Ottoman Nostalgia: A Proactive Turkey in the Middle East?

July 1, 2014

Istanbul, Turkey –  Nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire has been on the rise as of late. The Ottoman Sultan’s seal can be found on T-shirts, advertisements, and jewelry everywhere in its old imperial capital of Istanbul. More alarmingly, the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are now proclaiming a new Islamic caliphate in former Ottoman provinces.

The shadows of history over the Middle East bring back images of 1916, when the current lines of the Middle East were drawn by the British and French empires in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement. Four years later, the Treaty of Sevres was intended as the fait accompli, dismantling as it did what remained of the Ottoman Empire.  The effects of these nearly hundred-year old events are being felt and bitterly remembered in Turkey today. Yet it’s not just the ancient past, but more recent history that should trouble Ankara. With the fall of Mosul and the kidnapping of the Turkish Consul General and over 80 Turkish citizens, the painful shadows of Al-Qaeda’s attacks in Istanbul a decade ago hover over Ankara once again. In the 1920s, Mosul was claimed by the new Turkish Republic and was the subject of one of the League of Nation’s first major arbitrations, thereby assuring itself a special significance in Turkish historical memory.

Turkish policymakers who once hoped that their shared Sunni faith and pragmatic (and often laissez-faire) dealings with the ISIS would protect them have painfully re-learned Lord Palmerston’s maxim: there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. And the interests of ISIS have little overlap with Ankara’s, despite Turkey’s largely romantic longings for the days of yore. Ankara has few good options in response to the worst hostage crisis since the 1979 seizure of America’s embassy in Tehran (and despite its relatively low level of coverage in the Western press, that’s what it is) and is dependent on how the United States and other regional powers decide to weigh in on the future of Iraq for the safe return of its citizens. Yet, Ankara has made one critical bet, throwing support behind the ambitions of the Kurdish Regional Government over those of Baghdad.

In just over a month, Turkey will hold a historic presidential election that promises to refocus Turkey’s political system. The recently declared candidacy of Prime Minister Erdoğan as the AKP’s presidential nominee was among Ankara’s worst-kept secrets yet the election has become the prism through which every foreign policy challenge is now seen in Ankara. And given the domestic electoral math, Erdoğan is still overwhelmingly favored to ascend to the presidency. However the candidacy of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu as a joint candidate for the main opposition parties is an interesting twist in Prime Minister Erdoğan’s journey into Çankaya Palace and Turkish history. Erdoğan now faces foreign policy challenges with lasting domestic ramifications as well as a candidate who, having served as the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference after being selected by the Prime Minister’s ruling party, has the credentials and platform to effectively second guess the Turkish government’s every move from a credible, center-right point of view.

The domestic and the international are inextricably linked in Turkey. Despite the current fanfare over Turkey’s first popularly elected president, the national elections soon afterwards will be more consequential as Ankara’s foreign policy shortcomings are highlighted by deleterious events in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. As such, Erdoğan’s likely victory will not mitigate the intense polarization pervading Turkish society. In fact, it could aggravate it. While Turkey’s image on the world stage is tarnished and it remains unclear how Ankara will find its footing in the region once again, it would be foolish to dismiss the greatest Turkish politician of his generation. A President Erdoğan can still be a force for regional good if he tones down his emotional street-brawler rhetoric on the international stage and pursues some pragmatic regional goals, such as mutual accommodations with Cyprus and Israel.

Compared to the last international intervention in Iraq, where America owned the outcome while Turkey stood on the sidelines, today Ankara finds itself center stage in the uncomfortable predicament of negotiating for its citizens’ release and knowing that post-Mosul, nothing will be the same in Iraq. The Kurds have secured the Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk, which was the sticking point of previous intra-Iraqi negotiations and is exporting oil for the first time through Turkey on the international market without the consent of Baghdad or Washington.

Ankara’s testy relations with Baghdad and flourishing relations with Erbil mean that Turkey is supporting the emergence of a de facto independent Kurdish state on its border. This threatens to redraw the very lines that define the current republic, where Kurdish nationalism has been repressed and portrayed as anathema to the very idea of Turkey.  Future American strikes against ISIS that might be launched from bases in Turkey have been dismissed by Erdoğan, but regional geopolitics have reached an inflection point vis-à-vis Iraq. Washington and Ankara have never needed each other more than they do now in Iraq. Similarly, despite opposing Iran in Syria and breaking with Saudi Arabia over Egypt, Turkey’s immediate interests in Iraq align with both powers in a rare area of potential regional cooperation.

The media blackout within Turkey on the hostage situation and the tepid government response in the face of ISIS terror have further eroded confidence in in its military power, not to mention Turkish faith in the NATO alliance, which has always represented Ankara’s ultimate security guarantee. Unlike in Syria, where Ankara could blame Washington for failing to act and rail against the international system for its airplanes being shot out of the sky, having civilians killed within its borders from fighting coming from outside, and the over 1 million Syrian refugees that have crossed the border so far: Iraq is different. Turkey has been an active player in Iraq since the time of Saddam Hussein, has actively been building coalitions ever since his downfall, and now is seen as a regional interlocutor for not only its co-ethnic Turkmen or co-religious Sunnis, but also of the Kurds. As a result, the future contours of Iraq will be determined by Turkey’s proactive or reactive policymaking that must now come from Ankara.

The contours of a future “soft partition” of Iraq are widely known and are being openly discussed for the first time since the 2006 partition plan proposed by then-Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb. Since then, Turkey’s internal politics have changed, as has every aspect of its foreign policy. Therefore there is a moment of opportunity in post-Mosul Iraq for Turkey to bring disparate Iraqi, regional, and global powers together towards a comprehensive settlement that will bring stability to its troubled neighborhood.

Having put itself forward as a regional leader, Turkey’s own internal fissures, not least of which its own Kurdish problem (where the key swing vote for Turkey’s next president can be found), necessitates that no Turkish government can sit idly by as Iraq disintegrates. Unilateral action from Ankara seems unlikely given the government’s actions and rhetoric; therefore closer cooperation with the United States and relevant regional actors seems most likely in the near-term. As America led by Secretary Kerry seeks to coordinate a regional response, active support for the Kurdish Regional Government and the disenfranchised Sunnis of Iraq under Maliki will be critical, and will align with Turkey’s new long-term interests post-Mosul.

With the right mix of regional will and a supported Iraqi Army, ISIS and other militarized factions challenging Baghdad can be crushed, but ultimately the only way forward involves political compromise on all sides. The reality of regional champions including Iran for the Shiites, Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis, and Turkey for the Kurds should not only be acknowledged but incorporated into the international conversations currently taking place. Ultimately unlike with the fall of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago, Turkey has agency, capability, and incentive to be a part of the solution this time around, rather than simply complaining about the problems in Iraq.


Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and previously served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State.  He is a contributor to War on the Rocks and the views expressed are his own.

Image Credit: Quinn Dombrowski, Creative Commons