Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1398, (21 - 27 June 2018)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1398, (21 - 27 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s new borders?

The Treaty of Lausanne amputated large parts of the former Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I, raising the question of what will happen when it expires in 2023, writes Nehal Al-Ashkar

After the end of the Turkish dream of joining the European Union when Turkey’s allies abandoned it to its struggle of restoring the former Ottoman Empire alone, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hope now is to gather the Turkish people around a new dream that could prolong his hold on power.

He has been searching for justifications for Turkey to inherit the legacy of the former Ottoman Empire, aiming to base such calls on international law.

The international community has started to pay more attention to Turkey’s efforts, notably with regard to the expiry of the Treaty of Lausanne that was signed after the end of World War I. In accordance with international law, any treaty expires after 100 years, and Erdogan is aiming to link the expiration of this treaty in 2023 to the present situation in Mosul in northern Iraq as well as to Raqqa and Afrin in Syria.

The Turks have never forgotten the Treaty of Lausanne, as this reduced the modern Turkish state and forced it to give up large tracts of the former Ottoman Empire. Erdogan thus conveyed a historical and political message to the outside world during his latest meeting with the Turkish mukhtars, or provincial governors, about Turkey’s interest in reversing the stipulations of the treaty and restoring the former status quo.

The 100-year-old treaty will expire in 2023, and Turkey itself will enter a new era by drilling for oil and digging a new channel connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara as a prelude to collecting fees from passing ships. When the Treaty of Lausanne ends, will Turkey also aim to become a new Ottoman Empire in the wider region?

For author Amr Ammar in his book about the end of World War I, The Fall of the Civilian Occupation, “World War I of 1914 to 1918 represented an important historical stage in the history of Arabism. During the war, the Great Arab Revolt broke out against the Ottoman Empire. In the end, the fall of the Empire resulted in major determinants for the history of the Arabs, paving the way for the later conflicts in the region.”

The Ottoman Empire was brought to its knees by a first treaty signed in 1920 that was the last nail in a crumbling coffin. The victorious allies took over Turkish territory, and the Middle East was divided up among them. However, on 19 October 1923, the new Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forced the allies to abandon the first treaty and to sign the Treaty of Lausanne instead that allowed the new Turkish Republic to retain more of the empire’s former territory and appease it for the recognition of French rule in Syria.

Some northern areas of Syria saw Russian overflights during the Russian military intervention in Syria after October 2015, as if Russian President Vladimir Putin had wanted to remind Erdogan of Syria’s right to the northern Hatay Province that was once part of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s ambitions in Syria remain those of the heir to the Ottoman Empire in the conflict, especially in Aleppo, an historic city whose walls are imbued with lost Ottoman glory.

According to Mohamed Abdel-Kader Khalil, an Egyptian expert on Turkish affairs, “Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East is linked to the use of Turkish military capabilities in the region. This has been reflected in Turkish military concentrations on the borders with Iraq and Syria and in its involvement in the Red Sea through an agreement on the Sudanese island of Sawken as well as the Turkish military intervention in the northern Syrian city of Afrin.”

 “These military interventions have come against the backdrop of a previous Turkish intervention in northern Iraq, with the intention of employing combat exercises in several regional countries and signing military agreements with Arab and African countries. The idea is to expand Turkish relations abroad to promote military exports, maximise economic returns and increase regional influence based on hard power,” he said.

Treaty of Lausanne 1923

RESTORING THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE: “Erdogan’s aggressive nationalism is now spilling over Turkey’s borders and is aiming at grabbing land in Greece and Iraq,” Khalil said.

“At first glance, the maps of Turkey now appearing on Turkish TV resemble similar irredentist maps put out by proponents of a greater Greece, a greater Macedonia, a greater Bulgaria, a greater Armenia, a greater Azerbaijan, and a greater Syria. That is to say, they aren’t maps of the old Ottoman Empire, which was substantially larger, or the entire Muslim or Turkic world. They are maps of Turkey, just bigger,” he added.

 “Turkey’s hard power has been emphasised in its foreign policy in the context of regional operations and linked to Turkish official statements in 2017. There is a desire to regain control of areas that were once part of the former Ottoman Empire.”

Khalil added that “Turkey has long been associated with the idea that many areas in the Middle East or Central Asia suffer from conflicts because of their isolation from the Turkish state. The latter has reserved the right to intervene in the region not out of strategic interests alone, but also based on historical considerations.”

“In Syria, Erdogan has warned the parties that want to establish a separate state. In a speech during a meeting of Turkish mukhtars in Ankara, he said that efforts to establish a ‘terrorist belt’ in northern Syria were taking place within the borders of the Turkish National Charter adopted by the country’s parliament in 1920 and giving it the right to participate in the self-determination of areas beyond its geographical borders. This was because areas such as Aleppo and Kirkuk and some territory in Greece and Bulgaria had been part of the Ottoman Empire, and there was a feeling that this could not be ignored.”

The Treaty of Lausanne was signed with the victorious allies of World War I, among them the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Italy. Britain took unjust and painful actions against the Ottoman Empire, and the Muslim caliphate was abolished and the last caliph and his family forced into exile. The new Turkish Republic was declared to be secular, and Turkey was prevented from prospecting for oil in the Bosporus, considered a link between the Black Sea and the Sea of ​​Marmara and an international corridor.

When the 100-year-old treaty expires, Erdogan’s comments will take on a new meaning, however. Turkey hopes to enter a new era during which it will start drilling for oil in the Bosporus and make clear the new relationship between Turkey and the West.

According to Khalil, “this historical dimension also shaped Turkey’s position on the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan last year. The Turkish National Security Council met last September and said that the Kurdish referendum was unconstitutional and that Ankara had the right to defend its historical interests in bilateral and international agreements.”

 “A spokesman for the government pointed to Ankara’s historical rights arising from bilateral and international agreements and referred to the Treaty of Lausanne and agreements made between Turkey and Iraq in 1946 and 1983. Turkey has taken all the measures it can to frustrate Kurdish independence in Iraq, and the statements of Turkish leaders over previous decades show that Turkey will not accept the division of the Iraqi state” if this affects its interests, Khalil said.


REVENGE FOR LAUSANNE: The Kurds, split between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey after World War I, rejected the Treaty of Lausanne because it denied them the right to establish an independent state.

With the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan nearly a century later, there may have been an element of vengeance for the Treaty, which many Kurds consider took away their rights.

According to research published by the Rawbet Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, an NGO, there is much in common between the Nanjing Treaty with Imperial China and the later Treaty of Lausanne. In the earlier case, Britain invaded China in 1839 as part of the 19th-century Opium Wars, intervening directly in China’s economic and political affairs. One of Britain’s most important objectives was the occupation of Hong Kong, an island off the coast of southeastern China.

By the Nanjing Treaty China gave up Hong Kong to Britain, and the new British colony later flourished becoming a trading centre for the whole of southern China. Britain later acquired a 99-year lease on parts of mainland China bordering Hong Kong. In September 1984, the British and Chinese signed an agreement to return the island to China in 1997 if China pledged to maintain Hong Kong’s capitalist system.

In July 1997, Hong Kong was officially handed back to China in a ceremony attended by Chinese and British dignitaries. Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Tung Chee Hwa, introduced a new policy based on the concept of “one country, two systems” in which Hong Kong would remain a major capitalist centre in Asia.

In the case of the Treaty of Lausanne, the Ottoman Empire relinquished vast territories that included Egypt, Sudan, Syria and parts of Europe, agreed the demarcation of the borders between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, and led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic led by Ataturk and the proclamation of the abolition of the Islamic caliphate.

Now that the treaty is nearing its end, a similar arrangement could take place as earlier happened in the case of Hong Kong, meaning a revision of its stipulations. In October 2016, Erdogan called for the amendment of the treaty coinciding with the publication of Turkish documents on an agreement signed between Turkey and the British Mandate authorities in Iraq after World War I apparently allowing the Turkish army to intervene to protect Turkmen in the city of Mosul that had now been attached to the new state of Iraq.

While the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq is fleeting, it can easily be reactivated amid Ankara’s talk of rooting its presence in the area, constantly monitoring the situation in Mosul, and refusing to vacate the military camp of Bashiqa. There has also been talk of a Turkish-Russian-Iranian consensus on Ankara’s control over Mosul in return for a commitment not to claim historical rights in Aleppo and to leave Syria under Russian control. Turkey would also like to control Kirkuk after overcoming the obstacles of the Kurds and the US, which has rejected any revision of the status quo.

Any revision of the Treaty of Lausanne may thus be attractive to both Turkey and Russia, giving it greater impetus and possibly also causing additional confrontation between Russia and the Europeans. At the same time, Moscow will make sure that any Turkish actions designed to revise the treaty are limited and that the Turks do not aim at any restoration of the former Ottoman Empire.

The Turkish approach reflects aspirations that have long been expressed by Turkish officials, freeing the country to intervene further in northern Iraq on the basis not only of current economic and political interests but also of historical rights claimed particularly with regard to Mosul but also with regard to the rights of Turkmen in Kirkuk.

Erdogan may be pressing the issues with a view to winning the upcoming elections in Turkey. However, the question remains of how Turkey will react after the expiration of the Treaty of Lausanne in 2023 and whether Erdogan will continue to press his country’s historical claims in the region.

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