Erdogan’s Neo-Ottomanism Shift: What Makes It So Dangerous?

Part 1

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism is a dangerous phenomenon making the country’s foreign policy confusing, provocative and fraught with dangerous implications.

Moscow believes that «neo-Ottoman» mindset influences Turkey’s foreign policy. Lavrov was referring to the country’s historical predecessor – the Ottoman Empire. Turkey continues to talk about «safe zones» and a «Plan B» for Syria, which reveals its «expansionist aspirations», Lavrov noted. He said it was not Syria only. Ankara still maintains a military presence in Iraq despite the fact that the Iraqi government never authorized Turkish forces to cross the country’s border and has repeatedly demanded that they leave. Turkey appears motivated to «extend its influence and expand its territory», the Minister explained. For instance, the Turkish Air Force had violated Greek airspace 1,800 times last year while NATO was remaining tight-lipped. «This kind of explicitly expansionist behavior can bring no positive results», the Russian FM stressed.

The West prefers to turn a blind eye on Turkey’s risky foreign policy ventures. It views Turkey as an ally. Western leaders say the country’s political system has checks and balances to prevent radicalization and islamization of the country. In reality, the things are quite different.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been removed from power. Now there is no counterweight to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan anymore. The division of powers has become a thing of the past. The situation is fraught with escalation of tensions in Crimea, the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Erdogan and his inner circle are aggressive and unpredictable. The foreign policy is influenced by neo-Ottomanism and the foreign policy doctrine outlined in Ahmet Davutoglu’s several writings, most important of which is his book «Strategic Depth». He argues that Turkey possesses «strategic depth» due to its history and geographic position and lists Turkey among a small group of countries which he calls «central powers». Turkey should not be content with a regional role in the Balkans or the Middle East, because it is not a regional but a central power. Hence, it should aspire to play a leading role in several regions, which could award it with global strategic significance. There are several factors that make this policy doomed.

First – Turkey’s influence in the Muslim world has been considerably reduced while Russia’s clout in the region has grown. Turkish Birgün writes that Erdogan may still believe that he is the political leader of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, the threats to national security have made Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia sign multi-billion contracts to purchase Russian arms. Emboldened by Russia’s support of Syria, the leaders of these countries have become frequent visitors to Moscow. Birgün editors believe that Moscow is turning into a centre of gravity. It can offer more than the United States or the West in general. With rich experience accumulated, Russia knows well how to counter the jihadist threat and exchange information on terrorists with the states involved in the fight against it. Despite all the predictions, Russia’s participation in the fight against Syrian Salafi groups has not sparked the feeling of indignation among the Muslim states of the Middle East and North Africa. Russia has become a global power. Threatened from outside, Muslim countries are inclined to develop military cooperation with it.

Second – Turkey’s plans in Syria have been stymied. The adopted concept of «zero problems with neighbors» showed opposite results than expected. Turkey has failed to make Syrian President Bashar Assad step down. The Kurdish formations are gaining ground in the northern part of Syria. The Russian Aerospace Forces have delivered a severe blow to illegal oil shipments and the groups involved in this criminal business.

As sources report, the defeat suffered by Turkey and the Islamic State in Syria was the decisive factor to make Prime Minister Davutoglu step down. President Erdogan blamed him for the foreign policy failures.

French Slate.fr believes that Turkey is nearing a civil war while President Erdogan continues to implement its aggressive adventurist foreign policy.

Bayram Balci, an independent researcher affiliated with the Paris Institute of Political Studies (CERI Sciences Po), says, Turkey’s regional policy is in doldrums. The very complexity of the situation in the region and the Syrian crisis have clearly demonstrated Erdogan’s propensity for hubris and authoritarianism, something he had displayed before but to a lesser extent. Mr Balci believes Erdogan has failed in his fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Islamic State, the «parallel state» – a transnational religious and social movement led by Turkish New York-based Islamic scholar and preacher Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan cannot contain Russia’s influence in the region, no matter how hard he tries.

Third – The tensions are rising in the Caucasus, especially in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan lacks power to win. Russia and Armenia get closer collaborating within the framework of Collective Security Treaty Organization and on bilateral basis. Yerevan’s readiness to recognize under certain conditions Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state makes Ankara face a «Karabakh dead-end». There is no way out looming at the horizon.

Fourth – There are no breakthroughs Turkey could brag about when it comes to the Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia. These countries continue to interact with Russia. They want to boost relations with China. Despite all the attempts to increase Turkish investments into energy and telecommunications sectors of Kazakhstan, Turkey accounts for only 1-2 percent of the country’s foreign trade. The country is only the fourth largest foreign trade partner of Uzbekistan. In case of Kyrgyzstan’s exports, Turkey lags behind even the war-torn Afghanistan.

Fifth factor – Turkey’s relationship with the West, especially with the United States, is going through a crisis. For a long time, Turkey has been viewed as a reliable partner and a mediator in the Middle East. Ankara’s foreign policy has exacerbated the relationship with Muslim states. They started to look at Turkey as an instrument of US Greater Middle East policy. Balancing between Washington, Arab states and Israel cannot continue forever. The Guardian believes that the Turkish plans have gone up in smoke with the Syrian crisis capping the climax.

Erdogan, penned in on all sides, has directed his wrath at the US for its support of Syrian Kurds.

All these factors, as well as Erdogan’s desire to get rid of rivals on the Turkish political landscape, could make the Turkish leadership raise the stakes. It will affect all directions of his foreign policy to destabilize the situation in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle and Near East.

(To be continued)

Part2

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) holds an extraordinary congress on May 22 where Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu doesn’t seek a new mandate as party chairman. The event takes place against the background of chaos and internal strife. Some scenarios predicted by experts and politicians look quite realistic.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan founded the party. He and Davutoglu are old comrades-in-arms. Now the President may be inclined to form a technical government till the next snap election. The goal is to get a clear majority of votes to push through a constitutional reform granting vast powers to the President. To facilitate the desired outcome, Erdogan may envisage several scenarios to destabilize situation in the regions that Ankara believes to be vital for its geopolitical aims.

First scenario – the destabilization of Nagorno-Karabakh to make Russia leave the negotiation process or even withdraw from the OSCE Minsk group. The Azerbaijani military will stage a provocation to make Armenia recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state with ensuing involvement of Yerevan into the conflict as a warring party. This scenario will make Russia follow the Collective Security Treaty Organization commitment to help Armenia and defend the Russian military base stationed in Gyumri. This development of events will stymie the economic and political relations between Moscow and Baku, including the energy sector. The scenario presupposes deterioration of internal situation in Armenia with some people staging protests under anti-Russian slogans. In an interview with Azerbaijani outlet Haqqin.az, Paruir Airikyan, an opposition leader, made a tentative step. According to him, the April skirmishes were initiated and provoked by Russia pursuing its aims. Airikyan said, Azerbaijan and Armenia should say «Goodbye, Russia!» as a preliminary condition for peaceful settlement. The politician believes that no solution to the problem could be found till Russia had a say in the process. Such initiatives fully dovetail with policy goals of Ankara.

Second scenario – provoking exacerbation of tensions in the areas close to the Turkey-Syria border to create a pretext for getting the Saudi Arabia-led Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf or the Gulf Cooperation Council entangled into the conflict. This could be done but Turkey will have to shoulder a heavy burden. It may also lead to its political isolation. Today Turkey has the image of a country spreading instability beyond its national borders.

According to Dr Barış Doster, Marmara University, Turkey, Ankara’s reliance on strategic partnership with Washington is erroneous. He believes the situation has changed. The United States is losing its strength. Russia’s influence in the Middle East is growing. Assad is winning in Syria. With the nuclear deal reached, Iran is emerging as a regional actor with growing influence in Syria and Iraq. Masoud Barzani, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the only remaining Turkey’s allies.

The Radical, puts it even more bluntly. The outlet writes that the policy implemented by Turkey during the recent seven years has created serious problems in its relationship with Israel, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Russia and the United States. Turkish sources report that Erdogan strives to prevent any possibility of crisis management in Syria. He realizes that sooner or later the conflict will be solved. The Turkish President does each and everything he can to preclude a peaceful settlement. Erdogan believes that peace in Syria does not meet Turkey’s interests. Someday there will be changes in Syria, Radical writes. Could the relations between Turkey and a new Syria get back to the 2010 standards becoming predictable and stable again? Especially when the world community is expressing readiness to work with the government elected by Syrian people. «Where will the staunch refusal to recognize reality lead Turkey to?» asks Radical.

Haydar Çakmak of Turkish Yeni Çağ believes Erdogan wants Turkey to be deeply entangled in the Syrian conflict.

The analyst warns that an intervention means losing what has been achieved in the relations with the Arab world during the recent 50 years. «Let Saudis go into Syria if they want to», he writes. According to him, «Turkey could limit its involvement to logistics and political support. The Justice and Development Party has already committed a blunder in Syria being adamant in its insistence that Assad must go. If Turkey crosses the border, it will make another big mistake».

Third scenario – inciting tensions between Russia and NATO to increase Turkey’s role in South-Eastern Europe. The West may make concessions on other issues of importance for Ankara: the relationship with the EU, Northern Cyprus and the Kurds. Turkey may take advantage of the fact that the activated NATO missile defense site in Romania covers its territory, reports Turkish Star gazette. The outlet says, Russia is the target for NATO. It does not mean that the Alliance will attack it. It means that Moscow will exert pressure on Europe. The missile defense site makes NATO take measures to counter the Russian threat. According to some reports, the expansion of NATO was the reason for deterioration of the situation in the Kurdish-populated parts of Turkey, including the skirmishes between Kurdish demonstrators and Turkish police in Sirnak, the capital of Şırnak Province near the border with Syria and Iraq.

These three scenarios could be activated separately of simultaneously. One should closely watch the events unfolding inside Turkey, especially those related to the election of the Justice and Development Party leader and the appointment of Prime Minister. There may be changed in the attitudes towards Turkey among its closest allies.

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