Almost a year has passed since we last took note of Turkey’s increasing clout in three key areas of neo-Ottoman expansion: the Balkans, the Arab world, and the predominantly Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union. Each has played a significant part in reshaping the geopolitics of the Greater Middle East over the past decade. This complex project, which remains under-reported in the Western media and denied or ignored by policy-makers in Washington, is going well for Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party).
On the external front, Ankara’s decision to support the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has changed the equation in the region. Until last spring, Erdogan’s team was advising Bashar to follow the path of political and economic reform in order to avoid descent into violent anarchy. Within months, however, Turkey has become a key player in Washington’s regime-change strategy by not only providing operational bases and supply channels to the rebels, but by simultaneously confronting Iran over Syria. The war of words between them is escalating. Earlier this week, Iranian Chief of Staff General Hassan Firousabadi accused Turkey of assisting the “war-waging goals of America. The AKP government has reinforced Turkey’s old position as a key U.S. regional partner. It is skillfully pursuing its distinct regional objectives, which in the long run are bound to collide with those of the U.S., while appearing to act at the behest of Washington and revamping its Cold War role as a reliable NATO-“Western” outpost in the region.
This newly gained credit has enabled Erdogan to make a series of problematic moves with impunity, the most notable being Turkey’s growing support for Hamas in the Palestinian Authority and its treatment of Iraq as a state with de facto limited sovereignty. In a highly publicized symbolic gesture, on July 24 Erdogan met Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal at his official residence to break the daily fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. Ties between Turkey and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, have blossomed since Turkey’s alliance with Israel collapsed following a raid by Israeli troops on a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010. At the same time, Ankara’s links with the more moderate Fatah movement, which rules the West Bank, are at a standstill; Turkey wants Hamas to prevail in the Palestinian power struggle.
In northern Iraq, Turkey has developed close relations with the Kurdish leadership in Kirkuk. It has made significant investments in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region as a means of exerting political influence and thus preempting demands for full independence, which could have serious implications for the Kurdish minority in eastern Turkey. In an audacious display of assertiveness, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited the Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq earlier this month without notifying the government in Baghdad, let alone seeking its approval. Turning the putative Kurdish statelet in Iraq into its client is a major coup for the government in Ankara. The partnership is based on the common interest of denying the Marxist PKK guerrillas a foothold on either side of the border. In a joint statement, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan warned the PKK that they would act jointly to counter any attempt to exploit the power vacuum in Syria. Another far-reaching albeit unstated common goal is to provide Iraq’s Kurds with a potential northwestern route for their oil and gas exports, which Al Maliki’s central government would not be able to control. The net effect is likely to be further weakening of an already unstable Iraq in the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal; yet Washington appears unperturbed by Turkey’s gambit. It is apparently unaware of the fact that, in Ankara’s worldview, “nothing can stand in the way of its dream of becoming the ultimate energy bridge between East and West.”
The Obama Administration has been equally indifferent to Prime Minister Erdogan’s trouble-making in the Balkans. Most recently, his provocative statement last month that Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the “care” of his country has caused no reaction in Washington. “Bosnia and Herzegovina is entrusted to us,” stated Erdogan during a meeting of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) provincial heads held in Ankara on July 11, recalling the alleged statement of the late Bosnian Muslim leader, Alija Izetbegovic, whom Erdogan visited on his deathbed in Sarajevo. “He whispered in my ear these phrases: ‘Bosnia is entrusted to you [Turkey]. These places are what remain of the Ottoman Empire’,” said Erdogan. He went on to describe Izetbegovic as “a legendary hero and captain,” and to declare that Turkey would “put this trust in God with high precision.”
The notion of Bosnia and Herzegovina being given as a ‘trust’ to Turkey in the name of its Ottoman legacy reflects an earlier statement by the outgoing leader of the Islamic community in Bosnia, Efendi Mustafa Ceric, who told Erdogan that “Turkey is our Mother. That’s how it was always, and it will remain like that.” Erdogan’s latest outburst was immediately welcomed by the leader of the biggest Muslim party in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sulejman Tihic.
The notion that Bosnia has been bequeathed by its fundamentalist Muslim leader to the Turkish state is unsurprisingly anathema to the non-Muslim majority of Bosnia’s citizens. “Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a land to be inherited,” said Igor Radojicic, the Bosnian Serb Parliament speaker. Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic expressed puzzlement that Izetbegovic could imagine Bosnia was his to give away as a trust. Analysts outside Bosnia also expressed outrage. Serbian historian Cedomir Antic, called the statement “an unprecedented provocation” that should be “officially renounced by Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia”. Professor Darko Tanaskovic, Serbia’s former ambassador to Turkey, was not surprised, however. The statement represents a political reality, he said, that Turkey sees the Balkans as a priority in its ambitious foreign policy.
Three months earlier the leader of the Islamic Community in Montenegro (Islamska zajednica Crne Gore, IZCG), Reis Rifat Fejzic, signed an agreement with the authorities in Podgorica on the status of the Muslim minority there. The Agreement stipulates that any disputes within the Islamic Community will be referred for arbitration to the Directorate of Religious Affairs of the Turkish Republic (Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi). This is a remarkable development: the Republic of Montegnegro—a sovereign, non-Muslim Balkan state—has formally granted decision-making powers in matters affecting some of its citizens to an institution of another sovereign and nominally still secular state. Imam Fejzic’s explanation added an interesting twist to the story. Some disputes among Roman Catholics are referred to the Vatican, he said, so it is normal for Muslim disputes to be referred to Ankara. In other words, the Turkish state is to assume the role of an Islamic Vatican for the Muslim millets of the former Ottoman Empire. The Montenegrin precedent is the model Ankara will seek to apply elsewhere. Turkish politicians have already taken an active role in mediating between the rival factions of the Muslim religious and political establishment in Serbia’s Sanjak region.
The U.S. is sympathetic to Turkey’s Balkan ambitions not only because they seem to fit in with a Western strategy of long standing, but also because Turkey is seen as a counterweight to Iran’s influence in the region. As John Schindler, the author of the seminal book Unholy Terror pointed out recently, the close relationship between leading circles in Sarajevo and Tehran harks back to before the Bosnian war. During the war the Clinton Administration aided and abetted Iranian deliveries of arms to the Bosnian Muslim side, and the SDA has always had a soft spot for Tehran. Now, however, with a potential war with Iran looming, Schindler says, the U.S. and its European allies, who have done so much to help the Bosnian Muslims for a generation, have had enough. As reported by the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz, last week Patrick Moon and Nigel Casey, the American and British ambassadors to BiH, jointly read the riot act to Sadik Ahmetovic, the country’s powerful security minister, telling him that the SDA and Sarajevo must sever their secret ties—espionage, political, financial—with Tehran:
Sarajevo officially has been given a warning to reset its course in a European and Western direction as war with Iran looms. Hard decisions will have to be made by the SDA. They have been repeatedly deferred for nearly two decades but can be avoided no longer. If the Bosnian Muslims opt to stick with Iran as tensions rise, the ramifications for them and all Europe may be dire indeed.
Bosnia’s Muslims, ever mindful of the need for foreign support in their disputes with the country’s Serbs and Croats, will likely opt for even closer links with Ankara to compensate for an eventual weakening of the Iranian connection —and they will do so with Washington’s approval. Yet again Turkey will strengthen its position in the Balkans while relying on the Western powers to do its field work.
At home, the parallel process of re-Islamization of the Turkish state and society is well-nigh-irreversible. The Army has been decisively neutralized as a political factor. Last February, Erdogan declared that it is not the goal of the AKP government to raise atheist generations, and he certainly has been true to his word. Earlier this month, Turkey’s Board of Higher Education appointed Islamic scholar Suleyman Necati Akcesme as its secretary-general. His duties will include appointing professors and rectors, as well as overseeing universities. Akcesme will occupy a position of direct influence over Turkey’s higher education —unimaginable for an imam in the old Kemalist setup. The influence of the shadowy Gülen Movement, a fundamentalist sect calling for a New Islamic Age based on the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis,” is becoming all-pervasive, with rich businessmen and senior civil servants donating an average of 10 percent of their income to the cemaat. According to the August 8 issue of Der Spiegel,
Gülen’s influence in Turkey was enhanced when … the AKP won the Turkish parliamentary election in 2002. Observers believe that the two camps entered into a strategic partnership at first, with Gülen providing the AKP with votes while Erdogan protected the cemaat. According to information obtained by US diplomats, almost a fifth of the AKP’s members of parliament were members of the Gülen movement in 2004, including the justice and culture ministers. Many civil servants act at the behest of the “Gülen brothers,” says a former senior member… In 2006, former police chief Adil Serdar Sacan estimated that the Fethullahcis held more than 80 percent of senior positions in the Turkish police force . . .
Sharia-inspired legislation is affecting the society at large. Turkey’s recent laws and taxes on alcohol sales are more rigorous than those in Egypt or Tunisia before last year’s revolutions. Employers are now authorized to fire any employer who comes to work having had a drink, as opposed to being drunk. Having a single glass of raki, wine or beer with lunch—perfectly common in the business community until a few months ago—may now abruptly end a career. More troublingly, Turkey now leads the world in “honor killings” of girls, with a murder rate five times that of Pakistan. As Turkish affairs expert Barry Rubin has noted, many Turks are astounded by Obama’s policy of favoring the current regime in Ankara: “the regime has thrown hundreds of people in prison without trial or evidence… and it is turning Turkey into a repressive police state,” yet the Department of State and the White House remain indifferent. Turkey’s secularists feel abandoned and betrayed.
Turkey’s shift from Kemalism via post-Kemalism to anti-Kemalism is a process of historic significance for the Greater Middle East. In 2005 senior State Department official Daniel Fried declared, absurdly, that Erdogan’s AKP was simply the Islamic equivalent of a West European Christian Democratic party and that Turkey remains a staunch ally of the United States. The diagnosis was evidently mistaken seven years ago. Today it amounts to an unforgivable act of willful self-deception.
In the meantime Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares for discussions in Istanbul on August 11 that will focus on forming a “common operational picture” with the Turks “to guide a democratic transition in post-Assad Syria.”