Turkey Could Help Restore The Balance Between The U.S. And The Middle East

Balance Tight Rope

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With the Middle East in flames and news coming faster than governments can react, nothing is more important than to step back from the fray, take a deep breath and get some perspective. Historical perspective.That is particularly true when looking at what historians may consider the most important change in the Middle East recent years: the re-emergence of Turkey as an important regional player. The changes in Turkey’s foreign policy are deep and real, the consequences are unpredictable and large, and every other power interested in the Middle East (which means every power whose citizens like to drive cars and stay warm in the winter) needs to take account of Turkey’s new approach.

One starting place to get a sense of what Turkey is trying to do seems unlikely: look at Greece 100 years ago. Back when a Venezilos was the prime minister of Greece (rather than just the finance minister as is the case today), he had a Big Idea: the famous Μεγάλη Ιδέα.  The Ottoman Empire had lost World War One and was breaking up; it was obviously time for Greece to restore the Byzantine Empire by conquering what is now the west coast of Turkey and other Greek-inhabited regions of modern Turkey, including the ancient Greek imperial capital of Constantinople.


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It was a big idea and it led to the biggest catastrophe in modern Greek history: Turkish armies under the formidable general Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) drove the Greeks into the sea.  Hundreds of thousands of Greeks fled or were kicked out of the emerging republic of Turkey in a pattern that would continue until almost the last remaining Greeks left the city now officially known as Istanbul a generation ago.  (Hundreds of thousands of Turks and Muslims were forced out of Greece during the same period of time.)

But now it’s the Turks who have their own Big Idea and, like the Greek one, it’s a dream of turning east to restore their ancient imperial glory.  And like the Greek idea, it might even work — for a while.

The head of the Ottoman Empire wasn’t just a secular ruler.  He was widely acknowledged as the Caliph of Islam, the successor to the power of the followers of the prophet Muhammed.  By destroying the Byzantine Empire and twice besieging the seat of the Holy Roman Emperors in Vienna, the Sultans established themselves at the head of what once looked like Islam’s inevitable and divinely ordained conquest of Europe.  By putting Mecca under his protection (despite occasional rebellions by pesky Wahhabi rebels), he protected the annual pilgrimage and the holy shrines; until Osama bin Laden’s father began rebuilding Mecca and Medina in line with Saudi ideas, Ottoman design and religious sympathies shaped the landscape of pilgrimage.

In World War One the Caliph/Sultan declared both a conventional war and a jihad against the western Allies; the British, whose empire at the time included an estimated one half of the world’s Muslim population, were worried that the Caliph’s call would touch off a broader imperial struggle.  It didn’t, and the Caliph lost the war, and Mustafa Kemal made Turkey a secular republic.


The last Ottoman Caliph departs Dolmabahçe Palace
The last Ottoman Caliph departs Dolmabahçe Palace

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Kemal Atatürk and his followers believed that entanglements in the east would only lead modern Turkey away from its true interest: joining the west on equal terms.  Like the Japanese modernizers, Atatürk believed that his country had to adopt western ways rapidly or it would be carved up by expansionist European powers.

He was not delusional; at the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 the World War One Allies did exactly that, giving large chunks of Turkish territory to Armenia (at Woodrow Wilson’s prodding) and Greece, while assigning the majority of what remained to the victors as “spheres of influence”. Plans were also afoot to establish a Kurdish state in the east.

 Atatürk defeated the Greeks and the west to establish modern Turkey’s boundaries, and he was determined that Turkish “backwardness” would never leave his country exposed to this kind of danger again.  That meant turning Turkey’s back on the “primitive” east, Islamic law, Arabic script and everything that lured the new secular Republic away from the stern task of modernization.  The Turkish armed forces, immensely prestigious after their victory over the powers behind Sèvres, saw themselves as the custodians of Atatürk’s legacy — a role that they only finally seem to have abandoned this summer when the chiefs of the Turkish military resigned, allowing Erdogan to replace them with nominees of his choice.

Now that Prime Minister Erdogan, (pronounced AIR doe wan) has defeated Turkey’s secularists, he is looking to rebuild Turkey’s role as the leader of the Islamic world.  In the Middle East he will have some success.  The prestige of Turkey’s modernization and the admiration for its democratic transition from French-style secularism to something more, well, American gives him lots of prestige — especially in the ex-Ottoman world.  This is a change.

For many years Arab nationalists hated the Ottomans as a corrupt and imperial power who ruined Arab development prospects while failing to defend the Islamic world from imperialist Europe.  That hatred was especially strong in modern Syria and Lebanon where Arab nationalists (often led by missionary-educated Christian Arabs) were increasingly influential as the empire stumbled and western influence grew.

In any case, Erdogan’s AK Party is interested in overturning Atatürk’s secularism and overcoming his rejection of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage.  For many AK supporters, the Ottoman era wasn’t an era of darkness and backwardness that Turkey needs to forget.  It was in some respects at least a golden age of prosperity and peace, when a Turkish Sultan was the Caliph of Islam and Islam was the most widespread and, perhaps, respected religion in the world.  Europeans trembled at the thought of the Great Turk, and from Hungary and Algeria through Egypt and Iraq, his word was law.

For many Turks, a new arc of history now looks clear.  The Turks under Atatürk and the Kemalists modernized; now they are returning to their Islamic roots with a unique blend of advanced technology and economic success.  This is not about conquest or the restoration of an actual empire — the Turks are subtler than were the Greeks.  Where the Ottomans ruled by fire and the sword, the modern Turks will lead Islam by example and inspiration; Turks have achieved while Arabs can only dream.  Now Turkey, in this view, returns to lead the Arabs into the light and Turkey’s unique role and prestige among the Arabs will give it new power and stature in the west.  One can see why many young Turks are optimistic about the most glorious prospects Turks have seen since Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror) entered Constantinople in 1453.


Mehmed II enters Constantinople
Mehmed II enters Constantinople

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These bright hopes colour the way that some Turks look at events next door.  Syria was much more a part of the late Ottoman world than Egypt where first local rulers and later the British had replaced Ottoman authority in all but name long before the empire fell.  Syria was different.  Unlike the rebellious provinces in Europe, filled with disloyal and ungrateful Christians constantly intriguing with European powers to win independence, Syria was relatively quiet under Ottoman rule.  More, the Sunni majority was more supportive of Ottoman rule than were the subversive Christian and Alawi minorities.

These days a Sunni Turk can look at Syria and see a Sunni majority oppressed by secularism, heresy and dictatorship all at once.  On the one hand, that creates strong domestic pressure on Erdogan to “do something” about the butcheries so close at hand; on the other, it creates unrealistic expectations about the Syrian public’s reaction to greater Turkish regional leadership.

For Erdogan’s government, the first stages of its “return to the east” were generally pleasant.  Strong criticism of Israel’s attack on Gaza and his tough response to Israel’s attack on last year’s Gaza flotilla made Erdogan enormously popular in the Arab world.  His reputation for opposing the US war in Iraq also raised his profile.  Better commercial relations with Syria and Iran boosted Turkish exports and trade.  His intervention into the Iranian nuclear issue had little effect on the course of the dispute but played well at home where voters saw Turkey emerging as a global leader on an issue that mattered to them.

More, Turkey’s role as the de facto head of western Sunnism looked promising.  The state of the Sunni Arab world is deeply depressing.  The fall of Saddam Hussein, the ever-tightening relationship of Syria and Iran, the growing Shi’a power in Lebanon and more recently Iran’s success (with Syrian help) at building its influence in Gaza, paint a disturbing picture of Sunni fecklessness and decline.  Dominated by corrupt dinosaurs like former Egyptian president Mubarak or ruled by immensely wealthy and not particularly courageous or attractive royal families, the western Sunni world hungered for leadership that Turkey might be ready to provide.

The great idea of a return to the east was looking good.

But Atatürk’s instinct that Turkey needed to turn west was based on more than a sense that the west was where the power and the money could be found.  It was also based on a sense that the east was a trap: full of danger and complications that could endanger Turkey’s stability if Turks were sucked into its quarrels.

Nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism were the forces that shredded the Ottoman Empire.  The nineteenth century brought “national revivals” to various ethnic minorities throughout the empire — starting with the Greeks and the Serbs and finishing with the Arabs and the Jews.  Tribal rivalries in the Arab world undermined the effectiveness of Ottoman rule; Kurdish, Armenian and Greek minorities threatened the territorial integrity of Turkey.

These days, the world west of Turkey has mostly been ethnically cleansed and homogenized.  The German minorities in central and eastern Europe were expelled back to Germany after 1945; except in the Caucasus the Soviets also cleaned ethnic house, moving Poles hundreds of miles west and shifting Turkish and other minorities to the east from places like the Crimea.  The Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the struggle over Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians were one (one hopes) among the last European flare ups of the long wars of the nations which gradually forged modern nation states out of the ethnic and religious hodgepodge of Europe 150 years ago. Tens of millions died and tens of millions more were driven from their homes, but except for some occasional belches and booms, the volcano has finished exploding.

That is not true to Turkey’s east. Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iraq (to say nothing of Israel and the Palestinian territories) are still on the ethnic and sectarian boil.  None of these countries have borders that match up with their ethnic composition; religious divisions still have the power to kill; tribal loyalties are oblivious to artificial boundary lines.  There is probably a lot of killing still to be done and a lot of ethnic and religious refugees to be made before these countries settle down into something like a final form.

Involvement with the east might start with expanding Turkish trade and enhancing Turkey’s diplomatic and Islamic profiles; it will be very difficult to ensure that it does not entangle Turkey into intractable conflicts across the region.  Indeed, Turkish foreign policy has already been destabilized by the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Israel-Palestinian rivalries, and the Kurdish question in Iraq, Syria and Iran brings Turkey new and vexing headaches every day.

Asserting itself as an Islamic and Middle Eastern power plunges Turkey more deeply into this morass; it also triggers religious and ethnic tensions within Turkey itself.  The AK is predominantly a Sunni party but up to a fifth of Turks belong to the Alevi faith, a form of Islam that is rooted in Twelver Shi’ism but has a more tolerant and universalist view than, say, the bigoted orthodoxies of Tehran.  Many Alevi oppose the AK Party and what some see as its Sunni sectarianism; a secular government sounds very attractive when you belong to a religious minority.

And of course there are the Kurds.  Numbers as usual are controversial, but there are probably about as many Kurds as Alevis in Turkey; in total the two populations probably account for a bit more than a third of the total Turkish population of 73,000,000.  Under the Kemalists, a policy of “Turkification” tried to make good Turks out of the Kurds — with very mixed success.

Any eastern expansion of Turkish influence immediately deepens Turkey’s engagement with the Kurdish question.  The parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran closest to Turkey have large Kurdish minorities; Turkey fears that if any part of this multinational Kurdish territory gained independence, Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey would get support — and that an independent state could use the UN and other forums to get publicity for the cause.

At the same time, moving east and south sharpens Turkey’s definition as a Sunni power.  The Ottomans and the Iranians were regional rivals for centuries; the Ottomans ruled over most of modern Iraq and the two empires struggled for influence in the Caucasus and in other border regions.  Today, when Iran is busy cementing the “Shi’a crescent” from Iran through Lebanon, any assertion of Turkish power would immediately lead to a contest between the two.  Iraq is likely to be a flashpoint; Turkey cannot help but be concerned with Iraq given its proximity, its oil potential and its large and organised Kurdish autonomous zone.

Iraq is also a balance-tipper.  If Iraq tilts toward Iran the Middle East has one kind of shape and Iran is a major player across the Fertile Crescent.  If Iraq resists Iran, the Iranians are thrust to the margins of the Middle East.  Turkey’s interests in Iraq run closely parallel to those of the US: it wants Iraq to have a strong national government that is free of Iranian influence and ultimately Turkey probably cares about that more than does the United States.

The regional dynamics are even more complex.  In a rivalry between Turkey and Iran, Russia would not look on indifferently; Russia would be unwilling to see a NATO power extend its reach into a region where Russia has strong interests.  For now, when the Saudis are as worried about a rising Iran and what they see as an irresolute US, they are likely to welcome Turkish influence as a counterbalance to Iran.  The minute the Iranian threat begins to diminish, however, the Saudis and the Turks are likely to fall out.  Saudi Islam and Turkish Islam are very different, and the House of Saud (which rebelled against the Ottoman sultans more than once) would likely see a too-strong Turkey with a more liberal Islam as a serious religious threat.

To face east for Turkey is to face a sea of troubles — but there is the allure of all that trade and the vision of a greater global role.

Before the Syrian rebellion, Turkey thought it had found a way to square the circle.  Its famous “no problems” foreign policy sought good relations with the neighbours and while the Assads were firmly in control, it worked pretty well.  Trade relations between Turkey and Syria boomed, and the stability of the Assad regime kept all the messy political implications of the Turkish initiative at bay.

The Syrian rebellion changed all that.  Erdogan and his government are trapped between the need to support the rights of their co-believers and the fear of chaos and greater Iranian influence in Syria.  At times the Turks have tried to support Assad while counseling him to go easy on the dissidents; when Assad ignores this advice it makes Turks look weak.  More recently, the Turks have shifted to criticise the bloodshed, but that naturally leads to the question, “What are you going to do about it?”

So far, the answer is nothing; that again makes the Turks look weak.  This has been unpleasant; the return to the east has gone from a no-brainer to a no-gainer in Turkish foreign policy.

The dilemmas Turkey faces today are both like and unlike Greece’s problems 100 years ago.  The problem with the Greek ‘big idea’ was that Turkey was too strong.  The problem with the Turkish ‘big idea’ is that its eastern neighbours are too unstable and too weak.

Where the dilemmas are similar is that neither country can accomplish its objectives without strong support from outside the region.  Greece believed that the western Allies and the United States (which had never declared war on the Ottoman Empire but for humanitarian and religious reasons was deeply interested in the fate of the Armenians, Arabs and Jews) would support its eastward expansion.  That didn’t happen; World War One had exhausted the Allies and with the whole world unsettled after the war they were not interested in yet another conflict in the ruins of Europe.  The Americans were turning inward; Woodrow Wilson at one point was interested in the US assuming a League of Nations mandate over Armenia and perhaps more; rising US isolationism and Wilson’s shattered physical and political health after the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles took the US out of the picture.  Without outside help and lots of it, the Greek adventure was doomed.

Turkey will also need outside partners to take on Iran, balance the Saudis and play a leading role in building stable, modern societies in the Arab world.  In particular, the logic of a more ambitious Turkish approach to the Middle East points toward a renewed partnership with the US.  That would be a difficult balancing act for both countries; much of Turkey’s popularity in the Arab world today is due to a perception that it is an alternative to US leadership in the region rather than a US ally.  The history of bad feeling over Iraq (somewhat lessened by cooperation over the complicated Kurdish issue) is an obstacle, and neither Erdogan, his party or indeed his country wants to be seen as America’s regional deputy.  Concretely, greater Turkish influence in the region would inevitably drag Turkey into the Palestinian issue; it is hard to see how Turkey, the US, Israel and the Palestinians could make that work, and how disagreements over Israel-Palestinian questions could be contained without throwing the broader relationship off-kilter at least from time to time.

There are other problems as well.  Some of the Wikileaks cables point to a clash of cultures between American diplomats and AK leaders; like many populist movements newly arrived in the halls of power, the AK brings some attitudes and expectations to the diplomatic process that don’t mesh well with the normal ways states do business.  The views of many Turks about how the world should work and how Turkey should be treated are both very strong and very much at odds with the way experienced diplomats work.  The interests of the two countries are not identical: the US, like the Saudis, is more interested in Turkey as a balancing power to keep Iran in check than it is in promoting a new era of Turkish leadership in the Levant.

This all leads to the conclusion that the new Turkish and Middle Eastern realities are going to be hard for the various interested parties inside and outside the region to understand and accommodate.  As new Arab regimes begin to pull themselves together and develop new political and economic goals for their countries, the picture will become even more complex.

Erdogan and the “neo-Ottomans” (the phrase is widely used but not helpful) are right and wrong.  They are right that Turkey today cannot avoid deepening its relationships with other regional powers in the former Ottoman lands.  They are right that many people in the Arab world have a new appreciation for Turkey’s success as a modernizer and democratizer.  They are right that the economic opportunities of the region can help Turkey sustain its prosperity and that Turkish merchants and Turkish firms can compete with Europeans, Americans and Asians.  But they are wrong if they think that Turkey can stabilise the Middle East or even that greater involvement to the east and south will not bring new dangers and costs.

A deeper Turkish involvement in the region may well be necessary and has its advantages from a Turkish point of view; but Turks are likely to find the life of a Middle Eastern power is frustrating.  In this at least, Americans can fully sympathize.  We know just how that feels.

On the whole, in spite of the inevitable clashes and disagreements, a greater Turkish presence in the Middle East will likely be welcome in Washington. US foreign policy is ultimately much stronger when we are an offshore balancer rather than an on-site occupying power.  In the Middle East the impotence and division of the Sunni Arabs in contrast with Iran’s aggressive stance creates an imbalance which the US currently must try to make up on our own. Turkey can help restore that balance, something that would ultimately let the US shrink its Middle Eastern footprint without compromising vital interests.

Turkey, on the other hand, is likely to benefit from Washington’s tacit support — especially if the relationship is not too public and it doesn’t look as if Washington rather than Ankara is running the show.

Much can and usually does go wrong when big historical changes take place.  Turkey is likely to have a rocky road as it turns back on the road Atatürk abandoned, and Turkish-US relations are likely to cause intermittent heartburn and table thumping in both countries.  Nevertheless, it looks as if their shared interests lead the US and Turkey to update and renegotiate their 60 year old partnership in a changing region.

This post originally appeared on The American Interest.