Erdogan, New Ottomanism and the Middle East

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fast asserting his position as the second-most important Turkish leader after the legendary Ataturk. As the praises for his latest election victory continue to pour in, a big question is emerging regarding Turkey's foreign policy orientation.

Erdogan himself is already referred to as the "new strong man of the Middle East," a title not without risk, as can be seen by recent Middle Eastern history. On occasions, the late Shah of Iran, Nasser of Egypt and even Hafiz Assad of Syria were aspirants to this dubious role, and the rest is history. With his proven leadership and political skills, Erdogan is likely to maintain a realistic level of expectations, but he will not be able nor willing to escape the need to decide on Turkey's direction.

Some historical context is necessary in order to understand his options and possible dilemmas. On the eve of the World War I, it was the great poet Ziya Gokalp, himself of Kurdish origin, who wrote about the then-enemy, the Russian Empire, that "its land shall be devastated, Turkey shall be enlarged and become Turan," referring to the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia. Well, the Russian Empire collapsed, and 70 years later also the Soviet Empire, but Turkey has not become Turan, nor will it be in the future, as the new Russia will not allow it to happen.

The Ottoman Empire was the victim of World War I, as the new forces of nationalism, particularly Arab nationalism and Zionism emerged and later won the day in the new Middle East which came into being on the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire. The new Turkey, established, shaped and led by Attaturk renounced territorial claims, but for the annexation of the Hatay region , taken away from Syria, in the late 1930's with mandatory French cooperation. Another exception was the intervention in Cyprus in 1974, and the subsequent creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. An attempt to claim the oil-reach Mosul district of Northern Iraq was denied by the mandatory British authorities and the League of Nations in the 1920s. Turkey of Ataturk looked for Europe and the west, turning its back to the old Ottoman lands of the Middle East.

These days there are those inside and outside Turkey, who advance the idea That Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP reassert the old attraction towards the lost lands in the Middle East. It's called "neo-Ottomanism," a term never used by the Erdogan government itself, and for a good reason. This is a government which knows better. The Islamic orientation of this government combined with the humiliating rejection of Turkey by the European Union, clearly encourage the AKP to further promote its relations with the Arab countries. With the intensifying turmoil in so many of these countries, the temptation to escalate Turkey's involvement is growing, but realism is also a characteristic of the Turkish government, and with it come a sober realization of potential and constraints.

The Arabs are in turmoil, but one can hardly detect a desire to have the Turks back. Pan-Arabism may be dead, but Arab nationalism is not. Yet the current volatile situation does present Erdoghan with dilemmas to be tackled even in the near future, for example in Syria, where the growing chaos will force the Turks to establish buffer zones in northeast and northwest Syria, the areas of the Kurds and the Alawites. Bashar al-Assad will not like it, but he lost already his friendship with Erdogan. Also Iran will not like it, but will be vigorously rebuffed by the Turks.

The new, higher profile of Turkey will have an impact also on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, as Turkey will intensify its support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, while maintaining a level of relationships with Israel, and the here is the Turkish government opposition to the impending flotilla to Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will serve Israel's interests by reciprocating with a gesture of goodwill towards Turkey, regarding the tragic incident on sea about a year ago. Israel knows that relations with Turkey cannot be restored to the pre-AKP level, but it definitely needs to acknowledge Turkey's growing role and act accordingly.

So, Ottomanism, whether new or old, is not on the cards, but Turkey is back in force in a region which is its natural sphere of interests, and far-sighted regional leaders are advised to take note.