Erdogan’s Ottoman melancholy and the rise of empire

Developing Just Leadership

Catherine Shakdam

Rabi' al-Awwal 20, 1437 2016-01-01

News & Analysis

by Catherine Shakdam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 11, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1437)

Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan suffers from visions of grandeur and the revival of Ottomanism. The Pasha-in-the-making is likely to have a great fall.

John Hannah, a prominent investigative journalist warned back in September 2015 against what he described as “Erdogan’s deadly ambitions!” in a report for Foreign Policy. Then he commented on Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s rising hegemonic dreams as well as his need to wield more influence within Turkey to protect his “colorful” past.

Hannah essentially postulates that Turkey’s president has become a slave to his Ottoman ambition — a modern-day wannabe Napoleon Bonaparte, minus the hat. “Erdogan’s ambition is nothing less than to be a modern-day sultan, a near-absolute executive whose power and authority cannot be challenged or checked,” Hannah writes.

And while many within Turkey’s inner political circle continue to shrug such allegations, Ankara’s recent moves against its regional neighbors — Russia, Iran, and Iraq — betray very “imperial” realities.

From the downing of one of Russia’s jets over Syria in late November 2015, to the deployment of troops in Iraq in early-December, Turkey — or rather President Erdogan — has angered more than a fair share of foreign officials. But if Erdogan is indeed an ambitious man, his recent folie des grandeurs betrays an imperious need to protect a rather seedy past. For all his political posturing and media bravado, Turkey’s president has many skeletons in his cupboards, not the least his family connection to Da‘ish (aka ISIS), through the black oil trade.

“Without AKP single-party rule, Erdogan is well aware of the risks that a future parliament or coalition government might insist on re-opening the corruption allegations and taking a fresh look at his breathtaking spree of lawlessness. All of the major opposition parties have made accountability in these cases an important part of their platforms. If ever allowed to proceed to their logical conclusions, these investigations could end in impeachment or even prison. Needless to say, for the man who would be sultan, a jail cell is most definitely not part of the plan,” writes Hannah in his report, revealing an additional layer to Erdogan’s power play.

As Hannah puts it, “So the bottom line is quite clear: Erdogan’s priorities — building an imperial presidency and keeping the corruption scandals buried for good — are in his view simply incompatible with a coalition government.” As he currently stands, Erdogan has little to no choice: political absolutism or political accountability. To ensure that he would never have to account for his actions, Erdogan decided to completely give in to chaos, hoping to sow such fear and political confusion both within and without his borders that only he, the orchestra conductor, will remain at the helm. And so began Turkey’s descent into neo-Ottomanism.

Erdogan’s play

Erdogan’s grand power-grab can be traced back to Summer 2015 when his party, the AKP, lost its absolute majority in parliament — an electoral setback the “sultan” simply could not look over. Faced with the rise of the pro-Kurdish HDP, which won 13% of the vote, the Turkish president had to think of a new strategy and fast.

In late-July 2015 Erdogan targeted the leader of Turkey’s main Kurdish party, through the opening of a probe over the bloody October 2014 protests. At the time, the Anatolia news agency reported. “Prosecutors in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir have started an investigation against Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas for inciting people to take up arms during the protests that left dozens dead.”

The investigation came as Turkey pressed on with a military campaign against the Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq — a clear indication Ankara had its eye set on the destruction of all Kurdish ambitions. Interestingly Erdogan’s move against both the HDP and the PKK coincided with a very convenient “terror attack” in Suruc, a majority-Kurd city.

A predictable response from the PKK essentially allowed Erdogan to go straight to the US and then to NATO with a claim that in addition to launching airstrikes against ISIS, Turkey would need to hit the PKK as well. After all, they are both officially labeled as “terrorist” organizations. This play allowed Erdogan to have his crackdown against political contenders officially sanctioned by NATO and more importantly, Washington.

If Erdogan’s manipulations drew little attention at the time, Stratfor’s Vice President of Global Analysis, Reva Bhalla remarked in an analysis that Turkey is indeed heading toward the rise of a new Ottoman empire. Bhalla wrote, “Turkey’s interest in northern Syria and northern Iraq is not an abstraction triggered by a group of religious fanatics calling themselves the Islamic State; it is the bypass, intersection and reinforcement of multiple geopolitical wavelengths creating an invisible force behind Ankara to re-extend Turkey’s formal and informal boundaries beyond Anatolia.” Fast forward a few months and it appears evident that Bhalla’s analysis was on point.

Erdogan’s ambitions

If in the summer of 2015 President Erdogan was playing internal chaos to assert his hold on power, November marked a political and military shift against the region — a move that could prove devastating as it involves pitting alliances against each other, thus risking mass international destabilization.

While Ankara’s recent military “liberties” might appear to be a case of bad political miscalculations — after all how could Turkey rationally hope to antagonize both Russia and Iraq without losing a few feathers — such entanglements need to be assessed within a broader regional context. “The Turkish move, involving Bashiqa, a town just north of Mosul, does have a rationale in the broader regional framework in which a Russia-Iran axis, also aligned with Baghdad, is overtly imposing itself over Syria. Such an axis would be attractive also for Turkey’s Kurdish insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose affiliates the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) are proving themselves as the most reliable and strongest fighting forces on the ground in Syria against the Islamic State (IS),” writes Cengiz Candar for Al Monitor.

As far as Ankara is concerned, there is a visible linear axis linking Tehran to Damascus crossing over Baghdad, one which ultimately stands in the way of Turkey’s return to regional prominence. Needless to say, Russia’s intervention against the Black Flag army in the Greater Levant further threatened Erdogan’s dreams of political annexation. Should Mosul be indeed liberated, and Da‘ish forced back, Ankara would lose major positions to Iran’s gravitational pull.

As Candar notes, history could be about to repeat itself. The journalist proposed, “As a matter of fact, taking history into account, it may be seen as no more than a replay of perennial Turco-Persian or Turkish-Iranian rivalry in and over Mesopotamia. Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran fought over Mesopotamia for the control over today’s Iraq several times in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

He added, “The Safavids, a Turkish dynasty, that once ruled what is today Iran, declared Shi‘ism as the state religion of their empire. Until Shah Ismail transformed the empire in the land of ancient Persia, its subjects were predominantly Sunni. Adding to the theological dimension of the matter, ever since the first half of the 16th century, Shiite Iran and Sunni Turkey — irrespective of the nature of their regimes and who is ruling them — have been geopolitical rivals, and their competition mostly has been reflected over the territory and the communities of Mesopotamia.”

Whether we care to admit or not, Erdogan’s ambitions are not limited to Turkey’s borders. In true Ottoman fashion, it is an empire of old the Turkish president is attempting to rebuild.

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