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The Neo-Ottomans: Honor or Geopolitical Interests

In early September, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a conversation with an opposition leader that Turkey will not deviate from its policy of tough relations with Israel no matter how many millions of dollars it costs. After all, honor has no price.

Honor is honor, and Turkey clearly does not plan on giving up its chance at receiving dividends from the game of the Middle East, as evidenced by its actions after Arab Spring got underway. However, the increased level of Middle East activity by the heir to the Ottoman Empire can be traced to the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, which led both to the current conflict between Turkey and Israel and to Turkey’s aggressive involvement in the region’s geopolitical game.

Whereas in the 1990s Ankara was trying to gain a foothold in the Central Asian republics and the Turkic-speaking territories in Russia and Ukraine by professing Pan-Turkism, it is now pursuing a rapidly evolving neo-Ottomanism. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke openly about the reorientation of Turkey’s foreign policy in a November 2009 speech to members of the ruling Justice and Development Party. “The Ottoman Empire left a legacy. They call us ‘neo-Ottomans.’ Yes, we are ‘new Ottomans.’ We are forced to deal with neighboring countries. And we even go to Africa. The great powers are dismayed by that.” Davutoğlu spoke those words a year and a half ago. In light of recent developments, they could not have captured Turkey’s policies in North Africa and throughout the Middle East any better.

Thus, the neo-Ottomans have been “forced” to deal with the Palestinian issue, to pacify the Kurds, condemn Assad, build relations with Iran while looking at the United States, and fight the venerable sharks of the West for its energy interests. And the West encourages Turkey’s aspirations to occupy a key position in the region, within reasonable limits, of course.

The Turkish model of Islamic society has long been seen as something for Arab forces in transition to emulate. The clash between Ankara and Riyadh, whose interests are at cross purposes in many areas beyond the Middle East chessboard, also benefits the West. For example, Turkey is not opposed to expanding its presence in Africa, where Saudi Arabia also has a distinct interest. Nor should we forget about the competition between Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the post-Soviet space for the affections of the Muslim populations in the former Soviet republics. A striking example of this competition is the Crimean-Tatar ethnic group, which both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been interested in for 15 years.

Despite the fact that the emergence of two opposing centers in the region benefits the West by reducing the influence of the Sauds, Turkey’s active Middle East policies are fraught with unpleasant consequences: they strengthen the Tehran-Ankara geopolitical axis. Although Turkey has been forced to develop its relations with Iran while considering the mood of the White House, further expansion of Turkish-Iranian relations is consistent with the aspirations of the new Ottomans on several counts.

First, a stronger Turkish-Iranian bloc threatens Saudi influence in the region more than a Turkish-Saudi conflict.

Second, with Tehran’s support, Erdoğan has a good chance of gaining more influence in the Arab-Israeli conflict zone. Iranian support for Turkey’s Freedom Flotilla suggests that the Iranian government is interested in having Turkey intervene in the Middle East peace process because Tehran has traditionally not wanted peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And since Turkey can introduce even more confusion into the boiling Arab-Israeli cauldron, Iran is ready to do its part to further destabilize the situation, especially considering the issue of Palestinian statehood that is about to come up at the UN.

Third, Iran is willing to support Turkey in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Tehran does not simply understand Ankara because it has its own Kurdish problem, it is prepared to act for a more pragmatic reason—Turkey’s claims to Northern Iraq, which the Turks call “a natural geographic extension of Turkey,” in hopes of acquiring the “city of black gold”—KirkukOnce part of the Sublime Porte, Kirkuk is located in one of Iraq’s key oil fields. In addition to the Kurds, who consider Kirkuk their historic territory, it is also inhabited by ethnic Turkmens, which gives the neo-Ottomans an additional reason for meddling in northern Iraq. In exchange for supporting Turkey’s claims on Kirkuk, Tehran expects to receive support in their own bid for southern Iraq, which Iran has coveted for years—al-Fakkah.

Fourth, Turkish-Iranian relations also have a ready springboard for development—the so-called “Islamic Eight,” or D -8. Started by former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the organization included Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Nigeria. Incidentally, the first D-8 summit meeting was held in 1997. The project seemed headed for the scrap heap when Erbakan departed the political scene, but efforts by Iranian President Ahmadinejad gave it new life in 2010. Time will tell whether the motivations for further friendship between Turkey and Iran are sufficient to keep the friendship going in earnest. Meanwhile, Turkey is consulting with Iran regarding the fight against the PKK and the situation in Syria and is contemplating an opportune moment for a personal meeting between Erdoğan and Ahmadinejad.

Like Iran, Ankara has moved towards rapprochement with Egypt. Erdoğan’s visit to Cairo last week during his tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya brought several things to light. His unprecedented Egyptian trip, which had the establishment of a strategic partnership as its purpose, caused even more clouds to gather over Israel. The Israelis were unhappy that the Mubarak regime fell, but an alliance between a militant Turkey and Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood could sweep to power, is too much. However, despite Erdoğan’s statement at Arab League headquarters in Cairo about the “Arab duty” to support the Palestinian bid for statehood, he did not travel to Gaza as expected, which suggests that his neo-Ottoman ambitions have not yet deprived him of all common sense. However, the cancellation of his Gaza trip had virtually no effect on the mood of the Egyptians, who dubbed the Turkish prime minister “the savior of Islam” and “the hero of Gaza.” The euphoria accompanying Erdoğan’s visit to Egypt, which is reminiscent of the Obamamania following Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, testifies to the disorientation of Egyptian society and the uncharacteristic willingness of the Arab street to accept Erdoğan as a model leader in the wake of the revolution. The only question is, how long will the euphoria last? Will it be replaced by the same kind of bitter disappointment that ensued when the hopes placed on Barack Hussein Obama turned out to be unjustified?

What will the fallout be from Operation Barbarossa: Aegean Shield, which proposes having the Turkish navy on alert both off the coast of Cyprus and Israel and in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean? Will it perhaps result in competition for the resources in Block 12 by the neo-Ottoman Leviathan, which will cast its gaze on the former Arab possessions after Israel and Cyprus?

Erdoğan is much closer to the Arabs than Obama, of course, but how do we tell where honor leaves off and the intricate neo-Ottoman game begins? That remains an open question.


Zhanna Igoshina is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations of the Institute of Social Sciences of I. I. Mechnikov Odessa National University. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.

© 2009 AOSS (Academy of Open Society Security)