Turkish former president Turgut Özal proposed that Turkey could annex Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the first Gulf War and govern the territory under a form of confederalism, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani revealed in his latest published memoirs.
Özal raised the matter in 1991 and held discussions with the two most prominent Iraqi Kurdish leaders of the time, Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, Paul Iddon wrote for the New Arab.
Up until this time, Turkey’s policy was one of denial of the Kurdish identity. Many Turkish political commentators and politicians were shocked at the very fact that talks with Kurdish leaders were being held.
Iddon quoted Murat Tezcur, a professor at the University of Central Florida, as saying it was well known that “Özal thought outside the box regarding the Kurdish question after he became president in 1989” and that he saw an opportunity after the first Gulf War to remake the region, hence his move to contact the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders.
However, he said, “Özal faced stiff resistance from Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel (1991-1993) and Turkish military bureaucracy while pursuing an alternative approach to the Kurdish question” since “they preferred to have Saddam remain in power.”
Cengiz Çandar, a respected Turkish analyst who was President Özal’s special advisor on foreign policy at that time, told the New Arab that denialism was Turkey’s state ideology during this period.
“Therefore, what Özal suggested to Barzani, in fact, was a revolutionary step for Turkey itself. What he had in mind, in the case of a breakup of Iraq, was not to let anybody other than Turkey fill the void in the north of the country,” he said. “He thought in such a case he could extend Turkey’s influence only through cooperation with the Kurds and to achieve that goal, autonomy under Turkey’s suzerainty would be acceptable for Ankara.”
Özal, himself half-Kurdish, served as Turkey’s prime minister from 1983 to 1989 as the leader of the Motherland Party (ANAP) and was elected president in 1989. His efforts to solve the Kurdish issue by political means were abruptly cut short when Özal died of a heart attack as he pursued a peace process in 1993. His death is viewed by many, including his family, as suspicious. Some reports say high levels of poison were found when his body was exhumed in 2012.
Despite the reaction of the Turkish military and Kemalist hawks in the Turkish state to Özal’s overtures to the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, the idea of Turkey annexing parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, including Mosul, has been a frequent theme among Turkish nationalist leaders, and has been especially promoted by the present coalition government of the Islamic-nationalist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Speaking at the International Law Congress in 2016 Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invoked an early 20th century document which claims Mosul as part of Turkey’s soil. In Mosul “a history lies for us. If the gentlemen desire so, let them read the Misak-ı Milli (National Oath) and understand what the place means to us,” Erdoğan declared.
Erdoğan was referring to the last document of the former Ottoman parliament, a 1920 pact that designates the northern Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul as parts of Turkey. Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal said of the Misak-ı Milli, “It is the nation’s iron fist that writes the Nation’s Oath, which is the main principle of our independence to the annals of history.”
The document sets out borders of Turkey which expand far beyond the country’s current internationally recognised frontiers to include Thessaloniki, Kirkuk, Mosul and Aleppo. In recent years, Erdoğan has taken up the Misak-ı Milli as his stated mission.