BACKGROUND: Turkey has a long history of seeing itself as the victim of imperialist designs. This harks back to the last century of the Ottoman Empire, when the dying empire was at the mercy of the European great powers. In fact, the Ottoman Empire benefited from the rivalry of the European powers and was given a lease on life as Great Britain during the nineteenth century worked to thwart the Russian Empire’s ambition to gain control, ultimately, of Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. What finally brought about the end of the Ottoman Empire was the imperial designs of its own rulers, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), who aligned the empire with Germany and entered the First World War, expecting to expand its domains eastward with German help.
Kemal Atatürk, who turned what was left of Ottoman territory after the war into the Turkish republic, had always been critical of the imperialist ambitions of the CUP leadership. The results of the Ottoman entry into the First World War vindicated him. He forged a foreign policy that steered clear of foreign entanglements and adventurism. Nonetheless, Atatürk did take the risk of war with France when he toward the end of his life, in 1937-38, pushed to annex the Alexandretta province of the then French-held Syria. But with the exception of the invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, Turkey until recently adhered to the non-interventionist foreign policy doctrine of Atatürk. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) broke with this tradition when it committed Turkey to bring about regime change in Syria, becoming indirectly involved in the Syrian civil war.
Critics of President Erdoğan have charged that Erdoğan harbors imperial ambitions and that he aspires to revive the Ottoman Empire. Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East under Erdoğan has certainly been characterized by an assertiveness that contrasts sharply with the caution of the previous republican era. Lately however, the realities of the Middle East have refused to bend to the ambitions of AKP-ruled Turkey – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has so far survived in power despite Turkey’s endeavor to oust him, while the AKP’s Egyptian protégé, the Muslim Brotherhood regime, has been overthrown. In response, the oft-noted “neo-Ottoman” self-confidence and assertiveness of the Turkish leadership has come to give way to the more traditional, defensive stance of the state elite of Turkey.
In other words, the neo-Ottomans are reverting to Kemalism. From having aspired to be the new rule-setter of the Middle East, Erdoğan is now exhibiting neo-Kemalist traits, accusing the Western powers of harboring imperial designs against Turkey.
Paradoxically, in this particular sense, Atatürk himself was never a Kemalist. He was incisive in his judgment of Ottoman imperial policies, pointing to the suffering that these had brought on the subjects of the sultans; he also identified Ottoman imperialism – not European imperialism against the Ottomans as other Turkish nationalists did and still do – as the main reason for the decline and fall of the empire. “The history of the Ottomans is ultimately the story of how those who conquer by the sword have had to cede to those who conquer by the plough,” he noted.
Atatürk’s fundamental insight was that the Ottoman system had fallen victim not to Western imperialists but to its own internal deficiencies, for which a state apparatus geared toward constant war-making, stifling social and economic development, was responsible. But this insight was never incorporated into the official historical narrative of the republic. Instead, generations of schoolchildren in Turkey have been taught to be proud over the Ottoman conquests, and raised to see the West as the enemy that had sought to divide up was left of the empire after the First World War. For many, perhaps most, the West remains synonymous with Sèvres, the French city where a peace treaty – never implemented – was imposed on the Ottoman government in 1920.
IMPLICATIONS: In a speech on November 3, President Erdoğan reached back to this historical memory, defiantly reminding that “We are an independent country that tore up the Sèvrès treaty. We set our own agenda.” He railed against “imperialists who don’t care about democracy,” a not-so-veiled reference to the United States that has refused to heed Erdoğan’s call to intervene in Syria in order to oust al-Assad. Without mentioning the United States by name, he addressed Turkey’s NATO ally: “How come Kobane is so strategically important for you? If someone should be bothered, it’s me. What’s it to you? 40 percent of Iraq is now under the occupation of ISIS, why aren’t you intervening there? It’s a different game that’s being played out here.” Erdoğan claimed that a plan is being implemented by a “mastermind.” “I don’t need to name who these countries are,” he said.
The country that Erdoğan had in mind was however identified by the main pro-government daily Yeni Şafak. Citing a recent statement by Cemil Bayık, a leader of the Kurdish nationalist PKK, the chief political correspondent of the daily Abdülkadir Selvi identified the United States as the “mastermind” in question. In an interview, Bayık proposed that the U.S. or an “international delegation” serve as mediator between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish government. The Yeni Şafak columnist, who is known to convey the opinions of the Turkish leadership, charged that the “U.S. is punishing us by using PKK and the resolution process (between the Turkish government and the Kurdish movement) because we refused to spill the blood of our soldiers at Kobane.” He claimed that the American purpose is to hand Rojava, the Kurdish region in northern Syria that declared its autonomy in July 2012, over to PYD, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, as a “gift.” “The aim is to ensure that the oil from Iraq reaches the Mediterranean by using the Iraqi and Syrian corridor bypassing Turkey. That’s what the great game is about. It’s not a particularly nice way to put it, but the big bear has entered the game and is redesigning the region with Kobane as starting point.”
The perception that the strategic imperative behind the American assistance to the defense of Kobane is to create a Kurdish corridor for an oil pipeline from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean that would cut Turkey out explains Erdoğan’s statement that “The issue is not Kobane, it is Turkey.”
The Turkish leadership fears – not without good reason – that Washington is teaming up with the Kurds who have demonstrated that they are the only force that is willing and capable of putting up a defense against the Sunni radical militia in Syria and Iraq. The refusal of the U.S. administration to designate the PYD, which has close ties to PKK, as a terrorist organization is seen as heralding the days when America is going to cease treating the latter as terrorists as well. While Turkey’s refusal to participate in the American-led effort to stop the advances of ISIS leads Washington to increasingly question whether Turkey still can be relied on as an American ally, the view from Ankara is that the U.S. harbors imperial designs against Turkey.
The war in Syria, specifically the Kurds’ aspirations for autonomy there, is having the same effect on Turkish-American relations as the Iraq war in 1990 had on the relationship of the two allies. That war led to the empowerment of the Kurds and to the eventual emergence of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq under U.S. protection. Ankara saw this development as a major strategic threat and the specter of Sèvres came back to haunt the Turkish leadership. As northern Iraq became a base of the PKK insurgency, nationalist politicians and the military started to see an American plot at work; they became convinced that the United States had decided to carve up Turkey, just as the Western powers had attempted to do after the First World War.
With the end of the Cold War, the Turkish military paradoxically came to rally to the view of the left – its main target for decades and against which it had staged the coups in 1971 and 1980 – in seeing an imperialist conspiracy against Turkey masterminded by Washington. The Turkish officers’ corps, or at least significant parts of it, ceased to think of America as a friendly power, let alone an ally. By the end of the 1990s, leading generals had started to openly suggest that Turkey seek alliances with Russia and China.
Today, Erdoğan has similarly come to view America as a hostile, imperialist power that is seen as masterminding a Kurdish ascendancy in the region that poses a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. Meanwhile, the military high command is said to be extremely disgruntled with the government’s consent recently to the American demand to allow passage through Turkey of Kurdish peshmerga fighters from northern Iraq to Kobane.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkish human rights abuses, the oppression of the Kurds and Turkey’ denial of the CUP regime’s crime against humanity during the First World War have made Turkey the frequent object of European, and to a lesser extent American, criticism. In Turkey, such criticism is taken as proof of West’s supposed, enduring enmity against it.
In fact, however, there is also a Western tendency, which is perhaps stronger, to give Turkey the benefit of doubt and a desire to think the best of it. Especially Americans have more often taken an idealistic view of Turkey. Kemalist secularism has been an object of admiration, to be followed by the endorsement of the “moderate” Muslims who were believed to be true democrats.
This idealism is seldom reciprocated. There is no reason to assume that Erdoğan was ever as enamored with America as presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were with him and his “new” Turkey. For Turks of all stripes assuming the worst about Western “imperialists” comes naturally. But that also means that the fears that their prejudices entertain risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
Halil M. Karaveli is a Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, Joint Center.
(Image Attribution: Bryce Edwards, via Wikimedia Commons and CC 2.0)