Russia Forecloses Erdogan’s Gambit to ‘Re-Ottomanise’ Northern Syria & Iraq

Rather than Turkey becoming a ‘Sunni Great Power’ across much of northern Arabia – in lieu of Saudi Arabia - Turkey may be faced with a new power taking shape: the coalition of Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq, with which Erdogan will have to come to terms, less as key powerbroker, but more as supplicant. President Putin and FM Lavrov will no doubt do their diplomatic best to ensure that Turkey is assimilated into the new emerging order -- and is not humiliated.

It was a short four minutes, which perhaps best symbolised President Putin’s foreclosure on President Erdogan’s gambit: Eight Turkish F16 fighters probing and testing the Russian reaction to their presence in proximity to the Syrian border found themselves ‘painted’ by the targeting radar of an intercepting Russian MIG29 - and later by the radar of an anti-aircraft missile system too. The Turkish pilots, realising that they were one-button-push away from being atomised, took the hint - and withdrew. NATO’s Secretary General later complained of the incident: “It doesn’t look like an accident, and we’ve seen two of them over the weekend.” It marked in short, the end of Turkey’s ambitions to institute a no-fly/safe zone in Syria, and its aim to re-Ottomanise the former Ottoman provinces of Idlib and Aleppo in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq.

The Hatay Province of Turkey, which lies on the Mediterranean coast, just north of Latakia, and which has become a convenient base and a hub for smuggling weapons to the jihadi insurgency in Idlib, historically had always an integral part of Syria (including during Ottoman times). Here is a map from 1764, which clearly shows it to be part of Syria. The Province was then known as the Governate of Alexandretta (Hatay being a recent name given to the region by Ataturk). In any event in the political settlement, after WW1, the Governate was clearly placed within the French Mandate of Syria (in 1925).

Ataturk however, claimed that Hatay always had been a part of the ‘presumed’ Turkish ‘motherland’ for 4,000 years (insisting that a majority of Alexandretta’s inhabitants were Turks – though Arabs outnumbered Turks by 46% to 39% according to the French 1936 census). Ataturk demanded that Hatay be returned to Turkey. The French, initially resisted, but then wobbled, and sent the matter to the League of Nations, and in 1939, a referendum was held (gerrymandered by Ataturk, according to Robert Fisk in his Great War for Civilisation: by crossing tens of thousands of Turks into Alexandretta to vote). On this poll outcome, Hatay was incorporated into Turkey in 1939 (although Syria has never accepted this loss of its territory as valid).
Until the recent Russian intervention in Syria, in Syrian Idlib, whose border marches parallel to Hatay, in the words of Jacob Zenn, “rebels may have [had] enough resources to establish a de-facto state in northwestern Syria led by JN [Jabhat-al-Nusra] and supported by several Central Asian militas.” The rebel coalition includes Chinese Uyghur-led terror group, Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), Uzbek-led Imam Bukhari Jamaat and Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad, as well as Chechen militias in the mix.

Today, it is Erdogan - in the style of Ataturk - who has been demanding of the EU that Idlib, Hatay’s neighbor, become a ‘buffer zone’, detached from Syrian sovereignty, and effectively placed under a Turkish ‘mandate’.

Christina Lin notes in Asia Times that, “recent reports now reveal [that] Turkey is populating this de facto statelet next to Hatay with Turkic settlements, especially Chinese Uyghur turks”. She outlines that “In September, MEMRI TV translated a video of how the Chinese militant group TIP is setting up training camps with their families in Idlib, along with a new colony of 3,500 Uyghurs near the camps. TIP itself released photos of its camps in Idlib as well as camps to train jihadists “cubs”. “The video went on to say that “thousands of Chinese turkistanis” fleeing China were resettled in the area especially in the village of Zanbaq that is changing Syrian demography, with 20,000 more being trained by Turkish intelligence, MIT, in Istanbul as “rebels” to eventually fight Assad in Syria, and continue onto China”.

Erdogan’s desire to position Turkey as the motherland of the Turkic-speaking race (as did Ataturk before him), is well known: In 2009, Erdogan characterized China’s presence in Xinjiang as “a kind of genocide”. Bulent Arinc, co-founder of AKP, and then deputy prime minister, stated: “we have profound historical ties to our brothers in the Uighur region” as well as having a 300,000 strong Uighur community in Turkey. (Peter Lee has noted, in this connection, that “the Turkic tribes actually originated near, if not in, northern Xinjiang”).

In any event, these Uyghurs are sheltered under the umbrella of Jaish al-Fatah, which consists of An-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham, and other Turkic elements, such as Turkestan groups and Turkmenistan elements too.

If Christina Lin is right in saying that what we are witnessing is the “Turkisation of northwest Syria”, then the parallel with what happened in Hatay in the 1930s is fairly evident. Indeed the Turkish press makes no bones about it. On 5 August, the Turkish newspaper Takvim announced that “Aleppo [was set to become] the 82nd [province of Turkey]: A “buffer zone” will be set up in the north of Syria. This area, which includes Aleppo, will be fully controlled by Turkey. [Once the] U.S. and Turkey sealed the “Incirlik [Airbase] Agreement”, the political and military balances began shifting rapidly [...] U.S. newspapers reported that “the new map [of Syria] will be drawn during Erdogan’s meeting with Obama”. And according to the map on Takvim's front page of that area [in northern Syria], which is preparing to become ‘our 82nd province’, it included not only Aleppo, but also Idlib and the north of Latakia.

So what then is happening to the displaced Arab populations of Idlib, many of whom were forced to take refuge in Southern Turkey – as the Turkic ‘plantation’ of northern Syria took place? Well … of course the Turkish authorities have been facilitating their transport to the beaches of the European Union - as refugees.

But Turkey has another historical Ottomanesque claim, which is no less significant: It claims that the Vilayet of Mosul should be Turkish too.

Turkey’s claim to Mosul – again insisting on the force of its Turkish-speaking population – however does have a more solid basis: The Turkish claim was based on the Armistice of Mudros (18 October 1918), which called upon all the parties to WW1 to cease hostilities on Armistice Day. On that day, Mosul Province was under Ottoman control; but three days later British troops moved to occupy the province, contrary to the Mudros agreement. Britain however, managed to bring the issue into the international arena, where it could be better ‘managed’ by the Great Powers, thus scaling the issue down to a frontier dispute between Turkey and Iraq.

The League of Nations Council duly appointed an investigative commission who recommended that Iraq should retain Mosul (with its already proven oil resources). Turkey reluctantly assented to the decision by signing the Frontier Treaty with the Iraqi government in 1926 - with Iraq assenting to give a ten per cent royalty on Mosul's oil deposits to Turkey for the following 25 years.

Daniel Pipes has written:

“The issue [of Mosul] then died down for sixty years, only to revive during the Iraq-Iran War, when Saddam Husayn's government lost effective control of northern Iraq. Four times after May 1983, he gave permission for Turkish troops fighting insurgents from the Kurdish Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerana Kurdistan-PKK) to engage in hot pursuit onto Iraq territory. The Turkish press began to raise the issue of Turkey's claims to the Mosul region, and the government reportedly informed its allies of an intent to take control of Mosul in case the Iraqi regime should fall. The Kuwait war of 1991 and the subsequent collapse of Iraqi authority north of the 36th parallel stimulated Turkish warnings that it would not countenance Syrian or Iranian encroachments on the Mosul area. During the period March 20-May 2, 1995, in an effort dubbed Operation Steel, some 35,000 Turkish troops moved into northern Iraq attempting to clean out PKK strongholds.

Just as the Turkish forces were leaving Iraqi territory, President Demirel made a dramatic statement to an Istanbul newspaper:

The border is wrong. The Mosul Province was within the Ottoman Empire's territory. Had that place been a part of Turkey, none of the problems we are confronted with at the present time would have existed.

In another meeting, with newspaper columnists, Demirel pointed to a map of the current border area and elaborated:

The border on those heights is wrong. Actually, that is the boundary of the oil region. Turkey begins where that boundary ends. Geologists drew that line. It is not Turkey's national border. That is a matter that has to be rectified. I said some time ago that "the area will be infiltrated when we withdraw [from northern Iraq]."... The terrorists will return. We will be confronted with a similar situation in two or three months. So, let us correct the border line. Turkey cannot readjust its border with Iraq by itself. The border line on the heights has to be brought down to the lower areas. I only want to point out that the border line is wrong. Had it been in the low areas at the foot of the mountains, the [PKK] militants would not have been able to assemble in that region.”

Plainly the Mosul vilayet is again in play: Baghdad’s influence over the vilayet is again severely attenuated - and Turkey has many levers, including the ‘black army’ of ISIS, by which it can exert its influence and pursue its claim that the vilayet falls within the Turkish sphere.

So what is the point of all this? Firstly, whilst the Gulf Wahhabisation of northern Syria is broadly recognised, the Turkisation of northern Syria and its neo-Ottoman connotations have received scant attention. This represents a real lacunae since the connection between the Turkish no-fly demands (and their geographic spread) – couched solely in terms of humanitarian needs – set against the legacy of Ataturk’s expansionist vision of Turkey as the motherland of all Turkic-speaking races, has never been adequately squared. No-fly zones and buffer zones therefore have acquired the politically neutral connotation, which not only do not reflect the reality of history, but which they do not, perhaps, merit either.

The notion of neo-Ottomanism has often been dismissed by some Turks as a form of denigration of the AKP leadership; but writing in The National, Piotr Zalewski, noted that Ahmet Davutoglu, just before he became foreign minister (in 2009), precisely said that, “We are the new Ottomans”: “Whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands between 2011 to 2023.”

Behlül Özkan writes that “according to Mr. Davutoglu, the nation states established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire are artificial creations and Turkey must now carve out its own Lebensraum — a phrase he [Davutoglu] uses unapologetically. Doing so would bring about the cultural and economic integration of the Islamic world, which Turkey would eventually lead. Turkey must either establish economic hegemony over the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East, or remain a conflict-riven nation-state that risks falling apart”.

The notions of races (or tribes) as the prime agents of history harks back to the eighteenth century Romantic concern with ethnicity which was current in Britain and particularly in Germany (at the University of Göttingen) at the time. But it seems clear that what has been happening in contemporary Idlib and around Aleppo, is not unconnected with these ideas of a Turkic motherland and of finding Lebensraum for all of Turkic ethnicity.

Where the criticism of the term neo-Ottomanism seems more apt however, is that Erdogan is not so much looking to the 1830s when ‘Ottomanism’ was first coined; but rather to sixteenth century Turkey. We all recall this image:

As Kadri Gursel perceptively notes, “the warrior representing the Ottomans on the presidential staircase was neither a janissary nor a soldier of the modern Nizam-i Cedid (New Order) army, which the Ottomans set up imitating Western models in the 18th century as they suffered setbacks against the West. Clad in chain mail, this warrior represented the Ottoman soldier of the 16th century, the period of the empire’s largest territorial expansion. This was a symbol illustrating the “Ottoman paradigm” in Erdogan’s mind. He has consistently negated the Ottomans’ modernization drives and Westernization movement that began in the first quarter of the 19th century, crafting a mythology of Ottomans at the zenith of their power”.

Davutoglu too has spoken of the "great restoration", in which "we need to embrace fully the ancient values we have lost". He continued by euligising the historic bonds that connected the Turkic peoples, over the "new identities that were thrust upon us in the modern era". Those historic bonds and values, to which the PM refers, of course, always were the Turkish language, Islam and the Caliphate.

In 2014, Abdurrahman Dilipak, a prominent Islamist columnist for the daily Yeni Akit, suggested that a caliphate, Vatican-style, should be established in Turkey. According to reports in Al-Monitor, he claimed “that this would be in harmony with the secular government of the Republic of Turkey". "Dilipak provided a detailed justification saying that since the Ottoman Empire the caliphate had not been abolished but still lives on and should be reinstituted. Social media and secular newspapers carried Dilipak's arguments to the headlines; and a fiery debate started”.

Huseyin Beheshti, a scholar of philosophy and religion, summed up the Caliphate issue for Al-Monitor: “Sunni groups such as the Salafists now are highly active in Turkey. After the Syria problem, because of the sectarian policies of the AKP, the Turkish Islamist community is becoming more radical and fundamentalist. The caliphate ideology is currently being discussed by many Islamist groups that have no record of discussing it previously". Beheshti emphasized, notes Al-Monitor, that the issue of a caliphate is no longer a marginal issue exclusive to members of Hizb ut-Tahrir; he argued that the AKP’s pro-Islamist policies helped the formation of a Salafist stronghold in Turkey.

So, what then does President Putin and Russia’s initiative in Syria (and possibly in Iraq) portend for President Erdogan? There can be little doubt that Putin is cutting Erdogan's wings – and it is a set-back that touches on the very essence for which Erdogan and Davutoglu both stand. And whilst Turkey’s flirtation with the Takfiri groups may have been viewed as a power ‘multiplier’ in the spirit of the 16th century Turkish imperial expansion, the jihadi reversal (if that be the outcome), at the hands of Russia and Iran, will be viewed to be a major failure (to add to Erdogan's earlier attempt to use the Muslim Brotherhood as the tool by which Turkey could straddle the Middle East as a leading Sunni power).

Rather than Turkey becoming a ‘Sunni Great Power’ across much of northern Arabia – in lieu of Saudi Arabia - Turkey may be faced with a new power taking shape: the coalition of Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq, with which Erdogan will have to come to terms, less as key powerbroker, but more as supplicant. President Putin and FM Lavrov will no doubt do their diplomatic best to ensure that Turkey is assimilated into the new emerging order -- and is not humiliated.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.