Empire Rains Down - GulfToday

Empire Rains Down

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Syria’s government would have put an end to unrest if Erdogan had not become involved and external powers remained aloof.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mission is to “make Turkey great again” by restoring some of the Ottoman empire’s liberated territories and winning over populations in these lands by promoting conservative socio-cultural practices and religious observance. Strongman Erdogan is, of course, admired and encouraged by the current inhabitant of the White House Donald Trump, whose slogan is “make America great again.”

Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman mission has replaced the “zero problems with neighbours” policy adopted by his Justice and Development Party when it took power in 2002. In pursuit of his mission, he has alienated Turkey’s neighbours and Europe.

Erdogan has recently joined the struggle for Libya on the side of the weak but UN-recognised government in Tripoli by dispatching at least 2,000 Syrian fighters to defend against the rebels attacking the capital. Erdogan’s quid pro quo was for Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to agree to extend Libya’s offshore territorial shelf to meet that of Turkey, thereby laying claim to the oil and natural gas resources of the Eastern Mediterranean and separating countries on its eastern shores — Egypt, Palestine-Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Lebanon — from those in the west. This amounts to a dramatic projection of Turkey’s ambition and politico-military reach modelled on the Ottoman empire’s direct and indirect reign over the Libyan coast (east and west Tripolitania) from 1551 until 1912.

The descent of Libya into chaos following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 alarmed Egypt due to the presence in the eastern coastal region of multiple radical fundamentalist factions. They mounted domestic attacks and infiltrated Egypt’s northern Sinai province where Daesh-affiliated radicals were battling the Egyptian army. The 2015 kidnapping and beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts working in Libya by Daesh drew Egypt into the Libyan melee. Egypt was joined by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France in a campaign to stabilise eastern Libya and ultimately the whole country by backing General Khalifa Haftar and the Tobruk-based parliament which has denounced Erdogan’s deal with Sarraj.

Erdogan intervened in Syria in mid-2011 shortly after unrest erupted in that country. He recruited Syrian army deserters into the Free Syrian Army and funnelled foreign jihadis into Syria. His goal was to overthrow the secular government and replace it with the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated expatriate Syrian National Council. Erdogan also welcomed Syrian refugees. Men were initially separated from their families for duty in Turkey’s surrogate forces. If Erdogan had not become involved and other external powers had remained aloof, Syria’s government would have put an end to unrest and, according to Gulf Today’s informed sources, initiated reforms that would have at least partially satisfied dissidents. Instead, civil and proxy wars have ensued, half of Syria’s population has been driven into exile or displaced within Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed and large areas of the country devastated.

Erdogan learned from Turkish history that the Ottomans ruled Syria from 1516 until the World War I collapse of the empire and has exploited the war to grab territory he believes belongs to Turkey. This happened in 1937-38, before World War II: with the connivance of France, the colonial power ruling Syria, Turkey cleansed the Syrian province of Iskandarun (Alexandretta) of its Arab and Armenian inhabitants to ensure a Turkish majority ahead of a referendum which decided that it should belong to Turkey. It annexed the province and called it Hatay. Syrians continue to dispute the seizure of this coastal enclave that does not belong to Turkish Anatolia but thrusts deep into Syria.

Since 2016, Turkey has occupied nearly 9,000 square kilometres of northern Syria including the triangle containing the towns of al-Bab, Azaz and Jarablus, the district of Afrin — from which half of the mainly Kurdish population has been expelled — and a 120km long, 30km wide stretch of territory between the northern towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Under the 2018 Russian-Turkish agreement for a de-confliction zone in Syria’s Idlib province, Turkey was permitted to establish military posts for monitoring a ceasefire and containing radical groups linked to al-Qaeda. Instead, Turkey built a dozen fortified army bases and armed both radicals and client militias to fight the Syrian army with the aim of ousting the government. This policy has failed. The government now rules 70 per cent of Syria and remains determined, with Russia’s help, to wrest Idlib from Turkey, the radicals and surrogates as well as eastern Syria from the US-backed Kurdish forces.

Turkey’s second Ottoman territorial grab, after Iskandarun/Alexandretta, was northern Cyprus. Ankara invaded and occupied 36 per cent of the island in 1974 following a failed coup mounted by the military junta in Athens. Turkey ethnically cleansed Greek Cypriots from the north and, in violation of international law, barred the settlement of its nationals in occupied territory and planted thousands of mainland Turks there. They now outnumber Turkish Cypriots in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot entity, recognised only by Turkey.

While the seizure and colonisation of northern Cyprus long predated Erdogan, he has attempted to cultivate Turkish conservative practices and religious devotion on Turkish Cypriots who are modern-minded secularists. He has done this by building mosques and religious schools. Turkish Cypriots complain he is trying to undermine their identity which is distinct from that of mainland Turks. Turkish Cypriots have told Gulf Today that if this process continues they will emigrate to Europe and elsewhere, leaving the north to the mainland settlers.

Speaking on behalf of his compatriots, Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci, who is running for re-election in April, told The Guardian that Turkish Cypriots want to maintain their secular, democratic and pluralistic identity. He warned that Erdogan might try annexing north Cyprus, following Russia’s example in Crimea. Akinci said this would be “horrible” and harm Turkey’s own interests. He called for the unification of Cyprus in a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation within the European Union. He argued against Turkey’s occupation of Afrin and of Hatay.

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