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Ottoman ghosts: Turkey in the Middle East

Matein Khalid
Filed on September 27, 2006

THE Turkish Parliament has now voted to send troops on the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. This is a milestone event in Turkish foreign policy under the Recip Tayyip Erdogan government. The 340 -192 vote is a political victory for the Prime Minister and a strategic paradigm shift in Turkish foreign relations from the West to its Middle Eastern neighbourhood. Erdogan spent a huge amount of political capital convincing opponents of the Lebanon troop deployment that Turkish participation in an international force would not be a diplomatic coup for Israel or the United States. Lebanon is, after all, a former province of the Ottoman Empire’s Syrian possessions.

Yet after the collapse of the Ottoman sultanate in the aftermath of World War One, France assumed the role of colonial gendarme in Syria and midwifed the birth of the Lebanese Republic at the insistence of its Maronite Christian vassals. Two, the Kemalist obsession with secular values, the West and Turkic identity was anathema to both the Islamist and Arab nationalist ideologies that swept across the Arab world. Three, Turkey’s membership in Nato, strategic alliance with the United States and unwillingness to jettison its diplomatic and military relationships with the State of Israel only widened the gulf between Ankara and the chancelleries of power in the Arab world.

So Turkey was unable to leverage its huge military or economic capabilities into diplomatic clout in the Levant, let alone the Gulf or the Mediterranean, both Ottoman lakes for centuries under the flag of the Sublime Porte. Four, Turkey’s domestic guardians of its secular ideology are the aggressively Kemalist generals of its military high command, an institution that deliberately ignored the Arab world so as not to risk its strategic relationship with the Pentagon and the IDF. The AKP government under Prime Minister Erdogon has rebalanced Turkish foreign policy from its US/Westcentric focus. The AK rejected George Bush’s intention to use Turkish bases to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003, a shocking event for Nato’s only Muslim member. Erdogan has spared no effort to strengthen Turkish ties with Arab states and even Iran, the traditional enemy of the Ottomans for centuries and Ankara’s current rival for influence in the oil and gas rich Central Asian satrapies like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Erdogan has also increased the decibel count of Turkish opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Turkey is naturally alarmed at the sectarian nightmare and civil war in Iraq three years after George Bush boastfully proclaimed ‘mission accomplished’ on the deck of an American aircraft carrier in May 2003.

With more Turkish troops being killed by the Kurdish secessionists of the PKK in eastern Anatolia than US soldiers dying in the Iraqi insurgency, Ankara is horrified at the prospect of an independent state proclaimed in Iraqi Kurdistan if the government in Baghdad collapses and the Republic of Iraq fell victims to Shia, Sunni and Kurdish centrifugal insurgencies. Erdogan hopes to act as the new voice of moderation that can avert on existential ‘war of civilisation’ with the West, can mediate and wheel-deal in the geopolitics of the Arab world, the new regional military power who can influence events from the Aegean to the Arabian Gulf, the natural successor to the Ottoman sultan who first conquered Egypt and the Levant five centuries ago when Sultan Selim’s generals vanquished the Circassian Mamelukes.

After all, at a Press conference in Ankara, Kofi Anaan anointed him as ‘a regional player’ for his role in helping implement UN Resolution 1701 that ended the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Of course, EU accession considerations played a major role in Turkey’s diplomatic calculations in the Lebanon peacekeeping force. The EU governments have not forgotten the disasters of their intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. So Ankara’s commitment of Turkish troops to the UN mission in Lebanon is a valuable diplomatic chip that demonstrates that Turkey is a worthy candidate for EU accession.

Moreover, since Turkey wants the seat on Security Council in 2009-2010 because the UN is absolutely mission critical to its conflict with Greece over Cyprus or the resolution of its civil war with the Kurd PKK. Participation in the UN Lebanon force could well be the diplomatic quid pro quo it needs to secure its seat in the Security Council or reinforce its long term case for EU accession.

With Nato troops under fire in Afghanistan and Iran’s Ayatullahs openly using cash, arms and nuclear enrichment plants to influence events from Beirut and Basra to Baluchistan, Turkey must project both diplomatic vision and military power in order to play the Darwinian geopolitical Great Games of the Levant. The ghosts of the imperial Ottomans must be stirring in their graves because, eighty years after the establishment of Ataturk’s Turkish Republic, Turkey has finally returned to the ancient lands of the Arabs.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker


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