Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism in troubled waters

M.K. Bhadrakumar June 11, 2015 4:07 PM (UTC+8)
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Foreign policy was not a major campaign issue in Turkey’s general election on Sunday. The steep 10% drop in the ruling Justice & Democratic Party’s (known as AKP) vote share, which deprived it of a simple majority in the new parliament, cannot be attributed to the controversial foreign policy trajectory followed by the party’s de facto leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Nonetheless, the election results will impact Turkish foreign policies. The best evidence of it is the reaction from three unlike quarters – European capitals, Iran and Turkey – expressing satisfaction over the outcome of Turkey’s election.

Europe, clearly, heaves a sigh of relief that Erdogan’s wings have been clipped. His authoritarianism had drawn sharp criticism from the West. Although packaged as a matter of Europe’s concern for democratic values and human rights, the strong antipathy toward Erdogan was also to be related to the revisionist thinking behind his foreign policies.

Erdogan “Islamized” Turkey’s regional policies with a vigor and abruptness that caught Europe by surprise. Some call it “neo-Ottomanism,” but the leitmotif of the Turkish regional policies in the downstream of the Arab Spring was political Islam, which Erdogan saw as the life force of the democratization of the Muslim Middle East (with Turkey as the role model, of course.)

Erdogan’s new friends included the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas, and his covert dalliance with radical Islamist groups affiliated with the al-Qaeda in Syria was criticized within Turkey and abroad.

Erdogan mothballed Turkey’s search for the membership of the European Union (EU). The EU’s negativism toward Turkey’s membership probably triggered it, but Erdogan opted for “Look East” policies. At one point, he even speculated on membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The European capitals visualize that any new coalition government in Ankara, based on consensus politics, could return Turkish foreign policy to its traditional moorings – first and foremost, revival of the reform program linked to the country’s EU accession process; second, review of Turkey’s dealings with Islamist groups; and, third, reversion to Turkey’s traditional role as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Iran, too has welcomed the outcome of Turkey’s election as a victory of democracy and signifying “the growth and maturity” of the Turkish people. There is a hint of satisfaction here, perhaps, that Turkey rejected Erdogan’s agenda to concentrate power in an executive presidency.

Despite appearance, Tehran’s equations with Erdogan were never really smooth and they became frosty following his deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on a renewed push for regime change in Syria.

Erdogan had demanded that Iran should withdraw its forces from Syria, Iraq and Yemen and expressed support for the Saudi campaign against the Houthi militia in Yemen.

However, despite the rivalry between Turkey and Iran in the regional politics, Iran had reason to be pleased with Erdogan’s independent foreign policies and his willingness to identify Turkey with the issues of the Muslim world (be it Egypt’s transition or the fate of the Rohingya people in Myanmar) discarding its traditional role as a flag-carrier of the West.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said, “As a neighbor and friend of Turkey with very close and amicable ties with its government and nation, the Islamic Republic of Iran attaches great importance to the calm and peaceful election in the neighboring country.” It was more than a formal statement.

Interestingly, the statement concluded expressing the hope that Sunday’s poll in Turkey would contribute to “the establishment of peace and stability in the region.” Indeed, Tehran sees the prospect that under any government that is formed in Turkey following the fractured poll verdict, Erdogan’s Syria policies may become unsustainable.

All the major opposition political parties in Turkey have condemned Erdogan’s Syria policy, accusing him of getting the country needlessly entangled in the conflict and in the external attempts to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, especially by partnering with extreme Islamist groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The role of the Turkish intelligence in the capture of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour, Ariha and Mastume in Syria in the recent weeks by the Army of Conquest became a matter of controversy in the Turkish media, amidst reports that Erdogan was toying with the idea of sending troops to Syria along with Saudi Arabia to create a “buffer zone.”

Indeed, the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and the Hezbollah, has been holding fire so far, pending the general election in Turkey last Sunday, to launch the planned military campaign to retake the territories in the north around Idlib lost to the Army of Conquest.

But then, in the zero sum game in Syria, what Iran hopes to gain will have to be at Saudi Arabia’s cost. Thus, the big setback to Erdogan’s political stature in Sunday’s election couldn’t have come at a worse time for King Salman.

The Saudi-Turkish axis over the Syrian conflict, which took shape after the visit by Erdogan to Riyadh in March is based on a Faustian deal, with Saudi Arabia bankrolling Turkey’s covert military and logistic support of the al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fateh).

Turkey has been facilitating the shipment of weapons for the Islamist groups via Turkish territory. The agenda of the Army of Conquest, backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia (and Qatar), is to capture Aleppo and Latakia and thereafter move toward Damascus. From bases in Jordan, the Turkish-Saudi-Qatari alliance is preparing to mount another thrust led by Zehran Alloush, commander of the Army of Conquest. Alloush visited Istanbul recently.

Curiously, the operation from the Jordanian side also involves Western intelligence services. The big question is the stance of the US if Turkey pulls out of the Saudi-led military push to overthrow the regime in Syria.

Washington so far has been making it out that it is helpless vis-à-vis Turkey’s dalliance with the al-Qaeda groups operating in Syria. If the Obama administration is genuinely sincere about seeking an intra-Syrian dialogue leading to peaceful transition, it should feel happy that the wheel of fortune is turning in Turkey, following Sunday’s election.

But then, Washington must first decide whether it is in American interests that Turkey dumps the al-Qaeda groups and works instead for a peaceful transition in Syria in cooperation with Iran.

Saudi Arabia heavily counts on Erdogan’s persona. The weakening of the “Sultan” at this juncture is a setback for King Salman. In an op-ed titled “Erdogan remains the better regional option” in the Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al Awsat, the newspaper’s managing editor Eyad Abu Shakra wrote on Thursday,

“There are several common geopolitical interests between the Arab world and Erdoğan’s Turkey … Arabs and Turks have a common interest in checking the Iranian onslaught and stemming the tide of sectarian agitation it is nurturing and exploiting … Therefore, from a strategic standpoint, Erdoğan’s Turkey and the Arab world are fighting the same battle — we should fight this together, on the condition that Ankara respects our sovereignty and interests.”

Having said that, Saudi Arabia too has found Erdogan to be a difficult customer. True, he reset the Turkish foreign policy calculus with an Islamist outlook with heavy Sunni leanings, which created tensions in Turkish-Iranian relations. On the other hand, from the Saudi perspective, Erdogan’s continued advocacy of Egypt’s deposed president Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood made him an unwanted interloper in the Muslim Middle East, although with regard to the Syrian conflict he remained an indispensible partner.

All in all, therefore, Tehran and the European Union have good enough reason to feel pleased that Erdogan has been cut down to size. Riyadh, on the other hand, would feel uneasy that Erdogan is weakened and the Saudi-Turkish-Qatari project in Syria may meet sudden death.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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