Numerous policies and statements betray the nature of Turkish strategies towards its Arab neighbours with the aim of securing a permanent presence on their territories. The measures, rubrics and contexts leave little doubt that Turkey has embarked on a project to “revive old bonds”, a movement that former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu termed “neo-Ottomanism”.
In pursuit of this project, Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments exploit the harsh circumstances in other countries. Often military bases are the first foothold in a process that seeks to connect foreign territories more closely to Turkey than to the central authorities at home. It is a modus operandi more keeping with the “old Ottomanism” rather than anything new.
Turkey has military bases in Syria, Iraq, Qatar and Somalia. Most recently it has set its sights on Libya where it now operates a naval base in Misrata and an airbase in Watiya. As a general rule, Turkish policy towards the Arab region prefers muscle flexing, sabre rattling and brinksmanship as a means to impose de facto realities. Such “rough tactics” are the AKP’s methods of choice for expanding Turkish influence in the Middle East. Its military pacts with local militant organisations and militias, and most recently with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, are part of the process and, in some cases, the packaging. Like the groups with which it enters into league, Ankara targets “soft” states to expand its influence into permanent military presences while its language of diplomacy and bartering is articulated at gunpoint.
Such policies and behaviours are not temporary shifts in tactics or transient phenomena. They are a manifestation of a fundamental change in the Turkish political mentality which has grown increasingly ultranationalist, religiously fanatic and bellicose.
LEGITIMISATION DEVICES: Turkey’s ability to manoeuvre, escalate politically and intervene militarily in the region has capitalised on Arab weakness, Iranian pressures on the Arab region, and a period of latency in Egypt’s regional leadership due to Egypt’s need to rebuild capacities and avoid risky adventures. Turkey is also aware of sharpening international divisions, especially those caused by the Russian return to the regional and international scenes, which have opened opportunities that had not been present two decades ago. In particular, Turkey has seized on inter-European and trans-Atlantic divides in order to move into “grey areas” and to act counter to the policies of its Western allies which are at odds with each other over dozens of bilateral and international issues.
Turkey’s neo-Ottoman brand of ethnocentric nationalism is the primary driver of its aggressive strategy to occupy portions of the Arab world. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Libya and other countries of North Africa are the heritage of his forefathers and the legacy of his country. In a recent speech, he said: “Turkey has a vast historical and civilisational basin. The Mediterranean and North Africa are an important part of that basin. Libya is the legacy of our Ottoman Empire.”
The “new” Turkish policy is to legitimise its “old” policies of imperial conquest and military occupation. It has developed some new means as well, some involving “Turkification” through the dissemination of Turkish language and culture. It has mobilised electronic armies, hundreds of internet sites, dozens of satellite television stations to infiltrate societies and advance its foreign policies.
In tandem with its military drives in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Libya, Ankara has expanded its Turkish language education programmes, cultural centres abroad and foreign student grant programmes. Even in its official rhetoric, its expansionist designs are becoming less and less disguised. On the 98th anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, President Erdogan paid tribute to the “leader of the war of independence, the builder of our republic and its first president, Ghazi (warrior) Mustafa Kemal”. He went on to say: “We challenge all who reduce the history of our country to 90 years. We must take all measures, including the revision of our textbooks starting from primary school. Turkey cannot be confined to 780,000 square kilometres.”
Former Turkish president Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the AKP, has made similar intimations. He once stated that Turkey relinquished Mosul to Iraq, but if that country were to undergo partition, Turkey would have certain rights to claim. More recently, in a speech in Bursa, Erdogan said: “We did not accept our current borders willingly... Some people ask out of total ignorance what Turkey has to do with Iraq or Syria. All that geography is part of our soul.”
Turkish media has disseminated maps depicting the areas once under Ottoman control. One map effectively presents Turkey’s plans to expand its present-day borders to include Mosul and Kirkuk in Iraq, and a long strip of territory in northern Syria. In addition to reviving ancient historical claims, the Erdogan regime has been advancing its agenda through relations with Turkmen minorities, some Iraqi Kurdish parties and some Sunni forces.
THE HISTORICAL DIMENSION: Ankara sought to exploit the security breakdown in the Middle East that followed the Arab Spring in order to export the structural weaknesses that pervade the Turkish state due to sectarian, ethnic and regional conflicts in Anatolia. Towards this end, it strove to add an “Ottoman” layer of identity on top of the Ataturk Turkic and Anatolian identity of the state, drawing on the broader Islamic bond, which became a unifying theme in its foreign policy. Then, harking back to the Ottoman era and Turkey’s centricity as the seat of the caliphate, Erdogan has repeatedly called for amendments to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne in accordance with which the allied powers recognised the Turkish republic in its current boundaries. The pro-Erdogan historian Kadir Misiroglu deplored the treaty as a “defeat and degradation”, because in signing it “the Turks relinquished their leadership of the Muslims and settled for a small patch of land.”
Turkey has taken a number of actions to alter its official borders with Arab countries. It was no coincidence that its first military operation into Syria coincided with the 500th anniversary of the battle of Marj Dabeq (8 August 1516). Ankara’s pretext for the operation has less to do with the alleged plans of Syrian Kurds to establish an autonomous government in northern Syria than with its own territorial designs. In a meeting with Turkish mukhtars in Ankara, Erdogan said that the areas in northern Syria that threatened to become a “terrorist belt” fell within the borders of the “Turkish National Charter”. Under the charter, adopted by the Turkish parliament in 1920, Turkey claims the right to determine the fate of such territories outside its boundaries, as Mosul, Aleppo and Kirkuk.
Turkey’s positions on many events in Iraq have been informed by AKP irredentism. A government spokesman held that Ankara retained historical rights based on bilateral and international agreements which, he stressed, referred to the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 and the Ankara Treaty of 1926. It is often the case, therefore, that Turkish reactions to developments in Iraq have less to do with their impacts on Turkish interests than with the regime’s perception of Turkish historical rights in Mosul and the rights of Turkmen in Kirkuk.
In the pursuit of its designs Turkey relies on local proxies: the Turkmen, Peshmerga and National Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, and the Free Army and Al-Nusra Front in Syria.
In Libya, it relies on mercenaries and remnants of terrorist groups that it has shipped over from Syria in order to advance its expansionists project there and elsewhere in North Africa.
The Turkish regime has its heart set on the vast natural resources of the Arab region to support its expansionist project, which it has been pursuing militarily, through its proxies and by means of its Turkification drives. It is pursuing these designs most intensely in western Libya, northern Syria and northern Iraq where the Turkish regime cultivates factions that subscribe to its ideological and political agendas. Already in some places Turkish flags flutter atop some government buildings and pictures of Erdogan grace the walls inside.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly