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The Failure of a Neo-Ottoman Foreign Policy

By Behlul Ozkan

December 7, 2016

Almost a century after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his supporters believe that they can restore the empire’s former glory. Stroll through the streets of any Turkish city and you will see car windows emblazoned with the imperial seals of Ottoman sultans, who are also commemorated in the names of new multibillion-dollar building projects.

Mr. Erdogan, the country’s leader for 14 years, is the one chiefly responsible for putting the Ottoman Empire at the center of Turkey’s collective imagination. The Ottoman sultans doubled as the caliphs of the Muslim world, which is not lost on the supporters of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P. The chairman of the A.K.P.’s youth wing recently declared Mr. Erdogan “president of all the world’s Muslims.” Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent Qatar-based cleric associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, similarly regards Turkey’s president as “the hope of all Muslims and of Islam.”

These ambitions seem to have an especially pronounced effect on Turkey’s Middle East policy. After Syria’s civil war began in 2011, Ankara sought to replace the regime of President Bashar al-Assad with Islamist allies. To that end, it sponsored armed groups that would do its bidding in Syria, groups named for Ottoman rulers like the Sultan Murad Brigade and the Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror Brigade.

In recent months, Mr. Erdogan has lamented that Mosul, a major hub in Ottoman times and now one of Iraq’s most important cities, was left outside Turkey’s borders when the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923.

But the reality on the ground may not comport with Mr. Erdogan’s visions. There is little reason to believe that he can recreate the prestige and the expanse of the Ottoman Empire in a 21st-century world.

Turkey has a military presence in northern Iraq that dates back to the second half of the 1990s, when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., with which the Turkish government has been at war for more than 30 years, established camps there. More recently, in anticipation of the fall of the Islamic State, Turkish troops have set up a base near Mosul. A.K.P.-supporting pundits have argued that in the post-Islamic State order, northern Iraq should be administered by Turkish-backed Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Sunni Turkmens — not the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

They are overestimating Turkey’s influence among Iraq’s Sunnis, though. A significant percentage of Sunni Arabs there still support the Islamic State, according to reports, and Turkey’s Sunni Arab proxies in Iraq are quite weak, consisting of just a few thousand armed men who are no match for the jihadists. Moreover, the government in Baghdad, far from seeing Mr. Erdogan as “the president of all Muslims,” considers the Turkish military an occupying force. Recently, thousands protested outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad with placards reading, “The Ottoman occupation is over.”

Syria is an even more clear-cut example of the gulf between Ankara’s ambitions and its ability to cope with Middle Eastern realities. Today, a swath of territory on Syria’s border with Turkey is administered by the Syrian branch of the P.K.K., the Democratic Union Party. Turkey regards the group as a terrorist organization, while the United States and the European Union consider it a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State. In August, the Syrian Kurds, with American support, were poised to gain control of a long strip along the Turkish-Syrian border. Once this became clear, Turkey, together with its Syrian proxies, launched a military operation to push back the Kurds and the Islamic State.

It was a success — of sorts. Turkey and its proxies gained control of an area that they used to create a buffer zone between two Syrian Kurdish-administered territories. Iran and Russia, too, were happy to see the American-backed group’s ambitions checked. If Syria’s Kurds were to achieve independence with American assistance, Moscow and Tehran feared, they could be counted on to remain an American ally and perhaps even to host American military bases, threatening Iranian and Russian interests. Accordingly, by using Turkey to beat the Syrian Kurds, Moscow and Tehran hope to drive them away from the United States and into their own arms.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia goes beyond Syria. Lately, Mr. Erdogan has been openly toying with the idea of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a pact led by Russia and China that is meant to rival the European Union. In doing so, Turkey is turning away from potential partners in the West that still — at least for now — value democracy and human rights, and toward another world of autocrats, pseudo-monarchs and aspiring czars.

Alexander Dugin, one of the Kremlin’s chief ideologues and a key proponent of “Eurasianism,” has been meeting with A.K.P. officials. This is not a total surprise given the parallels between Russia and Turkey, with their ambivalence toward the West. Mr. Dugin hopes his country will lead an emerging anti-Western “Eurasian” alliance; Mr. Erdogan believes it is Turkey’s historical destiny to champion a Muslim world bullied by the West.

Yet the current Turkish-Russian cooperation is fragile. Turkey is still one of the biggest patrons of the Syrian rebels, while Russia is Mr. Assad’s staunchest backer. Moreover, Turkey is still a member of NATO, and remains intertwined with the European Union, albeit more for economic than for political reasons.

Just as Turkey can never reprise its Ottoman-era role in the Middle East, so too it cannot afford to align itself exclusively with authoritarian regimes and strongmen. Turkey sends around half its exports to the European Union, and its economy is kept afloat by European investment. Joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would be paltry compensation for what it would give up by spurning Europe.

Turkey’s economy is already feeling the repercussions of Mr. Erdogan’s policies: The Turkish currency has fallen by some 20 percent against the dollar over the past 11 months. After the July 15 coup attempt, the government declared a state of emergency that has allowed it to bypass Parliament and rule by decree. Numerous journalists and opposition politicians have been arrested. The outlook is so grim that foreign investment has begun to flee the country.

Even the deputy prime minister for economic affairs recently admitted that Turkey is going through “its toughest period since the end of the First World War,” when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The Turkish people cannot be lulled to sleep forever with fictions of an Ottoman revival. Soon, they will have to wake up and face the unpleasant reality.

Behlul Ozkan is an assistant professor at Marmara University and the author of “From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan: The Making of a National Homeland in Turkey.”