The return of the Ottoman

On 31 May, 2010, an Israeli raid on ships of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, organised by the Free Gaza Movement and Turkey’s Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri ve Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish citizens. In the incident’s aftermath, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recalled his country’s ambassador to Israel, vowed to review bilateral ties and accused Israel of “state terrorism.” With this incident, Israel’s relations with Turkey, which had been teetering on the precipice, plummeted to a new low.

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept into power in Turkey in 2003, many commentators saw this as a victory for social (read Islamic) conservatism over the secular-nationalistic Kemalistic ideologies of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Since the AKP’s ascent into power, Turkey’s domestic and international policies have undergone a transformation. Tensions between Turkey and the United States have mounted, primarily over Kurdish terror camps in Iraq and over the 1915 genocide of Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman military. More recently, Turkey, along with Brazil, brokered a deal with Iran over the nuclear impasse, which infuriated the United States. Turkey’s relations with Israel have conspicuously worsened. Mr Erdogan famously clashed with Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he called Israel’s military operations in Gaza a “crime against humanity” before storming out of the debate.

Turkey’s gradual transformation has led to concerns of the emergence of a Turkey that is “Looking East,” attempting to break the shackles of its “junior membership” in the congress of the West and take its place as a leader in the Muslim world. This requires a realignment of Turkey’s identity and national interests, and, consequently, a renouncement of the Kemalist principles that have guided Turkey since its birth. Credit for Turkey’s new reorientation is being attributed to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an academic and a AKP-outsider. Known as the “Kissinger of Turkey”, Mr Davutoglu has worked to transform what was a once status-quoist foreign policy to one that seeks to place Turkey at the centre of the Muslim world. In his seminal book “Strategic Depth”, Mr Davutoglu argues that a country’s value in world politics is predicated on its geo-strategic location and historic depth. Turkey was uniquely endowed with both, through its control of the Bosporus straits and as a successor of the Ottoman Empire. [See Page XX for a review of Mr Davutoglu’s book]

Mr. Davutoglu’s “neo-Ottamanism” seeks to leverage these advantages to promote a vision of Turkey as a Muslim superpower. Already within the Islamic world, there are indications Turkey’s leadership has popular support. A recent article in the Arabic al-Madina newspaper argued that Turkey’s position and relationship with non-Arab countries could be effective in championing the causes of the Muslim world. Similarly, in Pakistan’s Roznama Ausaf, Sarfaraz Syed applauded Turkey for being the only country to stand up to Israel and decried Pakistan’s inaction, despite it being the only nuclear power of the Muslim world. Despite these voices of support though, not all Muslim countries will welcome Turkey’s ascendancy. Saudi Arabia, while being in no position to go against the grain on Turkey at the moment, will be loathe to allow another power—and that too, a non-Arab Muslim power—to expand its influence into what it believes is its sphere of influence.

Further, there are caveats to Turkey’s Look East policy. First, notwithstanding its desire for clout in the Muslim world, Turkey continues to seek economic integration with the European Union. In fact, the AKP did more to pursue Turkey’s EU membership than any other past government. Second, the domestic political landscape will provide some insurance against the sort of radicalisation that some in the West fear might grip Turkey. This is likely to be achieved primarily through the country’s pro-secular armed forces, whose worsening relations with the AKP may force unilateral action against the government (as was the case in the the failed 2004 coup d’etat). This radicalisation, if it is indeed the AKP’s goal, can be further restrained if the CHP regains credibility as an effective opposition. Under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose charisma and humility have earned him the sobriquet “Gandhi Kemal”, the CHP could mount an effective challenge to the AKP.

Turkey’s strategic reorientation is also significant to countries outside its region. Two aspects of Turkey’s rising profile stand out for India—regional stability and energy security. On regional stability, Turkey historically has had close cultural, ideological and military ties with Pakistan. It has provided arms, equipment and training to the Pakistani armed forces. Turkey came to Islamabad’s assistance during the latter’s 1965 war with India and provided it with significant quantities of ammunition. A member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Turkey routinely supports Pakistan’s narrative, endorsing a plebiscite and voicing concern over “the use of force against the Kashmiri people.” The exclusion of India from the Istanbul Summit on Afghanistan at the insistence of Pakistan, also underscores the leverage Pakistan enjoys in Ankara.

However, while differences exist between India and Turkey, they need not be entirely irreconcilable, or hinder the promotion of closer economic and cultural ties. As two rapidly growing developing economies, the potential for enhanced economic co-operation between India and Turkey is significant. Indeed, during his visit to New Delhi in November 2008, Mr Erdogan expressed his commitment to upgrade economic ties with India, and pushed strongly for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Turkey’s strategic location will allow it to play a significant role in India’s quest for energy security. India has already expressed interest in the MedStream pipeline project, which alleviates the security risks inherent in the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline or alternative models traversing the Straits of Hormuz. However, the project’s feasibility is largely contingent on stable relations between Turkey and Israel.

In the neo-Ottamanist worldview, Turkey seeks to cultivate strategic partnerships with multiple nations and leverage its location and history to emerge as a regional power. From an Indian standpoint, it is important to recognise that Ankara will continue to maintain close ties with Islamabad, and it is likely that perception differences with India on Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan will continue to exist. These differences, in and of themselves, should not hinder the prospects enhancing relations with Turkey, where mutually beneficial. If anything, the promise and potential of energy trade between India and Turkey should serve as a opportunity for India to slowly, but surely, change the narrative on issues pertaining to its regional security in Turkey.

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