The Rise and Fall of Neo-Ottomanism in Syria
A region like the Middle East, characterized by constant instability and continuous conflicts, brings new opportunities for influence between rival nations. Turkey is an important regional power looking for a greater role beside Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, the statesmen in Turkey were sure that one of the main keys for regional hegemony in the Middle East passes through Syria. In June 2011, a Western diplomat revealed to AFP that Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered President Assad via his foreign minister a plan which stipulates that the Syrian President is to ensure that between a quarter to a third of the ministers in his government are members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, Erdogan will commit to use all his influence to end the rebellion. The plan was considered by many Syrian political analysts as a soft penetration of the Syrian government, in preparation of changing the Arab nationalist character of Syria.
The offer was rejected by President Assad, and the AKP government subsequently declared its full support for the “opposition groups”. Thus, the formation of the so-called “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) came into being on 29 July 2011, and the Turkish-backed “Syrian National Council” (SNC) was announced on 23 August 2011. These escalatory steps came one month after Erdogan’s offer, which breached the UN charter and blatantly violated Syrian sovereignty.
Before going into the reasons and motives of Erdogan and Davutoğlu, the “zero problems policy” is briefly explained in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website as follows: “Aware that development and progress in real terms can only be achieved in a lasting peace and stability environment, Turkey places this objective at the very center of her foreign policy vision. This approach is a natural reflection of the “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”.
However, in order to understand the Turkish policy shift from Zero Problems with Neighbors to Zero Friendship with Neighbors, one should dive into the history of the Ottoman Empire to better comprehend the motives of the neo-Ottoman ambitions of Erdogan and his foreign ministerDavutoğlu. As William Faulkner said: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past”.
Historically, the Ottomans that came from the Balkans succeeded in extending their influence to Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, and North and East Africa through Syria. That’s why they called Syria the Honorable Levant “Sham Sharif”.
Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman dream was revived in light of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded during 2011 and 2012 to reach power in Tunisia and Egypt; it was a great political moment for Erdogan to extend his hands deeper into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria have paved the way for Erdogan’s further meddling in Syrian affairs. The AKP government provided all financial and logistical facilities to the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition, namely the “Free Syrian Army”. Moreover, Turkish intelligence has turned a blind eye to the flow of thousands of foreign mercenaries/terrorists through Turkish airports en route to Syria. It was a policy of state terrorism by Erdogan against his neighbor. However, “When you turn your neighbor into Afghanistan, you will become Pakistan”.
By the 11th of May, 2013, two car bombs exploded in Reyhanli, only 5 km from the Cilvegozu border gate with Syria, leaving 46 dead and more than 100 injured. It was the worst terror attack Turkey has witnessed. Tulin Daloglu, a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse and a foreign policy analyst, rightly described Turkey’s rigid foreign policy as “What is striking, however, is that the Erdogan government does not seem to tolerate any criticism of its Syria policy. Turkey’s geography has always been surrounded by deadly risks, and intervening in Syria’s domestic affairs was not the smartest thing that Turkey could have done for its own security interests. Unfortunately, Ankara’s policies are not so innocent in today’s tragedy. Turks now question whether it was worth it to risk Turkish lives by intervening in Syria’s domestic politics”.
In a recently published book, “Turkish Foreign Policy” by Muriel Mirak-Weissbachand Dr. Jamal Wakim, the authors documented the rise of the AKP government and their Neo-Ottoman project. Since the beginning of the AKP’s rule, Ahmet Davutoğlu believed that Turkey was heading towards a leadership role because “it is a modern Islamic state, with a great Ottoman heritage and geostrategic, geopolitical and geo-economic position”. Although Davutoğlu denied the allegations that he is seeking the recreation of the Ottoman Empire, he suggested a British-style commonwealth instead. That means if Britain was the successor of the British Empire, then Turkey is the successor of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, Davutoğlu’s unofficial Islamic Commonwealth is a devious plan to embrace the “persecuted and insulted” Arab and Muslim populations under Turkey’s banner. And when Davutoğlu was asked how Turkey is able to do these changes, he once again referred to Turkey’s “great Ottoman history in addition to modernization”.
Mirak-Weissbach and Wakim also believe there is a contradiction between Davutoğlu’s pledge for equality in international relations and the demand for areas of influence in Turkey’s backyard, namely the Middle East.
However, due to several factors, Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman tendencies have begun to shrink:
The repercussions of terrorism in Syria have posed serious challenges to the internal stability in Turkey. Erdogan and the architects of his foreign policy began to reconsider their damaged relations, especially with Iran and Iraq, two key states at the doors of the “People’s Palace”.
Even Turkish President Abdullah Gülurged in his address to his country’s ambassadors to recalibrate Turkey’s policy towards Syria, saying “I am of the opinion that we should recalibrate our diplomacy and security policies given these facts in the south of our country and given the threat perception of (political) centers around us.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was also present during Gül’s speech.
The overthrow of President Morsi and the cutting of bridges with Egypt’s military-backed interim government, which listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
The resignation of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani and the passing of the reins on to his son Tamim. The resignation was considered by many strategic analysts as an indicator of Qatar’s drift to isolation after its active role during the “Arab Spring”, while making Saudi Arabia the spearhead against Iran and Syria.
The Turkish-Qatari backed FSA faded into the shadow of the Saudi-backed Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and other Salafi and Takfiri groups, most importantly the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), which has been active in Iraq since the American invasion of 2003 and aims to create an Islamic state in Iraq. It has now expanded its operations to Syria.
The SIF coordinates extensively with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which is listed in the American Administration Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. The consequences of adding the al-Nusrah Front as a new alias for al-Qaeda in Iraq include “a prohibition against knowingly providing, or attempting or conspiring to provide, material support or resources to, or engaging in transactions with, the al-Nusrah Front, and the freezing of all property and interests in property of the organization that are in the United States, or come within the United States or the control of U.S. persons.” However, the Americans have no guarantee that these weapons would not fall into the hands of Al-Nusra or ISIS because hundreds of fighters are changing their ranks from FSA to SIF, ISIS, and Al-Nusra.
The SIF continues to coordinate with Jabhat al-Nusra and invaded several safe areas, lately in Adra, where these two groups slaughtered dozens of civilians and shoved them into ovens, according to the survivors. But the U.S. department didn’t utter a word regarding these massacres. On the contrary, the American officials tried to open diplomatic channels with the SIF. The U.S. ambassador to Damascus has said to Al Arabiya News Channel that “We are ready to sit with them because we talk to all parties and political groups in Syria”. To further elaborate, the SIF wants to create an Islamic State in Syria which is ruled by Sharia law. One of its senior spokesman, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Suri, framed the SIF as “a comprehensive Islamic front, representing Islam as a religion, a creed, a guiding path, and a conduct”. According to the SIF’s political charter, it seeks “to construct a civilized Islamic society in Syria, ruled by God’s law.”
And finally, the high-profile corruption scandal aggravated the political scene and worsened the relationship of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his longtime ally President Abdullah Gul. This tension in the Turkish leadership will most likely reshape public opinion in the upcoming local elections in March and the presidential election in August, and might kill Erdogan’s dream of becoming the president, after constitutional amendments had given him greater executive powers.
It is obvious to many political analysts that the Neo-Ottoman project and Turkey’s policy towards Syria has not been a success for Erdogan and Davutoğlu, and the future will reveal dramatic changes in the Turkish political scene and a gradual U-turn in regional security policies, especially after the Geneva II conference for peace in Syria. With the sharp deterioration of Turkish relations with its neighbors, especially with Syria, some observers believe it is the end of what has been billed as Turkey’s transformative diplomacy and the death and burial of the “zero-problems” foreign policy.
In his own words, Mr. Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister who headed the government delegation to “Geneva II”, righty concluded during his first speech: “Erdogan’s government has recklessly morphed from a zero-problems policy with its neighbors to zero foreign policy and international diplomacy altogether, crucially leaving it with zero credibility.”
Senior Turkish intellectuals also criticized the Turkish foreign policy miscalculations, which they believe were in large part due to the transformation of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s business-friendly ‘zero problems’ foreign policy into the much more aggressive ‘Neo-Ottoman’ foreign policy, including the promotion of NATO or American intervention in Syria.
Turkey and other regional actors tried to change the Middle East in a way that serves their strategic interests under the pretext of freedom and democracy, but instead of pursuing revolutionary and progressive methods, they relied on or turned a blind eye to the radical and backward elements such as the Jihadi groups, who succeeded to quickly spread themselves throughout Syria and impose a real threat to regional and international security.
The war in Syria has transformed from a struggle over power in its regional and international dimensions into a war on terrorism, and it became a burden on the international community. Many critics have expressed their concern and called upon their governments to reshape their provocative foreign policies, especially since the fate of hundreds of Western Jihadis is currently unknown. What would happen if they returned to their countries? What would the Turkish government do if these terrorists sneak into Turkey and conduct more terrorist bombings?
In conclusion, I believe the war on Syria, especially as waged by the AKP government and its intelligence apparatus, was meant to pave the way for Turkish influence over the Middle East via a Syrian foothold. However, the Neo-Ottoman project has collided with many obstacles, such as the undeclared ideological war between Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which has enormous influence over the Salafi groups in Syria that are the major and best equipped fighting groups operating against the Syrian army. This conflict was clear in Egypt where Turkey and the KSA challenged each other, stood for different models of statecraft, and promoted opposing values.
The war on Syria is a historical lesson to all statesmen. Political money, petrodollars, and state and non-state terrorism might shake the pillars of a ruling regime and lead to disorder, but in Syria, to be able to convince the vast majority of the Syrian people who stood by their Army, one would have to present a better ruling system that is fair, non-sectarian, comprehensive, and most importantly, independent — the few conditions that are absent from those who claim to be the leaders of the “revolution”. Finally, Che Guevara said, “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” But the “revolutionaries” in Syria wanted to harvest the apple by foreign hands.