Following the decision of US President Trump to withdraw forces from Syria, I penned an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, Canada's leading daily.
Around 100 years ago, the Arab Middle East was carved into spheres of influence by Britain and France, the imperial powers of the day. In the period after the First World War, the only country strong enough to challenge the two was the United States – but while it managed to insist that League of Nations mandates be established for Syria, Palestine and Iraq, the United States declined to join the League itself, turning instead toward isolationism. Washington declined to take control of a mandate, and allowed the colonial powers to dominate the region. It wouldn’t be until after the Second World War that the United States would assert its influence in the Middle East, and it carried that out through regional alliances with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and, until 1979, Iran.
Looking at history is instructive, not just to reaffirm that this is all in the past now, and even more so after Donald Trump’s surprise and abrupt decision to send the 2,000 U.S. special forces stationed in Syria home because he felt the war against the Islamic State was complete. But it also provides the context that actually, this is well-charted territory. By exiting the country, the United States is effectively allowing Syria to be divided up again, but this time by the region’s new non-Arab imperialists – namely Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Iran has a long imperial history dating back to the Achaemenid Empire. Even after the demise of the Qajar dynasty and the ascendancy of the Pahlavi dynasty of the late Shah, Iran considered itself to be a regional superpower. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic set up regional proxies in places such as Lebanon – where Iran funds the powerful military and political force Hezbollah, through which the regime props up the Assad government – and Yemen, where Iran arms the Houthi rebels contributing to the prolonging of the country’s bloody civil war. Tehran also wields considerable influence over Iraq through its links with Shia militias and politicians, while Iran’s Quds Force, an elite branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is believed to be active in Syria, along with an array of Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting for the Assad regime. Iran has also set up military bases in Syria to entrench its position permanently.
U.S. forces were a check on Iranian influence in Syria. Tehran will now relish the opportunity to expand its influence in Syria and beyond.
Turkey is also looking upon that power vacuum with interest. Turkish politicians, most especially the country’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seek to emulate their imperial Ottoman forefathers. Not only does Turkey dominate the Kurdistan Region of Iraq economically and politically, but the government has also established military bases in Qatar and Somalia while leasing an island from Sudanlocated strategically on the Red Sea, which Turkey claims to be developing into a tourist hub.
In the case of Syria, Turkey has launched two interventions. The first was the 2016-17 Operation Euphrates Shield, in which Turkish special forces supported the Free Syrian Army in its march to capture the northern Syrian city of al-Bab. The second intervention took place earlier this year when the Free Syrian Army, again backed by Turkey, invaded and took control of the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin. In both incidents, the primary foe was the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey claims is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist war against the Turkish state since the 1980s. The YPG, however, is also the dominant party within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the most significant partner on the ground of the international coalition against the Islamic State.
Despite Mr. Trump’s insistence that the Islamic State is defeated, the vast majority of experts beg to differ. Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw forces effectively means that the largely Kurdish SDF and YPG are being abandoned and left to the mercy of Ankara, which just last week threatened to launch another attack against those groups. If Turkey follows through on its threat – which is now a very real possibility – it will destroy the only effective indigenous force against the Islamic State and cement Turkey’s influence in Syria and the region.
And then there’s Russia. After 1917′s October Revolution, Russia’s Bolshevik leaders ended their country’s disastrous role in the First World War and forfeited any real say in the peace conferences that followed. However, a century later, Russia has managed to cement its foothold in the Middle East to an extent greater than even the heyday of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s steadfast support of the Assad regime, through measures such as prolonged military investment, has paid off. Moscow is now the indispensable arbiter in the future of Syria and has managed to win permanent influence in the region – and that only looks set to increase.
Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria enables two regional non-Arab states, with the support of Russia, to dominate Syria and the Middle East. So say goodbye to Uncle Sam – and hello to the new imperials.
This article first appeared on 21 December 2018 in The Globe and Mailand can be found here
Although the term “Neo-Ottomanism” actually pre-dates the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the phrase has often been used to describe Turkish foreign policy under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. However, not only is the term widely used, it is also under defined and, as a consequence, interpreted in many different ways.
For some, Neo-Ottomanism is a blanket term for Turkey’s greater involvement in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans, areas where the Ottoman Empire once occupied. This could include both diplomatic ties and economic relations. For others, Neo-Ottomanism is a more specific policy of Ankara’s, especially under Erdogan and the AKP, to not only re-engage with the Middle East, but to also position itself as a multi-regional actor rather than being part of Europe. This is in contrast to Turkey’s traditional Kemalist foreign policy which considered itself part of the West. Although fewer in number, some go as far as to define Neo-Ottomanism as an attempt by Turkey to dominate neighbouring states and expand its territory beyond the international barriers stipulated in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
But please allow me to add my thoughts on this subject and define how I understand Neo-Ottomanism. For the sake of clarity, and no doubt to the chagrin of you international relations theorists out there, I will do my best to limit my social science jargon unless absolutely necessary. I’ll save that for an academic article which I hope to write one day in the not too distant future. As always, feel free to email me your thoughts.
Imagine that you have been invited to visit Iraqi Kurdistan. You find yourself staying in Erbil, the KRG’s capital. You spend the night in a hotel which is Turkish owned. In the morning, you drink a cup of tea which is a Turkish brand. You go for a walk and notice that the roads were built by a Turkish construction firm. You enter a shopping mall which was also built by a Turkish company and perhaps owned, at least partly, by a Turkish firm. The shops inside the mall are Turkish chain outlets selling Turkish products. Even the food court consists of Turkish franchisees. And I haven’t even mentioned Turkish schools, universities or hospitals yet.
If one were to replace the word “Turkish” in the above paragraph with “American” or “British”, or nowadays increasingly “Chinese”, some would not hesitate to label such influence an example of neo-colonialism. I see no reason why this term cannot be applied to Turkey. Indeed, it can. And in this case, Neo-Ottomanism is the appropriate word. And let us not forget, Turkey often legitimatises its overwhelming influence in such places because of its presence of these countries during Ottoman times.
The above is how I define the central core of Neo-Ottomanism. In addition to Iraqi Kurdistan, a similar scenario is taking shape in Afrin, Syria, which was recently captured by Turkish supported forces. It is also taking place in the other area of northern Syria which Turkey captured after Operation Euphrates Shield which ended in March 2017. You might even want to include Northern Cyprus too, but you would have to concede that this predated the AKP by almost three decades and has a different historical context and military dynamic. Azerbaijan could also be included in this central core of Neo-Ottomanism, although to a much lesser extent mainly because of continued Russian influence.
Then there is a second layer, the inner core, of Neo-Ottomanism. By this I mean areas which are slighter further away from Turkey, but where Ankara is seeking to exert influence based on both military power, trade relations and cultural capital. Again, this attempt to exert influence is justified by Turkish politicians, President Erdogan included, because of Turkey’s imperial past. Specifically, I am referring to Sudan and Qatar. In December 2017, it was announced that Sudan had agreed to lease Suakin Island, located strategically on the Red Sea, to Turkey. In addition to the historical significance of the port Island during the Ottoman period, Turkey sees this as an opportunity to redevelop the island as a port, a naval dock (civilian and military), and to restore its ancient ruins. The deal represents the strengthening of Turkish-Sudanese ties in which Turkey is by far the dominant force and will give Turkey a long-term presence in the country. Meanwhile in November 2017, Turkey opened a military base in Qatar just as the energy rich Gulf Arab island was being isolated and boycotted by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt for its apparent support for the Muslim Brotherhood and sympathies with Iran. Turkey saw the crisis as a means of currying favour with Doha and benefitting from the now almost monopolised purchases of Turkish goods and services. This together with a military base, translates to unprecedented influence.
Finally, there is the third layer, or outer core, of Neo-Ottomanism in which Turkey seeks a leadership role in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. In addition to having important military, commercial and cultural ties with its Muslim neighbours, Turkey again justifies its leadership role among the Muslim world based on its Ottoman legacy. After all, wasn’t the most recent and greatest Islamic empire that of the Ottomans? Sure, the Koran was written in Arabic and the world’s most populated Muslim countries are in southeast Asia, but, using a mix of Turkish Islamist tropes and ultra-nationalist thought, the role of the Turk is to be the warrior of Islam, those who fight to defend the faith. Wasn’t that what President Erdogan was essentially doing when he convened the OIC in in December 2017 to condemn Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - leading the defence of Muslim holy sites against foreign onslaught and occupation? Sites which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Regardless, Neo-Ottomanism is an aspirational policy. There are many drawbacks, not least the risk of overreach, regional opposition, and having to come to pragmatic arrangements with greater powers such as China and Russia. However, the above is the basis of how I consider and define Neo-Ottomanism, the central pillar and driver of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.
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