Will Turkey Truly Pivot to Russia? What Now for Neo-Ottomanism?

Alastair Crooke, Valdai Discussion Club, 5 August 2016

Apparently ‘the pivot’ has already begun: the first high level meeting since the downing of the Russian military aircraft over Syria last November took place this week. The Deputy PMs of Turkey and Russia met in Moscow to lay the foundations for a later summit in August, between Presidents Putin and Erdogan in the former’s home town of St Petersburg, to set the seal on the new rapprochement.

But is this ‘pivot’ just Erdogan playing the ‘Russian card’ against the US and NATO, or can it represent a real shift?  Certainly, AKP leaders are escalating the rhetoric concerning claimed US complicity in the failed coup, to the point at which ‘walking it back’ now would become a political embarrassment to the AKP.  If the Turkish intent is to genuinely pivot, then of course this would be of major strategic significance.  It would signal the draining of the last real locus of US hegemony from the Middle East, and would also break NATO’s ring of encirclement of Russia.

But what of Neo-Ottomanism? The singular nature of Erdogan’s Turkic, nationalist and Sunni Islamist ambitions do not fit at all easily with Russian notions for the security of the Middle East or Central Asia.  This is the crux.  And President Putin will want to be sure that Erdogan is not simply using a swing towards Russia to lever out more concessions from the West – or for Erdogan to play Russia versus America.  Russia has worked patiently to get American co-operation in Syria: it will not want that investment to waste away.

So, what then, is the particular nature of Erdogan’s Neo-Ottomanism?  And, why might it be potentially so problematic?

One aspect of it is fairly straight forward: It is revanchism. Writing in August 2014, Piotr Zalewski, noted that Ahmet Davutoglu, just before he became foreign minister (in 2009), said quite precisely: “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.”  In other words, ‘we’ (Turkey) shall become a great Sunni power again.

I  detailed here previously Turkey’s ambition to recover the ancient (Ottoman) Vilayats of Aleppo and Mosul, and the efforts of settling (Turkic) Uigars and Turkmen into northern Syria, and deploying Turkish troops into northern Iraq – to the long term end of becoming a great Sunni power again.

Last year, by way of example, 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 themap on Takvim’s front page of the area [of northern Syria], which was preparing to become ‘our 82nd province’, included was not only Aleppo, but also Idlib and the north of Latakia. The recovery of these territories now simply is no longer an option. The course of events in Syria and Iraq changed with Russia’s intervention.

The more thorny aspect (for Russia), rather, are the Turkic and Islamic dimensions of Ankara’s Neo-Ottoman ambitions.  And on this point, paradoxically, Erdogan enjoys much in common with Fethullah Gulen’s Hizmat.  The history of Erdogan’s and Gulen’s ‘togetherness’ and merger in establishing the AKP, are complex — as are their subsequent clashes and hostility complex, too. But essentially, both ideologies derived from similar nationalist, Islamic, and (conservative) liberal economic roots.

Both precisely have the Ottoman recovery ‘paradigm’ in common – as well described by Ahmet Davutoglu who has spoken of the “great restoration”, in which “we need to embrace fully the ancient values we have lost”. He continued by eulogising 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 former PM referred, of course, always were the Turkish language, Islam and the Caliphate.

Gulen’s origins were with the Nur movement, a reformist and modernising Islamist strand, inspired by the cleric-activist, Said-i Nursî’s writings.  Gulen’s is a social and educational movement, and ostensibly, at least, is not a political movement – though it does interact with governments, and conducts what might reasonably be called ‘diplomacy’, with states (both Western and Islamic), as if it were a significant political entity.

The aim of the Gulenist cemaat (community), with its emphasis on science, technology and western liberal market economics, is to educate and influence future national elites, who will speak English and Turkish, and favour subsumption into the West. “Religious matters are completely absent from their curricula. [Cemaat teachers] never profess openly the philosophy of Islam, rather they live it. For example, teachers of the movement’s schools have to be polite, immaculate, and respectful. These ethics of life demand from the missionaries both hard work and the acceptance of hizmet insani (“in service”), or helping others”, French-Turkish scholar, Bayram Balci, notes.  It is a hugely wealthy organisation, with think-tanks, schools and publications spanning the globe – but with many of its schools concentrated in the Balkans and in Central Asia.

It is, explains Balci, in a real sense, “a missionary movement. Its mission is to re­establish Islam in the region, which has been dominated for the last 70 years by an atheist power persecuting Islam. To that objective, the Nurcu (communities adhering to the Nur doctrine) employ methods similar to those of the Jesuits. Indeed, like Jesuits, the Nurcu have developed an elitist method of recruitment: They wish to change society through education; and they perceive education as a global supervision of pupils, in and out of school. Also, the missionary movement entertains excellent relations with the target populations too, in order to ‘convert’ them”.

Notionally, the cemaat (estimated to number some 3 million members) adheres to a Sufi orientation (more cultural, than philosophic), but unlike most Sufi orientations, is vehemently anti-Shi’a and hostile towards Iran.  In some respects, the cemaat has attributes similar to a freemasonry society.  Joining the cemaat in Turkey – or in Central Asia – has been a path towards securing a job, promotion, and ultimately a place within an élite.(It is not too hard to see why such a movement, with its very liberal emphasis both in teaching English and science, its wide reach, and pro-western liberal market orientation – might find favour within a US government, looking to shape the future of the Islamic world).

Erdogan’s origins, by contrast, were with the National Outlook Movement (NOM), which had its base amongst pious provincial businessmen and farmers.  Initially hostile to the Gulenists as dangerous pawns of secular forces,  Erdogan’s followers split from the NOM, after the 1997 coup, to co-found the AKP with the Gulenists.

So, what did Gulen and Erdogan have in common?  They shared – for all their subsequent clashes – very similar views of what the neo-Ottoman paradigm entailed.

Bayram Balci, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the cemaat schools, has noted that the Gulen movement serves to accomplish three intellectual goals: Firstly, the Turkification of Islam, secondly the Islamization of the Turkish nationalist ideology, and thirdly, the Islamization of modernity itself.  This is no small doing.

In short, Gulen is aiming for a new global Islamic movement of huge size: In 1997, Gulen stated “Turkey […] today encompasses 60 million. Together with the Turks in Central Asia it is 120-130 million. If it manages to break down the Chinese wall and to unite with the Turks there, it will be 300 million”.  In some respects, the criticism has some claim to truth — that Hizmat is a parallel state; infiltrating quietly, placing itself into the arteries of power, until the state simply folds, supine, into its embrace, without resistance.

Erdogan is entirely at one with Gulen on his pan-Turkic objectives. But he would differ profoundly over methodology.  The Turkish President would have no qualms about creating a Turkic Umma (community of believers), comprising all the Turkic peoples from western China to eastern Europe.  He has been zealous in embracing all Turkic races. 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, has 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.

Erdogan has been adept too, at quietly ‘Turkifying’ the Muslim Brotherhood, the leading Arab Islamist movement; persuading the latter to adopt a Turkish view of ‘modernity’, and of the place of Islamists within contemporary society.  For example, in the Egyptian Presidential election, the MB campaigned on a single platform of socio-economic progress and liberal market economics – rather than on the values of justice, and of Islam.  All very much done at Erdogan’s behest, (and, on his advice that to adopt the Washington Consensus would serve to inoculate the MB from any western counter-response).

Of course, the causes of Erdogan’s fall-out with Gulen are many (not least from when Gulenists attempted to capitalise on anti-government sentiment in the wake of the 2014 Gazi protests, to file corruption cases that could have brought down the government. Erdogan declared war, and he has been cleansing the country of Gulenists ever since).

But quite apart from these direct quarrels, Erdogan had a quite different model to that of Gulen, for his new Islamic order: He already had the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood under his wing, which he was coaching – and which, in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’, seemed poised to make major political gains across the Arab world.  It was a political ‘platform’ ready-made.  It had millions of followers, and the necessary ‘cell’ organisational structures spread across the Arab world.

And, in any event, mainstream Arab Islamism, such as the MB, was becoming more literal, and doctrinally puritan (i.e. more Salafist) at the time. It wanted no truck with Sufis (or Gulen). There was no need to ‘permeate’ oneself into power, cemaat-style. If the existing MB ‘political platform’ somehow could be married – at a different level (and with Erdogan at the controls) – to the military capabilities of jihadist movements, operating separately, but to the same ultimate objective (an Islamic State), the ‘new Umma’ could just seize the Islamic world.

This has been very much Erdogan’s approach in Syria: with the Turks playing the so-called ‘moderates’ at the global political plane, whilst backing the jihadists at the ground ‘plane’.  The Wahhabi jihadists were sent to be the bulldozers – clearing away the old cultural ‘debris’ of Levantine Sunni Islam, and the historic vision of a tolerant Syria – whilst the ‘moderates’ were expected to slip into the jihadi-excavated, ‘void’ – a literal, puritan, Salafist Islam – but one which would be nonetheless ‘modern’ in its notion of finance, science and the advancing of ‘social progress’ (viz Hamas).

Of course this grandiose scheme has not come about, either in Syria nor Egypt.  But has the ambition gone? This is the question for President Putin: Will Erdogan really yield on his notion of making Turkey a neo-Ottoman global power with influence deep in Europe, the Caucasus, Russia, Central Asia and Xinxiang? Will he turn his back on his Wahhabi ‘shock troops’ sweeping away ‘old’ cultural landmarks and edifices, and making room for his new ‘order’? Will he stop the training of North Caucasus jihadists, Uighurs, Uzbeks, and Albanians?  Or, is it just a temporary, expedient, pause that we are witnessing?

A test of President Erdogan’s true intentions may come very soon:  FM Sergey Lavrov warned on 22 July that,

“The development of relations between Russia and Turkey will depend on their cooperation on Syria and on whether Turkey will take steps against those who use this country’s territory to finance terrorists in Syria … Much will depend on how we will cooperate on the settlement of the Syrian crisis … During discussions of the Syrian crisis, we provided many facts that prove that Turkish territory is used for providing supplies to terrorists and sending militants to Syria. These facts remain on the table”.

“Now that we’ve restored our relations, it will be hard to ignore the facts that we provided, and we hope that our Turkish partners will now start answering these questions, will take measures to stop their territory being used for supporting the fratricidal war in Syria”.

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