New Ottoman Empire?

‘Turkey’s decision to escalate tensions with Israel is an effort to reassert itself as the leader of a neo-Ottoman Empire’

In the complex geometry slowly taking shape in the new Middle East, the Palmer report must have felt like a godsend to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The report criticises Israel’s recourse to excessive force in what has become known as the flotilla incident. But beyond that, the report vindicates Israel and chastises Turkey. For a start it states unambiguously that Israeli commandos acted in self-defence when they faced “significant, organised and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara requiring them to use force for their own protection.”

The Palmer report goes on to declare Israel’s naval blockade legal as a measure of self-defence under the UN Charter. It says that the flotilla was a provocation with no other purpose than picking a fight and it criticises Turkey for its failure to prevent it sailing from its ports. And it asks probing questions about the Turkish government’s connections with IHH (Foundation for  Human Rights, Freedom and Humanitarian Relief), the NGO behind the flotilla, and faults Israel only for a tactical blunder.

Considering that Turkey initially endorsed the Palmer Commission and its mandate, a careful reader of the report may find Erdogan’s rejection to be hysterical: the prime minister has chosen to defy the UN secretary-general, who commissioned the report, by declaring it null and void. Clearly, at the very least such a response spares Erdogan the need to answer its criticisms. It also enables him to escalate Turkey’s dispute with Israel by threatening to send warships to break the blockade — with predictably disastrous consequences. Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy will trigger a war with Israel and Erdogan must know this.

Ankara’s decision to escalate tensions with Jerusalem is a calculated effort to fulfil Turkey’s regional ambition to reassert itself as the leader of the surrounding Muslim Arab countries — neo-Ottomanism, as some call it, or Caliphate-lite.

Say what you wish about Erdogan, the man has earned his place in history. As leader of Turkey’s seemingly moderate Islamic party, the AKP, he patiently laid siege to Turkish secular republicanism for nine years. With stealth and patience, Erdogan neutralised the army, the media and the courts, turning stout bastions of secularism, staunch defenders of democracy, and harsh critics of his rule into docile yes men. Those who dared not to bend to pressure lost their business, found themselves entangled in a web of criminal accusations or ended up in jail. 

With a more pliant polity, Erdogan  then undertook to change Turkey’s foreign policy. The country’s Western vocation as a secular democracy anchored to the fate of Europe and America gave way to dreams of Ottoman revival, imperial grandeur and Islamic leadership. While remaining a full member of Nato, Erdogan sought alliances and friendships among regional tyrants and autocrats, forging fruitful relations with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and pushing for trade expansion with Iran, as if sanctions were meaningless to Ankara’s new sultan. Whenever Turkey was criticised — for example, for welcoming a Hamas delegation in Ankara soon after it had won parliamentary elections in February 2006 — its leaders replied that their actions enabled them to rise above regional divisions and “mediate”.

The clash with Israel, which Erdogan gradually escalated, went hand-in-hand with thriving bilateral relations in both the civil and military sectors. Bilateral trade grew by 135 per cent from 2002, when Erdogan’s party won power, to 2010, when the Mavi Marmara incident occurred. This allowed him to cite thriving business and military ties with Israel to fend off critics who accused him of whitewashing Hamas’s record as a terror organisation devoted to an Islamic fundamentalist political platform. But in truth, the progressive deterioration in relations with Jerusalem served Erdogan’s ambitions to establish himself as a champion of Arab and Islamic causes and shop for alliances beyond Turkey’s Western horizon. When Turkey cancelled an annual aerial exercise that included Israeli jets, it initiated a new one, this time with a squadron of Chinese jets which stopped in Tehran for refuelling.

Now, with regional turmoil toppling or challenging those dictators who fought hardest against the Muslim Brotherhood (Erdogan’s Arab ideological next-of-kin), the prime minister senses an opportunity. He wants to assert his country’s leadership further by propping up Islamic forces that are emerging on top in the post-revolutionary uncertainty of the Arab Spring and establishing the AKP as their sponsor, patron and guide. What better way to do that than by pandering to the worst instincts of regional politics — by bashing Israel?

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