Photo: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 20, 2016 declares a state of emergency for three months with the goal of eliminating his internal enemies. Credit: Turkish government photo. - Photo: 2018

Erdoğan’s Neo-Ottomanism at a Dangerous Turning Point

By Pier Francesco Zarcone*

ROME (IDN) – It is not being dealt with by major media, but there appear to be new and dangerous winds of war about to blow in the eastern Mediterranean.

On October 15, 2016, in a speech at the university that (modestly) bears his name, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan outlined some lines of his new foreign policy, announcing the intention to regain territories lost by the Ottoman Empire following defeat in the First World War, with specific reference to Western Thrace and the Dodecanese, all areas belonging to Greece, in theory an ally of Turkey in NATO.

In December 2017 he was echoed by the head of the secular neo-Kemalist opposition, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who announced that Turkey would invade eighteen Greek islands in 2019 – as then Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit had done with Cyprus in 1974 – stating that “there is no document” demonstrating that these islands belong to Greece. This was to happen – and here lies the gravity of the situation – if his party (apparently Social Democratic) were to win the next elections.

Another sign came in Erdoğan’s speech on February 17 at a congress of his party (Justice and Development Party – AKP) held in Eskişehir. Speaking of the military action against Syrian Kurds, he proclaimed:

“Those who think that we have erased from our hearts the lands from which we withdrew in tears a hundred years ago are wrong. We say at every opportunity we have that Syria, Iraq and other places in the geography [map] in our hearts are no different from our own homeland. Wherever the call to prayer is understood, we fight so that we do not brandish a foreign flag. What has been done so far is nothing compared with the even more imposing attacks that we expect for the coming days: God wills it!”

Then, on his recent visit to Athens, Erdoğan had addressed – albeit only at the diplomatic level – the problem constituted by those Aegean islands situated near Anatolia that the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 had assigned to Greece, expressing the need for a review of that agreement.

In the meantime, it is worth noting, the final touches were being put to the sale to Turkey of the ultramodern Russian S-400 anti-missile system, an initiative highly criticised by NATO also because it is not compatible with other weapon systems used by the Atlantic Alliance.

It should be recalled that the Treaty of Lausanne – replacing the previous Treaty of Sèvres, which had been degrading for what remained of the Ottoman Empire – recognised the reconquest of the whole of Anatolia by Kemalist forces, and that in view of this the attribution to Greece of the now contested Thracian islands and territories was acceptable.

It was also a sort of sop to Athens, ruinously defeated by Atatürk after being installed with British support in the area of Smyrna, in the crazy dream of partly rebuilding the Byzantine Empire (it was the so-called Megali Idea).

The worrying episodes that form part of this pre-war climate are not lacking, and the recent confrontation in the Aegean between the Greek offshore patrol vessel 090 and the Turkish patrol boat Umut was only one element of the series. On July 28, 2017, for example, a Turkish CN-235 spy plane was intercepted by the Greeks, and shortly afterwards, on August 12, eleven Turkish F-16 planes trespassed in Greek air space over a twelve-hour period, resulting in thirteen occasions on which as many Greek planes engaged in interception. The trespassing took place in the skies of Limnos, Lesvos, Samos and Chios.

That belligerent revanchist intentions also rub off on the Turkish opposition is serious both in and of itself, and because the neo-Kemalists would be expected to have it clear why Atatürk had warned several times not to make enemies on the borders: the good and security of Turkey.

Today, Ankara’s troops (and as many enemies) are outside the borders of the Turkish Republic, in the occupied part of Cyprus, northern Syria and Iraq.

In the Iraqi area of Mosul area, Turkish troops are present once again without the permission of the Baghdad government, which in fact speaks of invasion. In the Mosul region, according to former Greek Chief of Staff General Fragkos Fragkoulis, Turkey intends to secure access to Iraqi oil. Would it be a surprise if, sooner or later, Erdoğan were to claim (perhaps resorting also to military action) the entire territory of the former vilayet of Mosul, to which Kemalist Turkey effectively aspired but which was assigned to Iraq by British will?

At this point the current operation in Syria presents disturbing connotations, which could lead to international complications and bloodshed. The problem is to understand against whom the “imperial” intentions of Erdoğan are really directed.

It is now so evident that the doors of Europe are closed for Turkey that the majority of Turks themselves have stopped taking it into account, and perhaps – with the Islamist wind that is blowing – they no longer want to enter.

Another example of how political myopia strikes “indirectly”: if instead of closing up (hypocritically, without saying so) into racist xenophobia and paranoid anti-Islamism – yet having a higher, clearly deficient cultural level – European leaders had taken the opportunity to allow that country in when the assertively “moderate” Muslims still did not have power, today we would perhaps have a different situation and different problems.

And probably the AKP could have counted on one less card: dangerous wounded Turkish pride, which inevitably falls back on the old saying: “the Turk has no friend but the Turk”.

Today Erdoğan, whose popular consensus does not seem to have waned, is angry with so many: Germany, the European Union, NATO and the United States, partly because of the failed coup against him – most likely triggered by his Western “allies” – with the addition that archenemy Fethullah Gülen continues to live peacefully in the United States. It cannot be ruled out that the hostile attitude towards Greece is part of a plan to create difficulties for NATO, of which both countries are part.

An article recently appeared in the Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak (perfectly aligned with Erdoğan) which, while on the one hand it increased Greek concerns, on the other it may provide elements of interpretation. Its author, İbrahim Karagül – an AKP “hardliner” considered the President’s unofficial spokesperson – writes that Erdoğan’s latest move follows the persistence of Western ambiguities and especially of the United States, false friend of Turkey and accomplice of the Kurdish enemy.

At this point, once the country had reunited around him, he would lead it to a new “war of independence” (after that of Atatürk), having all those who dared not to follow him classed as traitors of their country. In theory there could be neo-Kemalists among them, and perhaps (stressing perhaps) this would explain Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s “putting on a fierce face”. But this is not necessarily the case, because Turks are very sensitive to hyper-nationalist contagion.

On the fringes there are Erdoğan’s nods to Russia, it being understood that in Moscow it is well known how unreliable the Turkish president is. But he is not behaving well even as far as Russia is concerned, as shown by the “Olive Branch” operation, which can also be seen as part of a broader strategy in which the neo-Ottoman dreams of Islamic “moderate” Erdoğan can turn into a nightmare for others.

Recent events on the battlefield of Afrin make the possibilities of an extensive confrontation between Turkish and Syrian troops unrealistic.

Since it does not appear that the recent mass purges in the armed forces have reinforced its efficiency, if Syria reacts with the aid of Moscow, Erdoğan could end up calling on NATO for help, regardless of having previously pontificated that the obligations of the Atlantic Alliance do not extend to the Near East.

The Russians have so far maintained a cautious attitude, but as a successful ally of Assad they could not lose face by leaving the field open to Turkey. The fact is that it would not be Turkey that had been attacked – bearing in mind that the fighting is in Syrian and not Turkish territory – but it would not be strange if, by turning the tables, Erdoğan were to argue (in the Israeli way) that his was a preventive action to prevent Kurdish aggression.

The Turkish president proves to be a good student of the U.S. school of international politics – under which, when it is convenient, international law is waste paper – as well as in the uninhibited violations of other countries’ borders, as shown by the case of armed intrusion in energy exploration in the sea around Cyprus, a sovereign country and member of the European Union, at whose door Erdoğan pretends to keep knocking.

For several days, Turkey has blockaded the Saipem, a drilling vessel chartered by the Italian multinational oil and gas company ENI and duly authorised by the Cypriot government, citing completely unfounded claims based on international treaties.

The 1982 Treaty of Montego Bay establishes that the sovereignty of a State extends up to 12 nautical miles from its coast; however for the specific case of the exclusive exploitation of minerals and hydrocarbons it is extended to the whole of its continental platform, to be understood as the natural extension of landmass until it is at a more or less constant depth before sinking. But arrogance always pays.

And the poor and crippled Greece, left high and dry by the European Union? It has asked the United States for protection! In fact, its right-wing Minister of Defence, Panos Kammenos, has offered the Americans new bases in the Aegean; this is a risky move given the high rate of Washington’s betrayal of its allies in their moment of need, and then because it was done precisely to infuriate the Turks.

At the worst, hope costs nothing, but in this case what the object of hope might be is not clear. Hope for Turkey getting bogged down in Syria? But even if that were the case, can we be sure that Erdoğan would not seek revenge on the very weak Greece?

Hope that, in the meantime, he will satisfy his imperial appetites in the Near East? Apart from the fact that it does not go without saying that this will happen, nevertheless, even if it were to happen, there is no guarantee that his imperial appetite would be satisfied, especially if he were really intent on reconquering former Ottoman territories lost in the Near East and Europe.

A seemingly insane design, but considering all the factors in the field – including the tried and tested unwarlike nature of the various players – it is not certain that it really is, even if the consequences would be crazy.

* Pier Francesco Zarcone, with a degree in canonical law, is a historian of the labour movement and a scholar of Islam, among others. He is a member of Utopia Red (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: La Quinta (The Fifth). This article was originally published in Italian under the title Il Neo-Ottomanesimo di Erdoğan a Una Svolta Pericolosa in Red Utopia. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 January 2018]

Photo: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 20, 2016 declares a state of emergency for three months with the goal of eliminating his internal enemies. Credit: Turkish government photo.

IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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