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
I recently published an op-ed piece in Haaretz about antisemitism in Turkey which can be found here. This is the second such piece I have authored about antisemitism in Turkey, only this time I provide different examples and offer a more contemporary context.
Unfortunately, these pieces are just too easy to write. Conspiratorial notions of world Jewish power are not intimated in Turkey, they are overtly pronounced by public intellectuals and political figures especially by those who identify with the religious-nationalist and conservative camps (left wing antisemitism is also present albeit somewhat differently). As my recent article highlights, every time there is a political, economic or social crisis in Turkey, it almost goes without saying that there will be at least one public official or so-called intellectual who will point the finger at the Jews. Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed George Soros “the famous Hungarian Jew” for being the secret puppet master behind the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
The case of anti-Semitism in Turkey is a rather paradoxical phenomenon when you consider that the once thriving Jewish population of Turkey today barely stands at 20,000. Turkey, in other words, is one of those countries where there is a significant presence of antisemitism but with very few actual Semites. This is not unlike antisemitism in the contemporary Muslim world where conspiratorial notions of world Zionism are rife, but the Jewish population virtually nil. This of course stands in stark contrast to the antisemitism of Russia and Europe in the centuries leading up to World War II where the notion of world Jewish conspiracy was born.
When faced with accusations of antisemitism, Turkey’s political elite like to respond by declaring their affection towards Turkey’s small Jewish community and remind anyone who will listen that it was the Ottoman Empire which welcomed the Jews of Spain after they were expelled in 1492, forgetting that when Sultan Bayezid II commented of the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that “You venture to call Ferdinand [of Spain] a wise ruler…he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" In other words, the Ottoman Sultan had an economic motive for opening Turkey to Jews rather than a benevolent one.
Regardless, with a community that barely stands at 20,000 souls, less than 0.1% of the population, it shouldn’t be difficult for a country to have good communal relations with such a small minority, especially when one considers that the Jewish community is barely distinguishable by looks, language or nationality to the rest of the population and are law abiding, integrated and quiet. And still this tiny community has faced terrorist atrocities such as the 1986 Abu Nidal attack where Palestinian gunmen burst premises to slaughter 22 people while a service was taking place. There was also the 2003 Istanbul bombings in which two synagogues were bombed (including the Neve Shalom), this time by a home grown Turkish al-Qaeda faction which killed 23 people. Let’s not even get to threats against Jewish targets and violence and insults against individuals.
Still, the idea of a global pernicious Jewish conspiracy against Turkey remains as strong as ever, begging the question why do such notions continue to resonate within Turkish society, especially among ultra-nationalists and religious conservatives?
Leaving aside purely religiously inspired antisemitism, my answer to this perplexing question is that the Jewish scapegoat works in the Turkish context because of the of prevalence of religious-nationalism which emphasises that Turkey is predestined to be a both a great nation and the leader of the Islamic world. This is the view of leading cadres of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and also members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and also has roots in the thinking of the Milli Gorus (National Outlook) tradition from which leading members of the AKP, Erdogan included, emerged. This was an Islamically rooted political movement which emphasised that it is Turkey’s natural place to lead the Muslim world and that the Turks are the warriors of Islam. Therefore, it would follow on that just like it Ottoman forbearers Turkey will once again have a powerful position in the world and it is currently in the process of achieving this aim.
But if Turkey is predestined to be a leading world power, the question looms why has this still not been realised? What is holding Turkey back? It is here that the international Jewish conspiracy makes a fine answer which allows the government and its supporters to point towards an easy scapegoat and avoid the difficult (but more constructive) path of self-criticism and accountability. This is why international Jewry is blamed for anything from the Gezi protests and the current financial crisis to Kurdish nationalism. What a pity.
I have recently authored a full-length report about British-Turkish relations. Not to give too much away, I argue that although both British and Turkish politicians call bilateral ties a “strategic partnership”, in reality there is little that is strategic about the relationship. The report is due to be released in a couple of weeks so please watch this space.
However, let me address an aspect of British-Turkish relations which I allude to in my report, a factor for why there are closer ties between Britain and Turkey: Britain is not Germany! Allow me to explain what I mean.
After Germany, Britain is Turkey’s largest trading partner in Europe. Like Germany, Britain excels in the automotive, pharmaceutical, chemicals and arms industries. And just like Germany, Britain is a significant world economic power and there are thousands of UK companies which operate in Turkey and is an important source of foreign investment.
However, unlike Germany Britain does not link relations with Turkey with human rights or democratization (or even pay lip service to such lofty ideals). British policy makers prefer to voice concern about Turkey’s decent to authoritarianism, lack of freedom of expression and the erosion of checks and balances in private. Unlike their German counterparts, British officials seldom criticise Turkish policies or actions in public. This works for the Turkish government which is tired about hearing such criticism.
In contrast to Germany, Britain does not have a strong of a presence of members of the Gulen movement or the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This is important because the Turkish government considers followers of Fetullah Gulen, the Turkish preacher in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and accused of masterminding the July 2016 attempted coup, an existential challenge. The Turkish government remains in an all-out war against the movement and not only seeks to purge them within Turkish state organs and eradicate their presence in civil society, but Ankara also seeks the extradition of leading members who reside or fled abroad. This means their activities in Germany is a significant source of tension.
Similarly, the PKK which has waged an on and off separatist war against the Turkish state since the 1980s is considered by Ankara a significant challenge to the Turkish Republic. The current Turkish government is in no mood to negotiate with even moderate Kurds as evidenced by the arrests of members of the largely peaceful parliamentary Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Both the Gulen movement and the PKK activities in the UK, although present, are far less prolific than in Germany. Sure, there was a recent extradition request against a Gulen member which a British court rejected, but overall this is small fry compared to other European countries. In other words, while Turkey is seething because Germany’s insistence on due process and fairness when it comes to PKK and Gulenist activities, Britain gives Turkey much less cause for anger.
Britain is also different from Germany because of the make-up of citizens of Turkish origin. The British-Turkish population stands at around 500,000 which is certainly not an insignificant number. However, this is nowhere near the size of their German counterparts where the population of Turkish origin Germans is about 4 million or 5% of the total population. Unlike Germany two-thirds of British Turks are from Cyprus rather than Turkey proper. This is an important distinction because the Mediterranean island was a protectorate of the British Empire and then a crown colony for much of the previous century. This meant that the population who migrated to the UK were familiar with British customs and practices.
Although not perfect, the integration process of Turks in Britain was comparatively easier than Germany for numerous reasons that many scholars have already addressed. Also, the other Turks who migrated to the UK came during different periods. Some were intellectuals who fled the 1980 coup, others were Kurds seeking a better life away from the conflict in the Southeast. Others were students at British universities or businesspersons with a financial stake in Britain’s future prosperity.
So, when Turkish politicians such as President Erdogan say that Turks abroad should not assimilate and see Turks outside of Turkey as part of their jurisdiction, it strikes a chord with Berlin, but doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact in London.
However, the fact that Britain is not Germany is, as my report argues, not enough to cement a strategic partnership between Britain and Turkey. In fact, it is a weak basis for relations to develop into anything significant. Germany’s relations with Turkey has more depth, meaning and engages broader segments of Turkish society. In the long-term this will be beneficial to Germany as its relations with Turkey is one which is not just with the governing party.
As some of you might know, I have been spending the past year working on a research project about British-Turkish relations. My pretty lengthy report will be ready very shortly and published by the IPC, but before it will be released I will be speaking at several events in the UK (and another in Germany which I will detail later). Please feel free to attend but do make sure you book a place for the House of Commons event in London:
Strategic Partners or Drifting Apart? British-Turkish Relations in the Age of Brexit
27 November 6-7:30pm
Committee Room 11, House of Commons, London.
The Foreign Policy Center and the Istanbul Policy Center
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, London is looking to develop bilateral relations with non-EU countries. Turkey has been identified as an important trade and strategic partner. British-Turkish relations are worth $16 billion and there are 3,000 British companies, which operate in Turkey. Both are NATO members and are part of the Global Coalition against ISIS, while the UK has traditionally been an advocate for closer collaboration with Turkey.
However, there are significant challenges to closer relations. These include deepening concerns about Turkey’s human rights record and its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Turkey has been also been experiencing a significant economic downturn and is steadily rebuilding and strengthening its ties with Russia. While on the UK side opposition to Turkish membership of the EU formed a plank of the Leave campaign in the UK’s 2016 referendum, adding tension to bilateral relations.
The future of UK-Turkey relations poses a number of questions about the UK’s wider foreign policy objectives while it is in the process of leaving the EU. The UK will seek to strengthen its non-EU alliances but faces a major challenge trying to balance its strategic and economic priorities while advocating the protection of human rights and democracy.
This Foreign Policy Centre event, in partnership with the Istanbul Policy Center who are publishing a report examining British -Turkish relations, will bring together prominent scholars and policymakers to focus on the challenges, opportunities and pitfalls on the road ahead in British-Turkish relations.
British-Turkish relations after Brexit: Strategic partners?
28 November 5pm
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford: Seminar Room, European Studies Centre
European Studies Centre South East European Studies at Oxford
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, London is looking to develop bilateral relations with non-EU countries. Turkey was one of the countries identified as an important trade and strategic partner. British-Turkish relations are worth $16 billion and both countries have expressed the intension of increasing this figure to $20 billion. Both are NATO members and are part of the Global Coalition against ISIS. Just last year, a fighter jet deal was signed between Britain’s BAE Systems and the Turkish Aerospace Industries worth £100 million with the potential of additional contracts as the project develops. However, there are significant obstacles to closer relations. Turkey’s economy is in a downturn and there is heightened concern about Turkey’s human rights record and its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. How can Britain balance its strategic and economic priorities while advocating the protection of human rights, democracy and civil liberties in Turkey? And as Turkey's economic trajectory is far from positive, have economic relations already peaked?
A couple of days ago I had an op-ed published by Haaretzentitled, “Turkey: The One Place that Trump’s Bullying is Actually Working” and can be found here. In the piece, I argue that President Trump’s hard line against Turkey, mainly over the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, paid off. Following US sanctions and tariffs, Turkey finally relented and a few weeks ago Brunson was released. In the period since, Turkey and the US seem to have advanced in other areas including progressing on their Manbij agreement with joint patrols in the city. Washington even offered a US$4-5 million reward for information about the whereabouts of leading PKK operatives.
It seems as if President Trump has taken a page out of Russia’s playbook. Back in 2015, Turkish-Russians relations hit an all-time low after Turkey downed a Russian SU-24 jet which was traversing northern Syrian into Turkish airspace. In order to get its apology and other Turkish concessions, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure and announced sanctions which hurt the Turkish economy ranging from banning Russian travel agencies from selling package holidays to Turkey and ending visa-free travel to the banning of Turkish fruit and vegetables. Finally, in June 2016, President Erdogan relented and issued an expression of regret while blaming the affair on the activities of the Gulen movement, the ultimate internal Turkish bogeyman. Soon, Russian-Turkish relations began to blossom with regular ministerial visits, cooperation in Syria and Turkey’s decision to buy Russian military hardware.
Although US-Turkish relations are far from where they were several years ago, I think what is happening is that the US is seeking a transactional relationship with Turkey, something I have actually long advocated. In other words, Washington is basing its bilateral relationship on specific areas of interest and working out respective arrangements based on a formula of give and take - a concession in one sphere for a concession elsewhere. For example, releasing Brunson in exchange for easing US sanctions (including allowing Turkey to purchase Iranian crude following the snapping back of US sanctions on Iran), US support for the Turkish position west of the Euphrates in Syria in return for expectations that Turkey hold back in the East of the Euphrates.
In some respects, Europe has also turned towards a transactional relationship with Turkey (although the ties are considerably deeper especially on civil-society, trade and human capacity levels). Following the very vocal and ugly bust-ups between Turkish leaders and several European countries over the last couple of years and Turkey’s seeming strategic about face towards Russia and Iran, Europe seems to have calculated that relations with Turkey are best worked out on a case-by-case transactional basis, the 2016 Migrant deal being the prime example of this – European aid and work towards visa free travel in exchange for Turkey ensuring that Syrian refugees remain in Turkey. Despite all the turbulence in Turkey’s relations with Europe and the West and strains in mutual relations, this example of transactional diplomacy has lasted to this day.
The reality is that shared values of democracy, human rights and rule of law are no longer factors that even from an aspirational perspective link Turkey with the West. Also, Turkey is under the centralised control of its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who perceives himself as leader of a powerful international power which is not bound by any particular alliance. I would also argue that in terms of strategic priorities, Turkey’s threats are not the same as those of the West (with the more or less exception of ISIS since 2016) and there is therefore little interest for close strategic relations as was the case during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. With this is mind, a transactional approach to Turkey is the West’s best bet, at least for the short to medium terms, and perhaps, in the not too distant future mutual confidence can be built to once again foster closer relations.
Turkey’s current monetary crisis is certainly not the first that the country has faced. There have been many. However, this recent crisis, which was made all too real during the collapse of the Turkish lira against the dollar and other major currencies in August 2018 (as much as 40%), highlights a stark contrast to the way in which the previous financial crisis was handled just over a decade and a half ago.
Back in 2001, Turkey was rocked by a financial disaster while still dealing with the tremors of the earlier 1994 crisis. The 2001 crisis was a result of the country continuing to run a financial deficit while also experiencing inflation and having to cope with the consequences of foreign divestment – a very difficult obstacle considering that the country was dependent on foreign investment. Add to the equation instability within the coalition government and you have a toxic mix that made an economic meltdown all but certain. The subsequent recovery of the Turkish economy was a result of an IMF $11.4 billion. Following the IMF loan, Turkey saw several years of stable Justice and Development Party (AKP) government which ensured, at least for a while, economic discipline. However, just as importantly, during the critical March 2001 to 2002 period, before the AKP swept into power, Turkey’s road to recovery was paved by Kemal Dervis who was appointed economy minister.
This is important. It is one thing to take an IMF loan and meet the DC headquartered international organization’s conditions geared towards economic restructuring (which isn’t easy – initially the IMF programme was hard to implement), but quite another to actually run a country’s economy during a period of turbulence. One of the most important things politicians must do is to create confidence both internationally and domestically. Perhaps the wisest decision of Bulent Ecevit’s political career was to appoint Kemal Dervis economy minister in March 2001. Later, their relationship deteriorated but that’s another story.
Why was the appointment of Dervis so critical? Well, for a start Dervis was a graduate of the London School of Economics and then went on to earn a PhD from Princeton University. For a while he was a faculty member at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, the finest higher education institution in Turkey. He then went back to the US to join the economics faculty at Princeton. Dervis spoke a bunch of languages including English, French and German. Now all this is impressive in and of itself, but Dervis then pursed a career at the World Bank. Soon he found himself Vice President of the MENA region and then vice-President for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management. He also had a network of contacts in the financial sector and his positions at the World Bank made him familiar with the inner workings of such organizations such as the IMF.
So what’s my point? It’s simple. When a country is faced with a financial catastrophe, this is the type of person you want at the helm of the economy. Someone who is academically accomplished and has 20 years or so experience at the highest levels of the financial sector. Someone who in a meeting with the CEOs of the world’s top banks, creditors, regulators, credit agencies and the so-called masters of the universe, is seen as an equal – a person who talks their language, commands their respect and can even teach them a thing or two. With Dervis at the helm the framework for the recovery of the Turkish economy was put into place, but following the 2002 general elections it was the AKP and Erdogan who reaped the rewards of Dervis and his team’s hard work.
Fast forward to today, and just before the looming economic crisis and just after the June 2018 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, who does President Erdogan appoint (without oversight as permitted by the new constitutional changes) as his economy minister? Does he choose a seasoned economist with academic and professional accomplishments? No. He didn’t even keep his previous economy minister Mehmet Simsek who had a pretty decent career in the financial services before entering politics and had worked hard to gain the confidence of international investors. Instead, President Erdogan appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak.
Now, one could argue that the choice of Albayrak has some merits. As the former CEO of Calik holding, a company sympathetic to the President, Albarak knows the inner workings of Turkish conglomerates and their relationship with government. Also, as the son-in-law of the President, Albayrak certainly has the ear of the most powerful man in the country. Foreign investors would hope that Albayrak would be able to gently steer his father-in-law to a positive economic path.
However, the positives of having the ear of the President is not enough for this sort of position at this particular turbulent time. Turkey needs a Dervis. Short of another IMF bailout, if the Turkish government were serious about putting the economy right they would enshrine the independence of the central bank. They would immediately take measures to release all foreign nationals under detention, especially those who could spark a diplomatic crisis with any country with financial clout. Pastor Andrew Brunson should have been released a year ago. The Turkish government should also create a bipartisan advisory group (a real one I mean) comprising of leading Turkish CEOs both in Turkey and abroad and meets regularly and has an influential advisory role. Turkey should also stop spending and being wasteful. This includes mega projects which have everything to do with vanity rather than real infrastructural development. Also, the idea that Turkey should seek the services of consultancy firms such as McKinsey, which the Turkish opposition lamented leading the government to call off the commission, was actually, in my opinion, a good one. Sometimes it takes an outside party for someone to heed good advice.
In 2001 Turkey was lucky enough to have someone at the helm of the economy who could lead Turkey out of its difficult mess. Today, it doesn’t and this is an important reason why this economic crisis is not going away anytime soon.
It has been weeks since the falling out between the US and Turkey over the continued detention of pastor Andrew Brunson, a symptom of many problems between the two countries. Just to briefly recap, some of the other outstanding issues between the sides include Turkey’s anger at US support for Kurdish forces affiliated to the PKK in Syria; the violation of the Iran Sanctions Act by a Turkish state-owned bank, possibly with the full knowledge or even behest of the highest levels of the Turkish government; Turkey’s intent to purchase Russian S400 surface to air missiles; and the residence in the US of Fetullah Gulen who Ankara blames for the July 2016 attempted coup.
Despite the US sanctions which wreaked havoc on the already vulnerable Turkish economy, and the threat of more to come, Turkey is still resisting US pressure. All Ankara has to do is drop the charges against Brunson, so why is Ankara resisting so much? Why not find a face-saving measure and fall into line, just like Ankara did after tensions with Russia?
In an earlier post, I explained how Turkey and the US might overcome some of their differences. And if I can think of a way, I am sure the brilliant minds in Washington and Ankara can do better. I also wrote a post about the underlying symptoms for the breakdown of relations in which I factor Turkey’s internal security threats, Ankara’s delusions of grandeur and Turkey’s authoritarian turn. But there is an additional factor, namely, President Erdogan’s version of political Islam.
Faced with ongoing Magnitsky Act sanctions and high tariffs on aluminium and steel, as well as being excluded from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme after the passing of the 2019 defence spending bill, Turkey is experiencing a continued strain on its economy, an ongoing currency crisis and uncertainty about future military hardware. If President Erdogan truly cared about the Turkish economy, he would have appointed representatives from the business community to establish an economic advisory council, increased interest rates by guaranteeing the independence of the central bank, and, of course, immediately released American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Instead, Erdogan chose his son-in-law to be the country’s economy minister, maintained his position that high interest rates leads to inflation and pressured the central bank to reframe from raising rates. Not only did Erdogan not release Pastor Brunson, but he responded to US sanctions with some of his own, which practically amounts to a trade war against the biggest economy on Earth.
“They have their dollars but we have the Quran”, declared Erdogan, not just once but on countless occasions over the past couple of weeks. This is typical of religious fanatics everywhere; when they don’t have the answers, they double down on God. When asked about the dismal economic performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini responded that, “the revolution was not about the price of watermelons”. Indeed, how can it be when Khomeini promised that Islam was the solution? This is why Erdogan continues to resist increasing interest rates which he has described as “evil”, no doubt a reflection of Islam’s abhorrence to usury. If it is not proscribed by God, it cannot be part of the answer.
Erdogan adds that there is no need to fear, the world is bigger than the United States. Never mind the fact that the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s economy, Turkey, Erdogan insists, can turn to other countries for economic support and arms purchases. Qatar and Russia, or, in the case of F-35s, Turkey’s own military aviation industry (ignoring that the TF-X project, for example, is currently dependent on the expertise and intellectual property of UK firms).
It appears that President Erdogan and his sycophantic band of advisors believe the hype about America’s demise and the rise of the rest. But unlike serious observers who write about America’s inwardly looking trajectory and the rise of China and other developing nations, President Erdogan and his cohorts seem to think the time is nigh. They appear to have missed that for the time being at least, the US is still the most powerful nation on earth, and that remains the case whether we are talking about hard power, soft power, smart power or any other kind of power.
President Erdogan once commented that there is no such thing as moderate Islam. His foreign policy reflects this. President Erdogan’s government continues to support Hamas. It sides with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsors a range of Islamist militants in Syria. Erdogan himself earned his political stripes with the openly Islamist Welfare Party of the one-time Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan who was anti-western to the core and talked about forming an Islamic currency and uniting the Muslim world against US and Zionist conspiracies. Although Erbakan was ousted following a military intervention, his thinking inspired a generation of Turkish Islamists, and President Erdogan was his (wayward) protégé who is beginning to act more and more like his old mentor. “The attack on our economy has absolutely no difference from attacks on our call to prayer and our flag,” Erdogan recently stated, showing his inability to separate religion from economics and international relations. Just last March, Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper and government mouthpiece if ever there was one, talked about creating an Islamic army of millions of soldiers to fight Israel. Erdogan didn’t distance himself from the piece. It also reflect the apparent statements of King Abdullah II of Jordan who told US congressional leaders back in 2016 that the Turkish head of state believes in a “radical Islamic solution” to conflicts in the Middle East.
Erdogan sees himself as the head of a country that leads the Muslim world. The most recent example was when President Erdogan used Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a means to speak on behalf of the Muslim world by convening a special emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Erdogan used this pulpit to lead the Muslim world’s condemnation of the Trump Administration in the most visceral terms imaginable.
In this context, how can it be possible for Erdogan to back down against Trump? It be a setback for Erdogan’s attempt to lead the Muslim world legitimized by Turkey's Ottoman past, Islamic credentials and the Turkish president’s ability to stand up to Israel and America. Of course, the losers will be Turkey’s long-suffering population who are seeing their money devalued, their savings hurt and their businesses on the brink. But they needn’t worry, they always have God.
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.
In my last post, I wrote about the underlying reasons for the decline of US-Turkish relations. I identified three main factors and a related forth. In brief I made the following points: 1) Turkey needs to be understood as a weak or fragile state because its internal threats are more of a priority than its external enemies, 2) Turkey considers itself to be an international power in its own right, but finds it difficult to reconcile its image of greatness with the reality that it is a medium sized power, 3) increased authoritarian rule means that the government and especially President Erdogan cannot blame shift when matters arise between Turkey and another state, 4) Turkey is no longer part of the western camp in the same way that it was before the rise of the ruling AKP.
It is far easier to identify the causes of the breakdown in US-Turkey relations than it is to find solutions. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try. I will focus on solving the bilateral tensions associated with the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s desire to purchase Russian S400s. There is a road map of sorts on the Manbij issue in northern Syria, so I will allow others to assess the efficacy of that arrangement, although I may mention it briefly.
But first, a question. With the exception of war or the threat of war, can you think of a case when a superpower power was able to make a smaller power do something which the smaller power considered detrimental to its national interest? This question was posed to me by one of my professors when I was an MA student. The answer is no. And if so, very rarely. If a country considers it against its national interest, there is little the stronger power can do. More often than not, the use or threat of force is inappropriate. Therefore, the trick is to convince the smaller power that it is in its national interest to comply with the policy of the more powerful state.
Recent reports have indicated that US and Turkish officials are in talks. The job of Washington’s officials is to convince Ankara that it is in Turkey’s national interest to release Pastor Brunson from house arrest as well as other US citizens and consular employees.
This is why the Magnitsky sanctions were a good start. Although symbolic, it demonstrated that Washington means business. Already the Turkish economy has taken a hit. The US must show that it is not going to back down, but even ready up the ante by highlighting that it is very serious about implementing additional sanctions. These new sanctions include those stipulated in the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, which, if passed by Congress, would instruct the US directors of the World Bank International Finance Corporationand European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to vote against extending loans to Turkey. Also, the US should move ahead with legislation pertaining to the 2019 defence budget which would shut out Turkey’s involvement in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Collectively, these are incredible tools because they pertain to both Turkey’s economic and security interests.
But there are more tools at Washington’s disposal. First, the US should not rush into a deal, but wait until Ankara feels the looming pinch of the sanctions. Time is on Washington’s side. Second, the US should make it clear in no uncertain terms that President Trump is an unpredictable figure. And just as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he could support Congressional attempts to recognise the Armenian massacres of World War I as a genocide. Thirdly, playing to the internal security threat in Turkey, the US could kindly point out that they might not accept Turkey’s position that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are related organisations (Washington currently insists that its support for Syrian Kurds is only through the SDF – an umbrella organisation dominated by the YPG). There are additional measures the US could take such as restricting Turkish participation in NATO operations and training exercises, reducing intelligence sharing, and taking measures against Turkey’s trade with Iran. However, I think these measures should be left off the table for now as they would do more harm than good.
The US should use the above as leverage to demand that Pastor Brunson and all other US citizens and consular officials are immediately released. But the White House can and should offer a few incentives to sweeten the deal. It could propose that it put in a word to the New York District Attorney and US court in order to allow Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of the Turkish state owned Halkbank, who was found guilty of breaking the Iran Sanctions Act, to serve out the rest of his sentence in Turkey. Also, perhaps the Treasury could be convinced to slap Halkbank with just a medium sized fine – enough to deter other banks from violating Iranian sanctions, but not too high to hurt the Turkish economy.
As already mention, Turkey is a country where its internal security concerns are seen as more important than its external. Washington might want to play into this by offering to “look into” the activities of the Gulen movement in the US. Couched in vague terms, this will be enough for Ankara to be placated and able to publically save face, but not enough for the US to obligate itself. Also, to further sweeten the pill, Turkey could be offered an additional discount on Patriot missiles if it were to forgo the Russian S400 deal. Ankara would save billions of dollars on Russian hardware that has no compatibility with most of Turkey’s own equipment, let alone NATO’s.
Underlying all this is a message that Ankara needs to receive from Washington - it is in Turkey’s interests to be on good terms with the US and is most secure and economically prosperous when ties with the west are strong. Once this impasse is solved, the sides can move towards a transactional relationship, which, if played right, could be a harbinger of even closer ties in the future.
Just as the ink was drying on my last post about US-Turkish relations, the White House announced sanctions against Turkey based on the Global Magnitsky Act, targeting the justice and interior ministers over the continued arrest of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey has announced retaliatory measures with some sanctions of its own. It’s rather unprecedented that mutual sanctions have been imposed on fellow NATO allies. The question on many minds is how did it come to this?
There are several symptoms of the low ebb in bilateral relations. They include the presence in the US of the alleged 15 July attempted coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, the continued detention of Pastor Brunson and other US nationals and consular workers, Turkey’s intention to purchase the Russian S400 SAMs which are incompatible with NATO hardware, and US assistance to the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria against the so-called Islamic State which Turkey says is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, these are all symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. In terms of the actual underlying reasons for the downturn in bilateral relations I contend there are 3 main reasons and a related fourth. Let me explain them one by one.
Firstly, the nature of the Turkish state is often misunderstood by both Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey should be understood as a weak or a fragile state. Turkey has many of the attributes of a weak state. For example, the internal threat in Turkey is greater than the threat posed by its external enemies. Ankara’s two greatest existential concerns are the PKK and the Gulen movement. Sure, both have international branches and are influenced by international affairs, but they are, by and large, internal challenges to both state security and the institutions of state. Turkey also resembles a weak state because for many citizens the primary threat to their personal security is the state itself, the body which is supposed to protect them. This is the case for many Kurds in the Southeast of the country as well as those affected by the recent post 15 July 2016 purges. Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdogan and his government. There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.
The reason why understanding Turkey as a fragile or weak state is important because the US, or any other country for that matter, will have difficulties finding common cause with Turkey over an external enemy. Quite frankly, an international threat will always be less of a concern for Turkey which has to prioritise internal threats, or view international affairs through the lens of domestic security matters. Meanwhile, internal developments in Turkey, if not understood and acknowledged by other countries, leads to anger and recriminations. We saw this take shape after the attempted coup two years ago. Such wounds will be slow to heal.
The second factor is that Turkey does not consider itself part of the western orbit. It doesn’t see itself in the Russian orbit. Nor part of the Iranian axis either. Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. Whenever I read news reports about developments in US-Turkish relations and the comments of Turkish officials, I can’t help but think, “does Turkey think it is the superpower in this relationship?” The answer is yes, actually it does. Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power. Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity. Sometimes Turkey needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality. This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace. Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!
The third factor is increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdogan. This gives the US a firm address to point the finger. These latest sanctions are a warning. Washington knows who is really in charge. And if there is any action that harms US interests, President Erdogan cannot blame shift.
Relatedly, the fourth factor (feel free to email me more) is the reality that times have changed. Turkey’s interests are not the same as those of the US and the West. Turkey also does not identify with the West as much as it used to. This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen. It is time for a new paradigm in US-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.
So, this begs the question, how do the sides get out of this current impasse? Stay tuned, I will offer a few words about that soon.
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