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.
I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Ezgi Basaran’s impressive new book Frontline Turkey: The Conflict at the Heart of the Middle East. In the book’s preface, Basaran, a Turkish former newspaper editor and columnist, reflects that if she had been asked a few years ago to describe herself in three words she would have chosen “woman, journalist and Istanbulite”. But following the closure of her newspaper, the continued repression of the media, and her new position at the University of Oxford, Basaran bemoans that no longer is she either a journalist or an Istanbulite.
But I say once and Istanbulite, always an Istanbulite. And replacing journalist for academic could be a lot worse. But that’s not really her point. The sad reality is that top quality journalists and academics are quickly becoming endangered species in Turkey. They are leaving for the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and other parts of Europe. The world is getting enriched by Turkey’s best and brightest while Turkey is getting poorer.
Reading Basaran’s book has made me think on my own views on the subject:
One of the great taboos of Turkish politics remains the Kurdish question. Examining the issue too deeply is a sure-fire way for journalists or academics to find themselves either jobless or doing time in the slammer. This despite the “opening” under Erdogan’s AKP government and the “solution process” between Turkey and the PKK.
The Kurdish issue needs to be part of the public debate in Turkey. The Kurdish question lies in the heart of Turkey’s security, democratization and foreign policies. In other words, it effects everyone. The failure of the peace process in 2015, which led to violence that killed hundreds and rendered hundreds of thousands displaced in the southeast of the country, had a profound effect on Turkey’s international trajectory, especially after the breakdown of the Syrian state.
As the uprisings against the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad descended into civil war, Turkey found itself with an increasing refugee crisis and an unpresented security threat right by its border. By around 2015 there were three major security threats emanating from Syria; Kurdish PKK affiliated organs such as the YPG which were in the process of carving out a piece of territory to the north of Syria in what they called Rojava, the rise of the so-called Islamic State who were creating an a militantly anti-Western Taliban style regime in Syria and Iraq, and, not least, the Assad-regime itself which Ankara remained adamant was the primary cause of Syria’s problems. Don’t forget, the situation was critical. Between 2011 and 2017, there were 87 terrorist attacks which left 956 people dead. These incidents were blamed on either Islamic State or affiliates of the PKK.
With three significant enemies along its immediate border, Ankara needed to think strategically and pragmatically. Surely, Turkey needed to avoid having to deal all three threats simultaneously? An effective policy would be for Turkey to identify a primary threat and focus on eradicating this one enemy. To do so would mean, at least in the short-term, deprioritising the others. In other words, Turkey had a choice of enemies. Who was Turkey’s real enemy, Islamic State, the PKK or Assad?
At first, Turkey didn’t make a choice and that was part of the problem. It wasn’t until the end of 2016 that Ankara finally made a decision. Sponsored by the PKK, it was decided that Syria’s Kurds were Tukey’s main security threat. Turkey subsequently launched Operation Euphrates Shield and a year later Operation Olive Branch to help the Free Syrian Army make inroads against Kurdish positions in the north of Syria. Sure, Turkish backed forces also fought against the Islamic State, but that was peripheral and not the point of the operations.
Ankara’s choice of the PKK and its Syrian affiliates as its main enemy contributed to the deterioration of ties with the US and Europe, angered that Turkey is fighting the strongest indigenous force against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Turkish-PKK peace process remains in tatters, the Assad regime is on the front foot, Iran has an ever-increasing presence in Syria, and Turkey is beholden to the overwhelming influence of Russia.
It needn’t have been this way. Had Turkey sought to revitalise the peace process with the Kurds, Turkey’s southeast would be calm, the prospect of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria would not have been a security problem, the domestic terror threat reduced, and Ankara would be on better terms with the US and West. It may even have given Turkey more leverage against Assad. But despite all this, I fear that the cost of the failed Turkish-PKK peace process is only beginning to be realised.
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