Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at Recep Tayyip Erdogan University at a ceremony heralding the start of the academic year. His speech is a giant embrace of Turks across the world. In essence, though, it is a speech about Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is accompanied by his wife Emine Erdogan, the speaker of the Grand National Assembly, Ismail Kahraman, and ministers. His speech on Saturday in Rize, on the Black Sea coast, is shared with the world through the presidency’s English translation. Erdogan is at the center of his universe. A universe that is expanding.
On Turkey’s eastern and southern borders war is raging. The elimination of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will leave space for various ethnic and religious groups to fight for territory and influence. Around Mosul gather soldiers of the Iraqi army, Shiite militias trained by Iran, Sunni fighters trained by Turks, as well as Kurds of Iraq, Syria and perhaps Turkey. Turkish troops near Mosul have prompted a sharp war of words between Baghdad and Ankara, with the Iraqi prime minister ordering them to leave and Erdogan responding that Haider al-Abadi should “know his place.”
Erdogan knows that whatever happens in Syria and Iraq will affect his country directly, yet Turkey is in danger of remaining an observer. He does not care that it was his policy in the first place that made his country part of the problem in Syria. Now, in a belated entry into the war against IS, he wants to prevent the Kurds, who were on the front line from the start, from making gains. On Thursday, Turkish bombers attacked Kurds to try to keep them from a strategic position in Syria – Kurds who happen to be allied both with the USA and Russia. Erdogan is afraid, also, of Iranian-trained Shiite militias near Turkey’s borders. Inside Turkey, a Kurdish separatist guerrilla campaign continues.
In the midst of this confusion, Erdogan heeds the call of history. “We are present in the history of Mosul,” he said, presenting himself as the city’s defender against unnamed forces. “And what is it they are doing now? They are plotting to grab Mosul from the people of Mosul and offer it to others. But we insist that in Mosul should live the people of Mosul. Who lives in Mosul? Mostly our Arab brothers and sisters. In addition to that, Turkmens, and a very small number of Kurds.” Then the Turkish president opened his wings. “Turkey has always embraced with open arms all the oppressed and victims, and never left its kinsmen alone,” he said. “We of course show respect for physical boundaries, but we cannot draw boundaries to our heart, nor do we allow it,” he declared. “Turkey cannot turn its back on Aleppo. Turkey cannot disregard its kinsmen in Western Thrace, Cyprus, Crimea and anywhere else.”
At the same time, Turkey’s prisons are filling with enemies – real, potential or imagined – its foreign policy seems improvised, and Erdogan questions the Lausanne Treaty, which has secured his country’s borders for nearly a century now. As the threats to Turkey grow, as he grows taller next to those he allows to stand next to him, Erdogan’s actions will continue to be both unpredictable and shortsighted.