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Turkey and the pitfalls of the Ottoman revival

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It is essential for Turkey to pause and reflect on its Middle Eastern policy and on what kind of model it would like to present to the Arab world.

by Nervana Mahmoud

Nervana Mahmoud

It smelt of Ottoman, it tasted of Ottoman, and it certainly looked like Ottoman. During my recent visit to Istanbul, I could feel the growing sense of pride among many Turks regarding their past and their desire to revive it. Turkey is changing fast, and it is starting to look with serious interest toward its Arabic neighbours. While there, I heard more Arabic in Istanbul than English or French, from tourists, workers, and refugees, an eclectic Arabic mix that gave this eternal city a unique feeling.

This is not just my impression; it has also been articulated by Turkish officials on various occasions. Last week, the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu outlined his government’s Middle East policy in an interview with the Al-Jazeera Arabic TV channel. He reiterated his vision of “a new Middle East” based on cooperation between its nations. Davutoglu’s views are not new; he has expressed them before on countless occasions, such as last April, when he said, “Turkey is set to carve itself a primary role in shaping the Middle East as it guides the “winds of change” in the region.” Although Davutoglu formally rejected the charge that he’s a “neo-Ottoman,” a term that is misused and abused these days, he indirectly referred to the Turkish past on several occasions during the Al-Jazeera interview, as the past has always been part of the explanation of current policies.

Ironically, the TV interview was broadcast after the small town of Akcakale—on the border of the Şanlıurfa Province—was shelled by Syrian forces, and five civilians, including a woman and her three kids, were killed. These winds of change are turning out to be stormy and dangerous. What is even more interesting is how many in Turkey responded to the events on the border; within hours of the incident, the hashtag #savaşahayır (Turkish for “No to war”) was trending at number 3 worldwide on Twitter, and according to according to Time World, a recent poll shows that 76 per cent oppose a unilateral military action. Many are understandably angry and want some hawkish retaliation, but not many support long, draining Turkish involvement in Syria.  Yes, the Turks love their Ottoman glory, their Ottoman cuisine, and their exotic environment that appeal to tourists, but they are not willing to get involved in a mess and pick up the pieces for a new Ottoman adventure.

The challenges that currently face the Turkish government in Syria reflect far deeper flaws of its background ideology, its perspectives, and its hasty involvement with the Arabs.

For starters, what the Ottomans achieved through military power would not be achieved by a soft economic approach that ignores the political dynamics within each neighbour state and the competitiveness of other soft powers in the region.

Second, the revisionist-Ottomans may be moderate, but they never embarked on a reformation journey of Islamic thoughts that counter the rise of Wahabism and literalism within the Muslim world. They may abhor radicalism, but they have done little to confront it, a mistake that may come back to haunt them, as their involvement with Syria is getting deeper every day.

Third, the alleged Turkish model; at first glance, Turkey may look as if it can provide a viable model that other Arab countries can emulate. However, upon diving deep into Turkish society, it is easy to spot that the relationship between Islam and secularism in Turkey is tense and shaky; at best, it is a form of cohabitation and not true marriage. Thus far, Turkey has failed to articulate a non-western version of secularism that protects the faith in society without manipulating its political scene. For Arab nations that are already sceptical of western secularism, Turkey is not the example to follow.

It is essential for Turkey to pause and reflect on its Middle Eastern policy and on what kind of model it would like to present to the Arab world. In addition, there are serious questions that should be answered first before they finalise any future plans regarding their neighbours; in particular, Syria. What is Syria after?  Is it retaliation and defence or liberation of Syria from the Assad regime?  How far inside Syria is Turkey willing to go? Today Prime Minister Recep Erdogan highlighted his fear of loss of human life as the reason behind Turkey’s restrained response. I have no doubt that this is in the back of his mind, as it should be while he assesses the risk and benefit of any future operation.  Another question that must be answered is whether Turkey is willing to pick up the pieces of post-Assad Syria. One lesson Turkey can learn from the Palestinian tragedy is that neighbours always help pick up the pieces.

The Syrian revolution is the victim of a dictator’s ruthlessness, but it is also the victim of foreign powers’ reluctance to unify and formulate a coherent plan to save Syria’s  innocents from a bloody fate. A Syrian policy based on half measures would be similar to reforms that were once conducted by the old Ottoman Sultans; it came as too little, too late, and failed to save the country from collapse. One thing Syria does not need now is partial solutions; the pundits who advocate arming the rebels are reckless in their assessment. Heavy weapons without a coordinated broader plan won’t free Syria but can certainly be the first step toward its division. If this were to happen, then Turkey will inherit the “liberated Zone,” with its bickering militia and distraught civilians, the PKK and Hezbollah agents will be the icing on the cake.

Nervana Mahmoud is a doctor, blogger and writer on Middle East issues. You can follow her on Twitter @Nervana_1

 

  • Dimo

    While there, I heard more Arabic in Istanbul than English or French, from tourists, workers, and refugees, an eclectic Arabic mix that gave this eternal city a unique feeling.

    – In Ottoman days languages like Greek, Armenian and, yes, French was more common in Istanbul then Arabic.


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