When Ataturk founded modern Turkey he took advantage of the one moment in history when Turkish nationalism had an exclusive character. Turkish political leaders have always had a deep-seated need to project themselves everywhere, and not only within their former empire. You can’t run Turkey and allow it to be on the fringes of Europe and Asia: it must be a leading player in both, or the locals won’t stand for it.
It takes little imagination to see that Turkey has a Grand Plan in its old stomping ground of the Middle East. It has shown that it is willing to break ranks with other NATO members and put its own needs first, even when ostensibly part of the same operation. It is not happy with anyone else shaping the region to suit themselves, but this is not because they are rivals of Turkey but because they are not Turkey itself.
Most recently Turkey has been with working with the Free Syrian Army, but fighting other less embedded terrorists rather than Assad. This is not because it is threatened by those terrorists, but because it is seeking to balance what the US in doing in its so-called war on terrorism – working hand-in-hand with the PKK and Kurdish fighters in Syria and the region, who are currently bigger threats to Turkey than Syria.
Turkey’s interests in Syria, and Mosul, centre on oil. As long as oil flows, illegally, from these places to Turkish industry and the country’s overseas clients Turkey doesn’t mind Syria being carved up in the process. However US actions put the PKK, and Kurds in general, closer to that oil. Ankara won’t have the resources to resist its domestic Kurds, or threaten anyone else, if the PKK gets its hands on the oil.
But for domestic consumption all this is being framed as a national crusade. Turkey feels it is entitled to all the resources of its former empire. Even if these countries are independent, they are still expected to pay due deference to Turkey as their former master, in the same way members of the Commonwealth are expected to follow the UK’s lead in international affairs and resource exploitation. If they don’t, Turkey is prepared to fight to regain what was once its own, because it wouldn’t be Turkey if it didn’t take charge.
All this is laid out in Turkey’s National Pact, a document Erdogan suggested the Prime Minister of Iraq should read to understand Turkey’s interest in Mosul. The pro-government Turkish media are also redrawing Turkey’s borders in a series of maps, including a number of areas Turkey still has a historical claim to.
But why is Turkey being allowed to get away with this, when this independent action would see it branded as an aggressor under other circumstances?
Turkey is being allowed to think it can reclaim its old glory because Russia sees Turkish dominance of the Middle East as beneficial to itself in the long-term. It would balance the US presence there, and provide the threat that if Russia is branded as the enemy for ever more the West might lose Turkey too.
Despite all its efforts to demonise Turkey and Muslims, the West doesn’t really want Turkey on the opposite side, because it also has historical memory. To appease the millions of EU citizens whose homelands were ruled by the Ottomans for 500 years, it would have to deal with Russia as a partner, however much those same people also hate the Russians.
This was confirmed by the recent Turkish military action in Syria, which was undertaken in collaboration with the Russians. It was only a year ago that Turkey shot down a Russian jet over Syria, an action which had severe diplomatic repercussions. Russia would not be working with Turkey, or vice versa, unless the two countries had identified a mutual interest which overrode any conflict between them.
The basis of this mutual interest is spelled out in the Astana memorandum, signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey. This establishes de-escalation areas in a number of locations in Syria, in which conflict is supposed to end and humanitarian assistance is to be provided, which will be policed by these three countries. It confirms that the three countries will continue to fight ISIS and other groups declared terrorist by the UN, but that everyone else should respect a ceasefire within these zones.
According to global affairs analyst Patrick Henningsen, this memorandum reformulates the language of the Syrian conflict from the fabricated, inverted reality used by NATO and moves its centre of gravity eastwards, by making the regional powers responsible for resolving the conflict. As a Kremlin press release from Sept. 25 says: “The Syrian de-escalation zones give an opening for putting an end to the civil war in the country and for a political settlement of the crisis based on respect for Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
This action is a direct contradiction of the US and NATO policy of removing Assad because he is considered the greater threat. The nature of the de-escalation zones, as spelled out, also makes them starkly different to the demilitarised zones established by NATO during the Balkan Wars, which were never demilitarised from within but became arms dumps from which attacks on Serbs were launched with impunity.
Furthermore, it was the US which instigated the Syrian conflict by selecting “moderate” terrorists it could use to create a Kurdish state in the region. If other powers walk in and sort it out, more attention will be paid to this, and US freedom of action in other countries will be curtailed. We might also note that US-Turkish relations have been on the rocks since Washington refused to extradite the US-based Gulen to Turkey. With Trump under pressure in the US for alleged illegal links with the Russians, it will soon be asked why this action was taken, when it produced the diplomatic outcome Russia wanted but the West didn’t.
For all these reasons, these zones present a challenge to the West. But if this challenge is met head on this will drive Turkey into Russia’s orbit, not Europe’s, and all parties concerned know Europe hasn’t got the nerve to do that.
Strategic Depth is deeper than we thought
To gain greater insight into what is becoming a consistent Turkish policy, the place to start is the 2001 book by Ahmet Davutoğlu called Strategic Depth. In this the former Prime Minister talks about creating Lebensraum for the Turkish people. He also promotes his version of pan-Islamism, which unlike some other versions makes the term synonymous with neo-Ottomanism.
As a piece of political theory, this book presented a point of view. But Davutoglu was not only Turkey’s Prime Minister but Minister of Foreign Affairs. Until his resignation on 5 May 2016 he was considered the architect of a new Turkish foreign policy, which is exactly what he said it should be in his book.
This is why some question Davutoglu’s actual importance in foreign policy. It is very convenient to say that others wrote the policy, or that things just happened that way, when people know how much of Mein Kampf became a reality a few years after that book had been openly published, and been made required reading, when those who had actually read it had a responsibility to prevent such things occurring.
Drawing new maps on TV is not a harmless pastime. It is often forgotten that Indira Gandhi’s famous attack on the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holy shrine of the Sikh community , was largely driven by separatist Sikhs publishing a map of their separate “Khalistan” homeland which included New Delhi. On Argentinian maps the Falkland Islands are described as belonging to Argentina, the British ownership of them being deemed illegal. As in Gandhi’s reverse case, it was inevitable that when the Buenos Aires government had other problems it would show how big it was by enforcing this historic claim, even if that brought that government down.
Maybe Europe, despite being full of old empires, thought the Turks weren’t serious, or wouldn’t dare because they wanted Europe too much. But it is that desire for Europe, and Europe’s encouragement of it for its own ends, which have helped create the present situation, which Erdogan has once twisted into one in which he can’t lose.
Erdogan has complained publicly about the Treaty of Lausanne, which drew modern Turkey’s borders after the Ottoman Empire was dismembered after World War I https://www.voanews.com/a/turkey-erdogan-treaty-of-lausanne-borders/3547651.html. He says it made the country too small, and put many ethnic Turks outside its boundaries. The corollary of this is that those of other nationalities, such as Kurds and Armenians, who were included in the new Turkey should be able to separate from it. But Erdogan would not accept that, because ethnic homogeneity was not the point he was making.
Erdogan reckons that the Treaty of Lausanne should be set aside because Turkey is on the right side of global politics, not a vanquished enemy as it was then. After all, the West keeps telling it how important a strategic ally it is, and Turkey has housed US and NATO bases for a very long time, even when it was a military dictatorship seemingly at odds with Western rhetoric about what countries should be.
Turkey should be rewarded for good behaviour, says Erdogan. If not, it will have no obligation to play others, game anymore, and will do what it wants to redress the Western insult. It has all the tools it needs to settle accounts, lots of unpaid proxy fighters and refugees, official and unofficial to toss across the border to flow to Old Europe, especially Germany, as the preferred venue.
Russia does not want Turkey calling the shots alone, and neither does Turkey want its old empire dominated by the Russians who liberated large chunks of it. But they both know the West doesn’t want either of them to expand their influence either.
The two countries can best achieve that by working together. The Western need for Turkey provides both countries with a protective shield, and when Russia has played its usual game of demonstrating how the West has compromised itself it is more likely to put Turkey in direct control of the new reality rather than stay itself, as Turkey would be happy to do Russia’s bidding to remain in that position provided it could pretend to its own public that it was really in charge again.
The Middle Eastern peoples also have historical memories of the Turks. They have no more wish to see them in charge again than East Europeans do. But those very historical memories encourage them to play a long game. If Turkey can help them remove the US, a disease of the skin, the Middle Eastern countries can preserve their souls, and they can deal with the Turks at a later date.
US plans for a Kurdish State are being undone, to the delight of Turkey, and with efforts to eliminate Assad faltering it is likely to be totally expelled from Syria. The Middle East has too much oil to be allowed to run its own affairs. So someone will have to fill the void, and from a US point of view too that may as well be Turkey, if it has to be. At least it is still technically a Western ally, and if the West helps it run the Middle East this might turn it away from Russia, which current US policy has failed to accomplish.
At least for now it would also be in the Western interest to allow Turkey a freer hand in the Middle East, so it gains no benefit from allying with Russia. Such an arrangement would ignore the local population, but that is what the US does all the time. It would help the US even more if it turned Turkey’s increased influence in the Middle East into an extension of present US policy, beating the Russians again whilst behaving just as badly as ever.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.