Turkey is extending its political footprint and ambitions from the central Mediterranean to western China. But there are lessons of tolerance and modernization to be learned from its Ottoman heritage and its modern political sponsors – the United States and Germany.
At first glance, Turkey is a dwarf. Its gross domestic product (GDP) of less than US $ 800 billion is almost a third that of Italy, and certainly not the size of a geopolitical giant.
However, it has a population of 85 million and claims to represent tens of millions of Turks spread across Asia. It claims the legacy of the Muslim caliphate and the historic victory over the Byzantines in 1453. And it is a world superpower that could play a major role in the struggle that has just started against China.
Turkey led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spread its wings in the region and beyond. Yet this latest incarnation is not just the president’s idea.
Since the fall of the Soviet Empire, there has been a mutual interest between Turkey and the Turkish peoples of Central Asia. Turkey has proven itself in recent years containing and defeating both Iran and Russia in Syria and Iraq.
Although Ankara also quelled in Turkey and former northern Iraq the aspirations of the Kurds – the darlings of many Western liberals – Turkey was the most effective force to surround Iran, which supported the targets. Syrians of Assad.
Turkey also managed at the same time to contain and apparently root out the Islamic State, which had been a constant threat to the Western world. Ankara halted the flow of immigrants from Syria to Europe, giving a respite to the European Union which was nearly inundated and overwhelmed by the immigrant problem.
That is, Turkey succeeded in delivering and became de facto NATO‘s bulwark in the region, and it was able to project itself to the east and to the west. Of course, for each service Ankara claimed a reward, but this further strengthened its negotiating position.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that intelligence services in the US, UK and France are now all led by experts on Turkey, all fluent in Turkish.
Past and present mixed up
For the past two years, the Americans had urged Italy to settle in Tripoli to support local government and regain control after the Russians settled in with “volunteers” and equipment to support Libyan General Haftar. .
After years of Rome dragging its feet on massive Libyan intervention, the Turks have settled in, perhaps with Washington’s blessing, and stabilized the situation in Tripoli. This was a blow to Italy as it brought back the regional situation from over 100 years ago when, during the Libyan war of 1911, it ousted the Turks from Libya. But the Turks again succeeded in achieving an important objective, which was to stop the Russians.
Moreover, Turkey could play a crucial role in the geopolitical struggle against China. Eight million Uyghurs make up about 0.5% of China’s population, but their political activism far exceeds their numbers. Xinjiang, homeland of the Uyghurs, occupies about a quarter of Chinese territory.
To regain effective control of the region, Beijing has launched a controversial campaign to allegedly send one million Uyghurs to re-education camps. These people, although suppressed and with little sympathy among the Han population in China, are an extremely thorny problem for Beijing.
Their leaders outside of China have a good understanding of Chinese politics, unlike their Tibetan counterparts. One of them, Wuerkaxi, was a leader of the Tiananmen movement and another, Nury Turkel, is an accomplished and multilingual lawyer in America. Both were children of the local Uyghur “aristocracy” raised by the communist education system.
Therefore, they are well acquainted with the inner workings of the party and command great respect among their fellow Uyghurs.
This is very different from their Tibetan counterparts. The Tibetan aristocracy followed the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959, and from then on, the Communist Party recruited its local cadres from among the ex-slaves who had little or no respect in the Tibetan community. As a result, Tibetan society has since been broken up with little unity, and those who understand the party have little or no respect from the Dalai Lama.
It’s very different from Uyghurs. Now, of course, the re-education campaign and the massive influx of Han (China’s ethnic majority) immigration into Xinjiang could very well undermine the weight of the local population. However, the attractiveness of the Uyghur cause could be very strong in Central Asia, especially if it is based on Turkish heritage and an American dynamic.
The Turkish peoples of Central Asia are extremely divided and at odds with each other due to ancestral tribal feuds and new friction between their newly created states. Yet they all consider Istanbul to be their cultural cradle.
In all of this, the return of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s massive monument, as a mosque is a symbol of the cultural if not religious restoration of the Turkish Caliphate, and a call to ancient glory when the Turkish people ruled all over the world. ‘Central Asia.
The Hagia Sophia was built as the largest church in Christianity during Byzantine rule, then it was turned into a mosque when Mehmet II took the city from the Byzantines, and a century ago it became a museum as Turkey pledged to distance itself from its Islamic heritage.
Turkey’s opening up to Central Asia, at the heart of one of China’s most controversial issues, could become very important if it succeeds in mobilizing and uniting the modern Turkish populations of Central Asia in an anti- Beijing. Many of these states, despite their differences, have growing qualms about Beijing as they follow the fate of their fellow Turkish Uyghurs.
In that sense, Turkey’s economic weaknesses and inability to bring its economy together could turn out to be a disguised asset. With exaggerated political ambitions and little economic strength to support it, Turkey becomes more dependent on its patrons, the United States and Germany (instead of the European Union). In this situation, Turkey could be rewarded even more with a more important role in the Mediterranean.
Turkey would create a link to three seas: the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, all aligned by a Turkish presence. It would be a Turkish Silk Road with anti-Chinese overtones which could be supported by India, the European Union and the United States. This support would be essential for Turkey.
After the victory of 1453, the Ottomans established a monopoly over the eastern Mediterranean and central Asia which eventually forced the Europeans to reach Asia from the west, which led to the discovery of America and to the eventual disappearance of the Turks. A modern “caliphate” should then avoid the mistakes of the past and gain as many friends as possible rather than enemies.
Enemies or not? Pope
Some countries may be unhappy with Turkey’s global ambitions. Egypt, Greece, Israel and Italy, although firmly in the Western camp, are uncomfortable with the new Turkish posture. However, neither of them alone or in alliance can compensate for the services that Turkey has provided and may provide in the future. Yet Turkey cannot just depend on American good offices to come to an agreement with these countries.
The main goal the United States is now considering is the containment of China. It is therefore very unlikely that these countries will openly go against American wishes, or even attempt to undermine them. This brings the ball back to Erdogan’s court.
Erdogan cannot pursue his massive ambitions solely through economic and political aid from the United States and Germany (where Turkish immigrants are a political force in their own right). The Ottoman Sultanate was able to survive and prosper for centuries because it commanded the loyalty and respect of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. There were Christians, both Orthodox and Catholics, Jews and Muslims from all sects.
Erdogan cannot simply step on the pedal of Turkish identity and Muslim faith. He must reach out to the Christian world, in a modern way, to gain more support and to non-Turkish ethnic minorities, such as Kurds of Persian descent, or Arabs and Jews. This could help Erdogan move closer to the European Union, the United States and Israel, which in turn could help turn the Turkish economy around.
In all of this, it could be crucial for Erdogan to reach out to the Holy See. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was viewed by the entire Christian world as a historic defeat for Christianity.
One hundred years ago with the Young Turkish Revolution, the massive temple was turned into a museum as a sign of transformation to the Western world and the first admission of modern Turkey into the Western Alliance system.
In this sense, the persecution of Christians in Turkey or the suppression of non-Muslim faiths could be a major brake on Erdogan’s ambitions.
Allowing Christian activity in the Muslim world has been a long overdue signal and could bring huge political dividends to Erdogan. Now is the time for Erdogan to muster 30 years of Turkish effort, but he must deliver something that goes beyond military and political prowess. The key is reconciliation with the past. The turning point of Hagia Sophia skips the last 100 years and reaches out to the Ottomans.
But at the height of the empire, the Ottomans were a very complex reality.
Turkey needs to get its economy moving and for that it needs friends and a more liberal internal society. Without an efficient economy and friends, all political dreams collapse. Oil from Arab friends / customers, sold at low prices, cannot last long.
In addition, Ankara must come to terms with its past. The recent past is the grudge of not being admitted to the EU. Now it is clear that it was a blessing in disguise. If Turkey had been in the EU, it would not have been able to pursue its geopolitical goals. And, given the poor performance of its economy, it could now be in a worse crisis than Italy or Greece and relations with the EU could have soured Turkish sentiments even further.
In addition, Ankara must reach out to the Greeks and Armenians who for centuries were an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. The breakdown of relations with the two Christian groups also contributed to the fall of the empire.
If Turkey wants a glimpse of its past, it must find a new future with these two important neighbors, and that could also start by acknowledging many of its mistakes, the ethnic and religious persecutions of the past. Thus, the future of Central Asia and the Three Seas System could take a different direction.
Used with permission from Settimana News. Read the original here.