with reports of Erdogan's family profiting from stolen Syrian oil sold by ISIS or related groups. Turkey allowed many foreign fighters through its southern border into Syria as well as supported them materially.
On October 6 and 7 of 2015, Turkish military helicopters violated Armenian airspace, claiming bad weather caused navigational errors. NATO is still “investigating” this action, which was clearly designed to send a message to the Russians, whose activities in Syria were not in line with those of Turkey. What if Armenians had retaliated? What if Russians retaliated?
A few months back, [unofficial] Turkey made it known that based on their interpretation of 1921 Treaties of Kars and Moscow, the major Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi will revert to Turkish jurisdiction in 2021. Based on this 1921 treaty, the Bolsheviks gave to Turkey land inhabited by Armenians and to a lesser extent Georgians, and Turkey gained an approximate 15km border with a newly-Azerbaijani administered exclave of Nakhichevan.
If the Turkish past is today's prologue, the fait accompli across northern Syria and Iraq is being etched in stone. As the forces that encouraged the removal of Assad and changed the regime in Iraq indicated they are in political retreat, not only was the power vacuum actively filled by Russia, but apparently Turkish forces are now fighting ISIS, whom they once actively supported, while keeping Kurdish forces disintegrated. Turkey has once again hedged its gamble. One of Turkey's goals is to keep the Kurds from controlling a continuous land mass on both sides of the Euphrates River south of the Turkish border. History tells us there is no reason not to expect a permanent Turkish presence across parts of northern Syria and Iraq. If US president-elect Trump engages in a continued isolationist policy after his claim of wanting to defeat ISIS, a Turkish presence will be permanent along a deep zone south of its border from the Mediterranean into the Kurdish mountains of Iraq.
Military planners and diplomats may view Turkey's past hundred years as a fine example of successful policy execution. The same was said about the 1938 Munich Agreement, which permitted Nazi Germany's annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia. Today it is a metaphor used when undue territorial claims have been conceded.
David Davidian is an Adjunct Lecturer at the American University of Armenia. He has spent over a decade in technical intelligence analysis at major high technology firms.