Last month, while referring to Turkey’s concerns regarding the situation in Iraq to Crimea, Syria to Cyprus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “Turkey is not just Turkey… it is also responsible to the hundreds of millions of our brothers in the geographical area to which we are connected by historical and cultural ties.”
The foreign media and some capitals did not miss the chance to interpret the above statement within the context of “neo-Ottomanism” or “Turkish expansionism.” Particularly after President Erdogan’s remarks about the Lausanne treaty and the Mosul operation, criticisms have escalated and recent moves in Turkish foreign policy, once again, were read through the lens of “neo-Ottomanist ambitions of Turkey.”
For decades, Turkey’s relations with the Middle East were based on the prejudices of the past and were mainly characterized by suspicion. There was an understanding that the Arabs revolted several times against the Ottoman rule during the critical years of the World War I and betrayed the Ottomans by cooperating with the imperial powers. On the other side, Arab countries’ understanding of Turkey was shaped by Ottoman legacy and anti-Turkish perception was attributed to the fear that one day Turkey may increase its influence on the former Ottoman lands again.
When Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK party) came to power in 2002, a concept of “neo-Ottomanism” came to Turkish politics that aimed to rediscover Turkey’s historic and geographic identity, reassess its own position regarding regional issues and build up Turkish influence in the region. But the term of “neo-Ottomanism” was not positively perceived by the regional states, which were worried about the pace of Turkish growing influence in the region.
Needless to say, Turkey is not planning to annex parts of Iraq, Syria or any other country. Turkey just realized the rules of the game played in the region and aims to take part in this game actively. As military analyst Can Kasapoglu has said; “If you cannot find your name in the guest list of a significant dinner in the Middle East, check the menu. Your name might be there.”
Turkey wants to be one of the guests sitting at the table that would shape the future of Iraq, Syria and in general the regional order in the Middle East. So, Turkey’s stance in the Mosul operation, its approach toward the war in Syria and the recent statements of the Turkish officials should be evaluated within this context, not neo-Ottomanist approach, which would be nothing more than an exaggerated reading. We see often such “neo-Ottomanist” interpretations in Greek and Arab media particularly.
Republican era’s distanced policy toward the Middle East didn’t bring much gain but rather harmed Turkish interests as Ankara faced challenges from regional countries; such as Syria, Iran and Iraq, that supported the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey, which is not only fighting the PKK but Daesh as well, recognized that it has no choice but to take the necessary steps in order to cope with disquieting risks across its border. First and foremost important is the security risk.
Currently, Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East is driven with security concerns emanating from the PKK and Daesh threats. As Philip Robins says in his book “Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy Since the Cold War,” “the nature of threats, both as perceived from a state and as perceived by other states regarding the state, is a key variable in the development and evolution of foreign relations.”
So, threat perceived by the neighboring countries, namely Syria and Iraq, forces Turkey to formulate its foreign policy according to its threat perceptions.
The first concern of every state is not to maximize power but to maintain their position in the system. So, Ankara’s keeping of its military forces in Bashiqa, a few miles north of Mosul, deploying troops along the border and its ongoing Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria should be understood as a matter of Turkey’s national security and self-defense.
Regarding Mosul, where an ongoing operation is being carried out against Daesh, Turkey wants to have a say in the situation in the Iraqi city as the Sunni population, particularly Turkmens, living in the city has been a concern and an asset for Ankara in Iraq. Turkey’s position is clear in Mosul: “Mosul is for the people of Mosul. After the liberation of Mosul from Daesh, no one has the right to enter and settle in these towns. Only Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Sunni Kurds should stay there.”
For the fate of the region, any demographic change may lead to serious consequences — a refugee flow, ethnic and sectarian tensions and eventually a Shiite dominance in the area. Worst, it may ignite an ethnic and sectarian conflict, which may last for years — the last thing we need!
Turkey, as a country where the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have spilled over into its soil and struggles with the burden of hosting millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, has good reasons to take active part in the game played in the region. After all, it is a country neighboring Syria and Iraq, not Papua New Guinea.
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly on issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.