The president’s favorite Muslim democrat is turning into just another Middle Eastern despot
Erdogan’s Putin-esque ambitions come amid an epidemic of nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire among Turkey’s conservative ruling elite—or, more accurately, nostalgia for a highly sanitized version of the Ottoman past. Turkey’s current outbreak of Ottomania permeates not only the speeches of AKP ministers but also popular culture, from cinema and television dramas to the worlds of fashion and design, “rediscovered” traditions, and even a penchant for Ottoman vocabulary and grammatical constructions. Most perniciously, it also informs the worldviews of both Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. What neither man appears to realize is that their vision of the Ottoman state as a paradigm of tolerance and social harmony to which everyone would naturally wish to return is not shared by the empire’s former subject peoples in the predominantly Christian provinces of southeast Europe or in the mainly Muslim Arab world.
Nevertheless, both Erdogan and Davutoglu saw the uprisings that swept the Arab world as an opportunity to restore what the Turkish foreign minister has described as “the natural flow of history”—namely, Turkish domination of the Middle East. Syria was to be Turkey’s first neo-Ottoman dependency. After initially aligning himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan turned against him in summer 2011 and became the most outspoken supporter of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which he allowed to operate freely along the Turkish-Syrian border, even helping to facilitate supplies of arms bought with Qatari and Saudi Arabian funds. Erdogan’s expectation was that Assad would swiftly be overthrown. He believed that not only would this demonstrate Turkey’s growing power but that, in gratitude for Ankara’s support, the subsequent FSA-dominated government would become the first member of a Turkish sphere of influence in the Middle East.
But Erdogan now appears to have severely miscalculated both the terms of his support and his likely reward. In his rush to topple Assad, Erdogan made no attempt to prevent Syrian rebel ranks from being swelled by the arrival of salafi jihadists, such as the militant Al-Nusra Front, which has gradually become one of the dominant members of the coalition of forces fighting the regime in Damascus on the ground. The jihadists appear to have no particular interest in belonging to the Turkish Islamist party’s idea of a renewed Ottoman empire, preferring their own dreams of a pan-Islamic caliphate. In turn, Erdogan’s failure to maintain any semblance of Turkish authority inside the rebel ranks has made it difficult for the West to provide meaningful military assistance, which has weakened the rebels and made Erdogan’s decision look even worse.
With Assad still in power after two years of fighting, the Syrian Civil War has demonstrated not Turkey’s strength but its weakness. Erdogan threatened retaliation when Syrian downed a Turkey F-4E Phantom reconnaissance aircraft on June 22, 2012, and retribution when 52 people were killed in a double car bombing, which he blamed on Assad, in the border town of Reyhanli on May 11, 2013. But, fearful of Syria’s Russian-supplied air defenses, and with the overwhelming majority of Turks opposed to any direct military intervention, Turkey has done nothing, which has hardly made the Turkish leader look good inside his own country, or to a wider Arab audience. Nor have Erdogan’s blustering attempts to champion the Palestinian cause paid off with either renewed peace talks or concessions from the Israelis: Instead, they have reinforced the Turkish leader’s regional profile as a hot-head who fails to back up his words with coherent actions.
Erdogan has now turned his attention to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, defying both the central government in Baghdad and the United States and signing a string of energy deals. Publicly, Erdogan maintains—with justification—that Turkey needs to diversify its energy supplies and that imports of oil and natural gas from the KRG would reduce its current dependence on Russia and Iran. However, privately, AKP officials admit that—by providing the KRG with a conduit for energy exports to international markets—they hope to increase its political dependence on Ankara.
The rapprochement with the KRG coincides with a hiatus in Ankara’s long-running, low-level civil war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which in March 2013 announced a ceasefire while it negotiated with the AKP government. The negotiations are expected to take several months. Publicly, Erdogan insists that he will not make any major concessions. In reality, major concessions—including the granting of a degree of autonomy to the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey—are the only way that the conflict can be permanently resolved. Consequently, the choice facing Erdogan is between a renewal of the PKK insurgency and a reduction in the authority of the central government in Ankara, which effectively also means a decrease in his own power. Similarly, even if Turkey were to succeed in bringing the KRG into its sphere of influence, there appears little prospect of extending its influence any farther. Indeed, far from drawing them closer, the AKP’s continued neo-Ottoman rhetoric seems more likely to drive the Arab states away.
Growing international expressions of concern—particularly in Europe—about Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic authoritarianism and his repeated failures as a regional leader appear to be having little effect. In fact, such is Erdogan’s almost hubristic self-confidence that he seems to regard them as mere jealous snipes to try to prevent Turkey’s inevitable rise to superpower status in the Middle East. Ironically, given that the United States in particular has cited Turkey as a democratic model to which the Muslim world should aspire, Erdogan’s government is increasingly beginning to resemble the authoritarian regimes that the Arab uprisings overthrew.
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