The Return of the Ottoman Empire?
The only way one can explain the heated return of “Ottoman” Turkey to the Middle East quagmire is as the setting up of a suitable position for the Turkish Fez in the new Middle East division.
This is what some Turkish intellects have argued according to Serkan Taflioglu, a researcher of Middle East affairs at ASAM, the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies in Ankara. “Heated Turkish political movements dealing with Middle East issues, which have increased over the past few months, are based on the Turkish belief that the future of developments in the Middle East will depend, to a large extent, on the kind of relationship that exists between Iran and the US over the next couple of years,” said Taflioglu. Moreover, he indicated that Turkey’s deep involvement is motivated by Ankara’s desire to assume its natural role in the region in accordance with its power and interests. But as Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan speaks about the children in Gaza who are being slaughtered, we know that feelings alone are not the driving force behind political activity.
Turkey is now turning towards its Ottoman past after neglecting it for so long; not in order to restore its former glories as some naïve and nostalgic supporters of Islamic parties might believe, but rather to establish an effective presence for the Turkish state that suits its historical, political and economic significance in the region.
Iran ventured into Arab affairs at an early stage, ever since the Khomeini revolution. This revolutionary fervor died down for a while due to the outbreak of war between the Khomeini state and the Baath state of Iraq. That was followed by the Rafsanjani and Khatami eras, before blatant Iranian penetration of Arab issues such as Palestine and Lebanon began to take place during the reign of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s role in the region increased and the Arabs could not keep up with Iran’s craftiness and Tehran’s skillful political maneuvering.
Turkey noticed how Iran’s early involvement in Iraq had achieved gains for it on the ground and how that had created a central political power that was so firmly linked to Iran. In other words, Iran’s bold venture into Iraqi affairs forced the US and the Arabs to acknowledge its role in the region. Iran continued to follow this approach in Lebanon and Palestine and today we are seeing the results: Hezbollah’s indirect rule over Lebanon by virtue of Iranian backing and a similar situation in the Palestinian territories. Furthermore, we know nothing about other Iranian schemes in the Gulf region, Yemen or North Africa.
The game proved to be a real advantage to Iran, so it decided to liquefy its old political investments in Lebanon and Palestine as the world watched the inauguration of the new US administration, which says that it is different to the former Bush administration and that it is willing to listen to everyone without imposing America’s visions upon others.
Like Iran, Turkey has an imperialistic past in our region. The only empire that contended with Ottoman Turkey over power in the region was Safavid Iran. Ferocious battles took place in the ruthless confrontation between the Ottomans and the Safavids, and Iraq itself was one of their battlefields. Baghdad fell under the rule of the Safavid Persian Shah and then would be conquered by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan. Much of the vehement sectarianism that we witness today is a product of that ancient and fierce imperialistic conflict between Iran and Turkey, or the Safavids and the Ottomans, or the Sunnis and the Shia. In the end however, it was a confrontation in which the Arabs did not play a fundamental role; they were marginal to the situation.
The Arab masses have demonstrated support for Erdogan and it is most likely that they are the same people who live on Muslim Brotherhood dogmas or those who have been impressed by them. This support increases whenever the public remembers that Erdogan reminded Israel that he is a descendant of the Ottomans. When we hear this, our minds run wild and we conjure up the image of Mehmet II the Conqueror returning to the gates of Tel Aviv and the return of the Ottoman Sultan. We imagine that Erdogan has awoken Turkey from its deep sleep and hoisted the flag of the Ottomans once again. All these dreams, which our fellow citizens in our Arab countries use to heal their wounds, do not necessarily represent the objectives of Turkey, the NATO member state, which is pushing to be part of the European Union. These dreams do not necessarily represent the secular state that is ruled by regulations of a strict secular constitution and guarded by generals who see themselves as the guardians of the Ataturk structure.
The intensity of support for Erdogan, the new Ottoman Sultan, reached its peak after the incident that took place at the Davos Economic Forum when he addressed the Israeli President Shimon Peres and walked out of the session in a dignified manner, returning to Istanbul as a conqueror. Such support of course is supposed to have some kind of effect on the “weak” Arabs so that they may take a stand just like Erdogan.
The truth is that Erdogan did not adopt an actual stance that could count as a political measure. He took a stand that would be popular with the masses. To take a real stand would result in achieving concrete political, military and security gains on the ground; embodied in agreements through acts of negotiation. This is what is happening at present in Cairo between Hamas and Israel through Egyptian mediation, which could also pave the way for inter-Palestinian reconciliation under the sponsorship of Egypt. However, it is difficult to imagine reconciliation whilst Hamas relies heavily upon the Syrian-Iranian camp.
Speaking of Syria, the interview that President Bashar al Assad gave to Al Manar television was an important interview that followed the Kuwait Summit where there was a reconciliatory atmosphere initiated by Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz during the summit itself. But the King’s initiative was not well-received; in the interview, President al Assad stressed the importance of Syrian-Turkish ties as well as the importance of Syrian-Iranian ties.
Are we facing a semi-objective coalition in the region at the expense of all Arab countries (except Syria) that consists of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Israel, all struggling to control war and peace? Iran is aggravating the issue so as to further strengthen its position and force the USA, the international community and the Arabs in the region not to make it give up the power that it has gained.
Turkey, which woke up recently, wants to partake in the power struggle, according to Serkan Taflioglu who said that Turkey is busy trying to understand the new agreement in the region whereas Israel, as usual, wants to maintain its power in the region. As for Syria, it believes that the smart thing to do would be to abandon the Arab ship and seek shelter in Iran or Turkey to protect it from the region’s flooding waters.
Turkey believes that it is more capable than Iran to deal with the issues of Palestine and Lebanon firstly because it is also a predominantly Sunni country and secondly because of its nostalgia for the Ottoman state. Such longing is continually backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and some fundamentalist parties. However, this longing does not exist amongst nationalist movements or the Levant Arabs, or perhaps the Salafists of the Arab Peninsula who do not have fond memories of the Turkish Ottoman oppression.
The Muslim Brotherhood says that the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in Turkey is one of the reasons that it exists (Saad Hawi, a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood figure, in his book entitled ‘Hedi Tajribati wa Hedi Shahadati’, p37).
Because of long-standing nostalgia, the ailment of political legitimacy that they believe has been absent since the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, the antagonism with Arab countries, and Iran’s attack on Arab countries that oppose the radical Iranian bloc, we now see the Brotherhood exaggerating its praise of Erdogan after it failed to publicize Khamanei and Ahmadinejad in the Arab world because of the sensitive issue of sectarianism, which is a fundamental part of the ailing culture in the region.
Nevertheless, we must admit that Turkey is different to Iran; it is not a fundamentalist state. This is why the Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan sought to remind everyone of Turkey’s secularism with the demand that Hamas becomes a pure political movement if it wants Turkey’s support. These all are messages to the West in order to maintain its trust.
“Turkey is a NATO ally and will not cut ties with Israel,” which would be reckless according to Babacan. But Erdogan is taking such action so as to activate Turkey’s new role. Israel will not be harmed by this. Peres had a friendly chat with Erdogan soon after the “Davos incident” during which the two men reiterated the friendly relations between Turkey and Israel.
Nobody would disagree with Erdogan’s comments on the children of Gaza because what happened in the Gaza Strip was an awful crime. But it seems that his comments had also provoked those suffering from the anger of the Turks such as the Turkish Kurds who need Erdogan to show more humanity towards them. Emine Ayna, Co-Chairperson of the Democratic Society Party was quoted saying, “Erdogan also knows how to kill, and the only nation that can say to Peres that he knows well how to kill children and women is the Kurdish nation because it is being killed by bombs,” according to the Lebanese As-Safir Newspaper.
The question remains however; where do the Arab countries fit in to this political bazaar that is now being set up?