Erdogan’s recent electoral victory speech puts his true intentions regarding Turkey’s foreign policy goals in perspective. He said that this victory is as important in Ankara as it is in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo, under Ottoman times, an important Ottoman city; that his party’s victory was as important in a large Turkish city, Izmir, on the Western Anatolian coast, as it is in Damascus, and as important in Istanbul as it is in Jerusalem.
What does all this mean? At the very least, this victory speech signals a wish for Ottoman cultural colonialism and imperialism. The places Erdogan names were all part of by the Ottoman Empire; the territory of the modern Turkish Republic is what remained after World War I and Turkey’s War of Independence from the occupying Allied forces. Turkey forms only the central part, and relatively small fraction, of what had been the Ottoman Empire, which at its height extended deep into southern Europe, and included most of today’s Arab world and even beyond.
In saying that this victory is as important in all of these former Ottoman cities, Erdogan apparently sees himself as trying to reclaim Turkey’s full Ottoman past. In religious terms, the entire reason for being of the Ottoman Empire was to spread the Sunni form of Islam prevalent there. Sunnis, who make up about 85% of the Muslim world, believe that when Mohammed died, the leadership of Islam was passed down through what amounted to the Meccan artistocracy, and not through Mohammed’s family — which is what the Shi’ites believe. The cities Erdogan mentioned are almost all Sunni, with a few non-Sunni ones thrown in.
The Ottomans had two major rivals: the non-Muslim Europeans to the northwest, and the Shi’ite Persian Empire to the east.
The scars of this early 1500s battle between the Sunni Ottomans and the Persian Shiites has influenced the Turkish Sunni psyche so deeply that today’s Turkish Sunnis — and most importantly among them, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan — still recite age-old pejorative Turkish proverbs about both the Shiites and the Alevis. These proverbs include references to the Alevis and Shiites as untrustworthy brigands who also engage in indecent acts.
At the moment Erdogan is threatened by other problems that Iran is bringing to his doorstep. These include Iran’s attempt to make itself the major energy transport country in the area, bypassing Turkey. Turkey’s major geographic significance now is that it is a transporter of energy, bringing gas and oil from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and oil from northern Iraq to the world market. If Iran takes Turkey’s place in the energy market, especially in transporting energy to India, China, and the region, Turkey will suffer an immense economic and strategic loss.
Further, Erdogan must be terrified of what he sees happening in Syria. Assad and his ruling clique are not Sunnis. They are Alawis — not exactly the same as Turkey’s Alevis, but similar in that they also revere Ali. But unlike the Shiites, the Alawis view Ali as a deity, much as the Christians revere Jesus. As a result of the continuing upheaval in Syria, the ruling party of Turkey might see itself as surrounded by various active religious threats from the east and from Syria, along Turkey’s southern border.
Erdogan’s and Assad’s families even vacationed together, and Erdogan publicly called Assad his close friend — an alliance all the more curious as the Syrian Sunnis view the Alawis with utter disdain, stemming from the Alawi worship of Ali as a deity, rather than as just the Twelfth Imam.
When the Syrian Sunnis started abandoning their ruler, Bashar Assad a few weeks ago, Erdogan took his cue from them and allowed Syrian Sunnis to host several Syrian opposition conferences in Turkey — including one conference paid for by a wealthy Syrian Sunni businessman who until recently had been a supporter of Assad; and another conference, in Istanbul, of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Although both conferences had slightly different approaches to solving Syria’s political problems, what united them was that at both, Syria’s Sunnis — Erdogan’s natural allies — were the dominant actors.
Erdogan may well now feel himself under threat from both Syria and Iran, until recently two of his allies. The policy of of “Zero problems with all neighbors” of Erdogan’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has proven to be an abject failure.
Erdogan undoubtedly sees that he now has an opportunity to advance his Ottoman-centric Sunni policy in Syria and beyond. If Assad’s Alawi regime falls, and is replaced by a Sunni-dominated one, Syria — approximately 70% Sunni — would be a natural ally for Turkey. Syria’s Sunni business- and upper classes have had centuries-old connections with their counterparts in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey.
In all, Erdogan’s bottom line appears to be advancing a reconstitution of the Ottoman Empire, which he and his fellow Turkish Sunni fundamentalists now call ” The Ottoman Region.” In the long run, all non-Sunnis — such as Iran, Israel, Syria (if it remains under Alawi rule after things eventually quiet down in Syria), and a Shiite-ruled Iraq — remain outsiders. Erdogan might make temporary alliances with any of them, but, psychologically, that will be all he is prepared to do.
As for Erdogan and Davutoglu, in the depths of their souls, they are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims and see themselves as such. The Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian alliance, which Erdogan worked so hard to build, has failed. Erdogan’s and Davutoglu’s long-term, Sunni goals, and those of the non-Sunnis in the area, have been, and will always be, vastly different. Turkey might conclude temporary alliances with non-Sunnis as needed, to address immediate concerns, but we cannot expect much more than this. Given Iran’s regional bid to replace Turkey as “energy-central,” and the apparent attempt of the Shi’ite Iranian-Syrian-Alawi alliance to try to put down the Sunni-dominated Syrian insurrection, Turkey needs to make sure it does not have additional problems.
It is in this context that we should understand Turkey’s renewed interest in the U.S. and Israel. As such, both the U.S. and Israel should be extremely wary of Erdogan and his associates. Erdogan’s Turkey does not see long-term interests with either. Given economic developments in Iran, Alawite oppression in Syria, and Shiite-dominance in Iraq, Erdogan understands that he must take a temporary hiatus from his goal of reasserting what appears to be his real goal — the Turkish Sunni domination of the entire Middle East.