The Myth of Neo-Ottomanism
Published Tuesday, December 11, 2012
A myth is haunting Turkey – the myth of neo-Ottomanism. And to the degree that it is perceived to be instrumental in overthrowing the Syrian regime, the Western powers, Gulf monarchies and the Muslim Brotherhood parties actually contributed to this myth-making, by invoking the leadership role Turkey can play or is already playing in the Middle East, thanks to its historical ties with the region.
Certainly, it is not my intention to warn imperialist powers and their regional allies against their wrong calculations and false hopes. Yet, as some popular classes in the region and even some Leftist circles combine their appreciation for Turkey’s occasional and few sparks of anger against Israel with Turkey’s new posture, therein lies the risk that they might also attribute unwarranted positive meanings to Turkey’s role.
Some misconceptions also contribute to this.
For example, by some reverse teleology, people tend to view the AKP as a party that has always backed Arab causes against imperialism. We often hear how the AKP government did not allow American ground troops to use Turkish territory as a front when they invaded Iraq in 2003. This, however, is not true. If American ground troops couldn’t use Turkish territory, it is because the AKP failed to obtain a parliamentary mandate on 1 March 2003. The popular opposition in the streets, the CHP as the opposition party in parliament, as well as some MPs from the AKP that joined the CHP in voting “no” to the mandate, should be credited for caring about Iraqi lives, not the AKP which overwhelmingly voted “yes.” If the AKP had such concerns, then it wouldn’t have drafted the mandate and brought it to parliament for a vote in the first place.
Similarly, it is common to search for a few masterminds, and their respective ideals, behind Turkey’s recent foreign policy orientations, as if these could suffice to bring some countries together and alienate others. This way, more important determinants such as the economic interests and regional alliances guided by those economic interests are swept under the carpet. These accounts tend to see Turkey’s increasing engagement with Middle Eastern matters at the expense of EU membership as something planned by the AKP from the very beginning. The fact that the AKP was initially the most successful Turkish government in terms of EU relations, and that it even reached the level of EU accession negotiations, is forgotten.
Now, if Turkey later turned away from the EU, this is because the existence of a Merkel-Sarkozy block, for a period, coupled with the Eurocrisis and the late EU presidency of Cyprus, did not leave much incentive for Turkey to push for EU membership. Therefore, Turkey turned its face to the Middle East as an alternative region for capital accumulation, not as a part of a preconceived plan or out of pure love. Moreover, switching toward regional integration doesn’t necessarily imply a lesser service to imperialism. At least, not if your regional politics are in line with Qatar and/or Saudi Arabia.
There is nothing wrong with seeing the tensions between Israel and Turkey as cracks within the previous order, and therefore gleaning some hope from them.
Yet, without some contextualization lies the risk of exaggerating Turkey’s autonomy vis-à-vis imperialism and hastily designating Turkey a friend of Arab causes, including the Arab uprisings. As its stance toward the events in Syria made clear yet again, Turkey is a member of NATO and its ties with the Gulf monarchies are only growing stronger. And precisely because Turkey is trying to convert the credibility it gained from its fierce rhetoric against Israel into a justification for its other regional policies, which are championed most fervently by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it is not only false to attribute autonomy or a leadership role to Turkey, but also dangerous. All the more so, considering the potential of the Arab uprisings and the attempts to thwart their success.
So, how did Turkey react to the Arab uprisings?
From 17 December 2010, when Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire, to 14 January 2001, when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, Turkey did not utter a single word against the Tunisian dictator.
It is true that the Turkish Premier told Egyptian authorities to heed the calls of the Egyptian people on 2 February 2011 and might have been one of the first leader to do so.
However, the real implications of his words may not be as unequivocal as they at first sounded. Unless specified otherwise, one might even take those words as support for Omar Suleiman who had already been appointed vice-president by Hosni Mubarak himself, in order to succeed him. More importantly, even if this was a genuine call for change, it is not something Turkey invented or championed. From al-Jazeera’s favorable and supportive coverage of the Egyptian uprising, it is safe to assume that Qatar set the trend – not Turkey.
Soon after the Peninsula Shield Force of the Gulf Cooperation Council intervened to crush the popular uprising in Bahrain, Turkey’s foreign minister visited the island kingdom. He called on both sides to avoid violence and offered to facilitate talks between them, emphasizing that it was, after all, an internal Bahraini issue.
Certainly, compared to the silence or complicity of some other countries, this sounded like a positive stance. However, anyone who makes too much of this stance should answer the following question: Why hasn’t Turkey adopted the same attitude towards Syria? Moreover, looking at the Bahraini authorities’ expression of gratitude toward Turkey for its stance, and Turkey’s silence over the suppression that has ensued to this day, one wonders what this stance really offered the Bahraini people.
In the case of Libya, it is true that Turkey initially opposed a NATO intervention, refrained from bombing Libya even after it joined the intervention and was a bit late to recognize the Libyan Transition Council. Yet, instead of making too much of Turkey’s alleged autonomy vis-à-vis the advocates of intervention, one should examine how things evolved later on: On 23 June 2011, al-Jazeera hinted at the possibility of a Turkish company breaching the UN embargo against Libya. That weekend, the emir of Qatar visited Turkey. And on 4 July 2011, Turkey recognized the Libyan National Transitional Council as the representative of the Libyan people.
That’s how “independent” from Qatar Turkish foreign policy is.
This is why one shouldn’t be surprised to see Turkey acting in sync with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have, despite their otherwise well-known rivalry, agreed from the first day to support those sections of the Syrian opposition that solicit foreign intervention. In short, while it is true that Turkey turned its face to the Middle East; it is actually winking at the Gulf monarchies – the region’s most reactionary regimes.
Therefore, when the Turkish premier combines his harsh rhetoric against Israel with praises for Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood rule, while calling for imperialist intervention in Syria, as he did in a speech delivered at Cairo University on 17 November 17 2012, this is not a contradiction which one could hope to see solved in favor of an anti-imperialist position. Rather, it is a wake-up call for all those who might have invested high hopes in the tensions between Turkey and Israel, as if Turkey with its current allies (from NATO to Gulf monarchies) can seriously support Arab people in their totally justified uprisings.
It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood parties in Tunisia and Egypt have repeatedly praised and thanked Turkey for its support after ascending to power, as these parties credit Turkey for its role, because Turkey is complicit with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their efforts to lock the Arab uprisings into the Brotherhood straitjacket. To be fair, it is not only the Muslim Brotherhood parties.
In the last AKP Congress on 30 September 2012, in addition to Mohammad Mursi and Rachid Ghannouchi, Amine Gemayel also delivered a speech thanking Turkey at length for its role in the Middle East. He received a lengthy ovation from the crowd. But that’s not all. As Hüsnü Mahalli noted in his column in the Turkish daily Akşam on 2 October 2012, even Samir Geagea attended the congress. That’s how sincere the AKP and its fellow Muslim Brotherhood parties in Egypt and Tunisia are in their championship of the Palestinian cause, the mother of all Arab uprisings.
Ali Behran Ozcelik is a graduate student in Social and Political Thought at York University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.