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Obama’s Turkey

The president’s favorite Muslim democrat is turning into just another Middle Eastern despot

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Protestors clash with riot police between Taksim and Besiktas in Istanbul, on June 1, 2013, during a demonstration against the demolition of the park. (GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)
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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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julis123 says:

Another example of President Hope and Change’s terrible middle east policy.

ginzy1 says:

Anyone who is surprised about Erdogan is a candidate to invest in prime bridge real estate in Brooklyn.


Jerusalem / Efrata

ott198089 says:

The urban, westernized and mostly secular Turks have finally had enough with the creeping Islamization the AKP has been carrying out since it came to power. Unfortunately, the majority of the country is mostly rural, poorly educated, and deeply religious and they’re behind the AKP no matter what.

The bottom line is that the secular Turkey, a staunch NATO ally and a friend of the West is no more.

The only person unaware of what’s been going on in Turkey is Barack Obama. After all, if he did, he wouldn’t be Erdogan’s bosom friend… On the other hand, maybe there’s a another reason why Erdogan is Obama’s friend.

41953 says:

Blaming Obama is ridiculous! He is looking for geopolitical allies like all powerful leaders. Israel has cozied up to some rotten regimes too!

41953 says:

Blaming Obama is ridiculous! He is looking for geopolitical allies like all powerful leaders. Israel has cozied up to some rotten regimes too!

Boosbazaar .Com says:

“Blaming Obama Is Ridiculous”..Maybe..Probably more France and UK …But I have To ask You… You Stated…Israel Has Cozied? Up To Rotten Regimes..But You Did Not Give Any Examples ..But Just Your Ideological Sound Bite?.. I May Self Can Not Think Of One.. Because Yisrael Has Always Had To Be In Defense Mode Posture Against The Rest Of The World, That Hates Her…Now Maybe You Mean Strategic Negotiation To Maintain Our Survival? You Must Finish Your Comment Please and Give Me Examples Of Your So Called Counties That Israel Has Schmoozed Up To!

41953 says:

South Africa under apartheid, Iran under the Shah, Turkey itself under previous regimes, Central American dictatorships…

How about apartheid-era South Africa ( Doesn’t get much more rotten than that.

How ridiculous. As if Obama’s policies have in any way significantly influenced Erdogan’s actions.

CABchi says:

The article was a good discussion of the current situation in Turkey, but both the author and julius123 confuse the public diplomatic niceties of Secretary Kerry and the President with their actual views of the Turkish regime. There’s no doubt that we would prefer a non-religious democratic government in Turkey, but we have to deal with the facts on the ground… just as Bibi does. Nevertheless, my guess is that the private discussion with Erdogan was much more candid and pointed than their public comments.

ott198089 says:

The problem with Obama isn’t that he supports “rotten” regimes. The problem is that he’s been supporting anti-American, Islamist leaders like Erdogan and Morsi.
It surely doesn’t get much more rotten than that.

ott198089 says:

It’s one thing to “cozy up” to some rotten regimes like the one run by Mubarak, and it’s a completely different thing to support Islamist leaders like Erdogan and Morsi who are much more dangerous to the US national security interests.

DrJLD says:

Pride leads to the fall.

Guest says:

This is the first I am hearing about this— which goes to show how uninformed about the world I am.

As to the drinking of alcohol, all I know is that wine is considered sacred by Muslims and as such is not to be consumed in this lifetime but once in the presence of God. I, myself, am not a drinker and don’t care much for booze, but I guess, to each their own. On another note, there is something to be said about the vast presence of liquor stores in impoverished communities in the U.S.

. . . If only I had a magic wand I could wave to fix the world’s problems.

My last comment on the subject: Don’t make war, make love.

Papa493 says:

The fact is that Israel would love to be back in Erdogan’s good graces and have supported US efforts to mend the rift between the two nations. Israel needs Turkey, once its closest Moslem ally. And as for White House visits, Turkey is a member of NATO. Thus, such visits can be expected.

Steve wine says:

O’ Bammer, (obama) who is he fooling? John Kerry is a joke! Wake up America! You will never be able to manage to convert the Muslim countries to democratic societies!!! Russia is teaching America a lesson!!! There will be no Libya repeat!!!
Egypt failed, Irak failed, Afganistan will fail, Put your trust in ISRAEL!!! The only Democracy in the Middle East !

A planned chain of events will soon result in revolutions

Although they may seem disconnected they all have a common

The struggle must focus on the root of the problem to be
resolved: the human dilemma between Individuality and Equality.

There is a need for a new Direction that may be unthinkable
right now.

There is also the need for a strategy.

Once revolutions will have occurred all over the World they
soon need to be coordinated.

In a moment when Humankind will be most vulnerable, some
will promise you all you wish to hear but the answer to such problem should not
be that of any single individual.

Worldwide Referendum broadcasted Live simultaneously on
large screens in the squares of all Countries could answer specific questions
selected to decide what type of Democracy will exist in a new Humankind.

In a new and long lasting form of government, Trust can no
longer be one of its components. All efforts should be made to form a new type
of government with new mechanisms that will not require the element of Trust or
the promise of a politician to guarantee that the will of the majority will
always be reflected in the laws of that government. This will be a system that
could improve in time the already existing possibility of such government today
structured through the use of the Internet.

A new form of Democratic government is Commutalism.

Commutalism is a new concept of Democracy without
politicians which is organized through the Internet to balance the needs of the
Individual with the Respect for Equality.

Commutalism is structured to provide the necessary goods for
the survival of everyone and introduces at the same time a new transparent form
of Capitalism to trade all those goods which are not necessary, like in a market
open to the competition of all superfluous goods.

For the sake of transparency, this new type of Capitalism
would rule that each single transaction must be reported on the Net to become
visible like an invoice made public and taxable at the origin with one fix
percentage applied for all.

In such system, all private properties and their owners like
also all money transactions and trades of private property must be publicly
reported on the Net. This is to prevent unlawful transactions and root out corruption
through the immediate confiscation of those goods that have not been reported.

Moreover, to reduce Greed and restore the financial
equilibrium worldwide, it will be enough to eliminate the concept of
inheritance. The private property of the people will return to the State after
the death of each person to be auctioned among all citizens. People could spend
as much as they want to educate their children but inheritance and donations
would not be allowed.

Once the survival is guaranteed for everybody there will be
no need to be as tolerant with crime as we are today when the crime is a
consequence of our corrupted system.

In Commutalism, the right to own must be protected and
guaranteed also for those who want to work and trade their own Time to obtain
more than just the basic necessities provided by the system.

Lucifer says:

After killing and uprooting all non-Muslim populations of Constantinople and Asia Minor, Turkey claims to be secular

HannaH43 says:

My G-d, you sound disgusting. not wish to see that the president of Turkey trying to make Turkey of fundamentalists Islamic country. The government of Turkey has shown hate for Israel.We have a president who is a laughing stock of the world, and specially the Arab world.has shown very little caring for human rights in the world. Christians are being persecuted, all through the Mideast. He has not said one word about it. In fact, the American government report on civil rights and freedom. No longer even mentions religious persecution wonder why

gwhepner says:


Of Recep Tayyip Erdogan

I am not the greatest fan.

Acting like an Ottoman,

he’s turned into a rotterman,

of whom I, being somewhat smirky,

would like to get rid of, cold turkey.

Bill Robbins says:

I doubt it. Obama actually believes that Erdogan is wonderful, and Kerry is the perfect stooge to deliver the message.


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Obama’s Turkey

The president’s favorite Muslim democrat is turning into just another Middle Eastern despot

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