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Turkey - Neo Ottoman Empire

It seems that Turkey has set the ambitious goal of becoming the leader of the Muslim world, with foreign policies frequently referred to as neo-Ottomanism, with a stronger emphasis on grandeur, authoritarianism, regional activism and religious influence. Returning Turkey to the glories of its Ottoman past was a common theme of Erdogan and his ruling AK Party. Within the party “there is a very popular term, 'medeniyetcilik,’ which means civilizations, regarding the golden age of Islam. They are trying to create an image that Islamic civilization is on the rise again. Naturally, Turks are the vanguard people of this rebirth.

Drawing on images of the Ottoman past, the Turkish military has embraced the idea of becoming a "security provider" for a broader economic and political architecture of states stretching from Central Asia to the Balkans. The new foreign policy initiatives and the operational concepts discussed in the White Paper-Defense 1998 indicate that Turkish strategists have rejected a return to isolationism and a defensive position within the wider region. However, the secondary implications of the ambitious military modernization program undertaken to provide Ankara with the means to pursue this `neo-Ottoman' agenda have yet to be fully understood.

The Islamist neo-Ottoman strategy is in great contrast to the secular Kemalist isolationist model of "fortress Turkey". Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, by disavowing all claims to former Ottoman possessions after the Great War, took the first important step toward the establishment of a secular, civic nationalism; that is, he declared that republican Turkey comprised one nation - the Turks - within one territorial boundary. For this reason Atatürk was loath to recognize the special position of Turks living outside the Turkish republic lest a recrudescence of the “myth” of ethnic nationalism cause the new Turkish republic to be accused of neo-Ottoman imperialism.

By 2010 Turkish policy was a mix of "traditional Western" orientation, attitudes and interests, and two new elements, linked with new operational philosophies: "zero conflicts" and "neo-Ottomanism." The traditional still represented the core of Turkish foreign policy, and was centered on cooperation and integration with the West. Its core is NATO, the customs union with the EU, and most significantly, the EU accession effort. This all began with the Ottoman effort to emulate the European great powers, and was propelled powerfully forward by Ataturk. Nevertheless the country was on the sidelines in World War II. It was only the threat of the USSR, and the dominance (and outstretched hand) of the US, that led to the "Turkey we know": tough combat partner in Korea, major NATO ally, US anchor in the Middle East. Much of this continued.

The imagined revival of Ottoman Empire under the divine leadership of Erdogan was poised to avenge 300 years of Western/Christian domination in former Ottoman lands and their domestic partners, Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Communists and Democrats.

The idea of Turkey using its cultural and religious links to the Middle East to the advantage of both Turkish interests and regional stability is not new with the AKP, but has been given much more priority by it, in part because of the Islamic orientation of much of the party, including leaders Erdogan, Gul, and Davutoglu. Moreover, the AKP's constant harping on its unique understanding of the region, and outreach to populations over the heads of conservative, pro-US governments, have led to accusations of "neo-Ottomanism." Rather than deny, Davutoglu has embraced this accusation.

Ahmet Davutoglu, then Turkish PM Erdogan's chief foreign policy advisor, gave a public lecture during Turkish President Abdullah Gul's four day state visit to Saudi Arabia 3-6 February 2009. Before an audience that appeared to include a high proportion of religious Saudis, Davutoglu staked out a large regional role for Turkey based on geography, history, politics, and culture, touching on Iran, the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Darfur (Darfur remained "Ottoman" until 1928, he claimed). Turkey is a "country of synthesis," he said, and a "test country" for global relations in the 21st century. He emphasized Turkey's democracy and future in the EU, but also noted that Turkey has one of the highest concentrations of mosques in any Muslim country. All of Turkey's identities are "compatible," he asserted.

Himself the grandson of an Ottoman soldier who fought in Gaza, Davutoglu summed up the Davutoglu/AKP philosophy in an extraordinary speech in Sarajevo at the "Ottoman Heritage and Muslim Communities in the Balkans Today" conference in October 2009. His thesis: the Balkans, Caucasus, and Middle East were all better off when under Ottoman control or influence; peace and progress prevailed. Alas the region has been ravaged by division and war ever since. He was too clever to explicitly blame all that on the imperialist western powers, but came close. However, now Turkey is back, ready to lead -- or even unite. Davutoglu: "We will re-establish this (Ottoman) Balkan". A key excerpt from the speech was: "The Ottoman era in the Balkans is a success story. Now it needs to come back."

New Turkey’s leaders are brandishing a form of “neo-Ottomanism.” There is the major Turkish desire to return Ottomanism to the Balkans once again, as proposed by Turkish attempts to court Kosovo with investments and advocacy – building an Ottoman-style mosque in the capital of Pristina. While it had been six years without construction work beginning on Pristina’s central mosque, Turkey’s new “assertive foreign policy aims to now build the mosque that will closely resemble the hundreds built across the Balkans under Turkish rule – only much larger. Also resonating is a sentence said by Erdogan when he visited Kosovo in 2013: “Turkey is Kosovo, and Kosovo is Turkey.”

Davutoglu's description of the Balkans as practically an "internal matter" for Turkey is telling. Ankara is determined to reassert its influence in the region, not least because it Turkey views the Balkans as in its immediate neighborhood.

While this speech was given in the Balkans, most of its impact is in the Middle East. Davutoglu's theory is that most of the regimes there are both undemocratic and illegitimate. Turkey, building on the alleged admiration among Middle Eastern populations for its economic success and power, and willing to stand up for the interests of the people, reaches over the regimes to the "Arab street." Turkey's excoriating the Israelis over Gaza, culminating in the insulting treatment of President Peres by Erdogan at Davos in 2009, illustrates this trend. To capitalize on its rapport with the people, and supposed diplomatic expertise and Ottoman experience, Turkey has thrown itself into a half-dozen conflicts as a mediator. This worked well with Iraq, and was quite successful in the Syrian-Israeli talks before Gaza. Turkey has also achieved some limited success on Lebanon and in bringing Saudi Arabia and Syria together. But this policy brings with it great frictions, not just with America and the Europeans but with many supposed beneficiaries of a return to Ottoman suzerainty. Furthermore, it has not achieved any single success of note.

Not all of the ex-Ottomans looked with fondness on their past under the Pashas, or yearn for Turkey's return. Reaction among many in the Balkans to Davutoglu's Sarejevo speech was quite strong. In the Middle East itself, the Arab street might applaud Turkey's populistic and essentially cost-free support for more radical elements, but it's not particularly appreciated by rulers (although Turkey seems to have made some progress with Syria, brokered a rapprochement between President Bashir and Saudi King Abdullah, and has had some role in resolving the Lebanon cabinet stalemate).

The greatest potential strategic problem for the USA, however, and the one that had some of the commentators howling, is the Turks neo-Ottoman posturing around the Middle East and Balkans. This "back to the past" attitude so clear in Davutoglu's Sarajevo speech, combined with the Turks' tendency to execute it through alliances with more Islamic or more worrisome local actors, constantly creates new problems.

Part of this is structural. Despite their success and relative power, the Turks really can't compete on equal terms with either the US or regional "leaders" (EU in the Balkans, Russia in the Caucasus/Black Sea, Saudis, Egyptians and even Iranians in the ME). With Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources, to cut themselves in on the action the Turks have to "cheat" by finding an underdog (this also plays to Erdogan's own worldview), a Siladjcic, Mish'al, or Ahmadinejad, who will be happy to have the Turks take up his cause. The Turks then attempt to ram through revisions to at least the reigning "Western" position to the favor of their guy. Given, again, the questioning of Western policy and motives by much of the Turkish public and the AKP, such an approach provides a relatively low cost and popular tool to demonstrate influence, power, and the "we're back" slogan.

Sooner or later, though, Turkey will have to produce results, take risks, commit real resources, and take hard decisions to augment a policy consisting mainly of popular slogans, ceaseless trips, and innumerable signatures on MOUs of little importance.

The Ba’ashiqa base, which appeared in the headlines following Baghdad’s outrage over Ankara’s decision to reinforce the base, is one of several front-line outposts built by Ankara in the 1990s as a part of its campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkish FOBs in places like Sulaymaniya, Bamerni, Zakho, Dohuk, and Kanimasi hold an unknown number of troops and intelligence officers who rotate on a regular basis.

In September 2016 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the country and the region by surprise by calling into question the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined modern Turkey’s borders. He declared Turkey had been blackmailed by foreign powers into giving up vast swaths of territory that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. It was seen a backdrop to a policy that tried to build domestic support for a more long-term presence, particularly in Syria, by pointing out, at allegedly past historical mistakes. Turkish forces were in Syria and at the Bashiqa base, close to the Iraqi city of Mosul. Mosul and Kirkuk were part of the former Ottoman lands, and part of the original design of the modern-day Turkey. Turkish nationalists blame the Lausanne treaty, and British diplomats, for the loss of Kirkuk and Mosul, which include substantial oil reserves.

By 2018 Turkey had three bases that had overseas strategic value. They had not yet reached the usual military significance, but they were being completed fast. One base, which had undertaken an important task in Qatar was reinforced at the brigade level, another base at the Anatolia Barracks in Somalia and lastly, the presence at Sudan’s Suakin Island. This trio formed an architectural triangle and both its internal area and position according to the neighboring seas; the Gulf, Red Sea and Hejaz were creating military and political value through the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey also operates active military bases in Iraq, Northern Cyprus (a self-declared state only recognized by Turkey, considered to be part of the Republic of Cyprus by the rest of the world,) and Syria.

 Neo Ottoman Empire

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Page last modified: 11-01-2019 16:47:15 ZULU