Turkey has been ‘belligerent’ with its destabilising influence in Central Asia and the Mediterranean. Since Erdoğan’s rise and consolidation of executive powers, he has been unashamedly outspoken about his desire to bring the Sunnis and Shiite together in a neo-Ottoman Empire or Caliphate.
No doubt, Erdoğan is positioning himself as the overseer of the Muslim World and ‘diversifying’ Turkey’s geopolitical alliances. It is yet to be seen if (and for how long) Erdoğan will be able to ‘manage’ such a fine balancing act between Turkey and these superpowers with their competing interests.
In the 1950s, Turkey was a secular nation despite being a majority Muslim country that was also an integral part of the United States anti-Soviet Communism efforts throughout the Cold War. The CIA launched joint espionage and propaganda operations targeting the Soviet Union with the Turkish national security and intelligence services; MAH (now MIT).
However, the Islamist groups ‘formed covert and overt alliances with the ruling center-right Democratic Party (1950-1960)’ that brought Islamists out to the open under the civil liberties provisions in the 1961 constitution. In 1969, Necmettin Erbakan collaborated with the Muslim Brotherhood and issued his Millî Görüş (Turkish Muslim Brotherhood?) manifesto and went on to founding and leading several prominent Islamic political parties.
In 1996, when Erbakan was Turkey’s Prime Minister, he lobbied vigorously to establish the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation, which included 8 Islamic countries: Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey. Those 8 countries had one thing in common: a political and/or religious affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Erdoğan was an open follower of Necmettin Erbakan and his Justice and Development party offered many business opportunities to Egyptian Brotherhood businessmen who moved to Turkey ever since the 1960s. So, it was not a surprise when the Brotherhood was well-represented at the 2006 celebration of 533 years’ occupying Constantinople.
Turkey has also harboured many Egyptian Brotherhood fugitives after the June 30, 2013 revolution, in coordination with Hamas in Gaza and Qatar. As a result, Turkey has become the regional hub for the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organization.
Turkey’s regional (expansionist?) adventurism in Syria and destabilising influence in Central Asia under the pretext of bringing the Turkic people together during the rise of the Islamic State, where Turkish Intelligence were giving Turkish passports to Kazakhs, Uyghurs, Kyrgyz and others that went to fight in Syria. Turkey and Qatar were supportive of the Islamists in Libya and confrontational to countries hostile to the Brotherhood like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
More recently, Turkey has been flexing its muscles in the Mediterranean and inflaming tensions with its arch-nemesis Greece. Turkey is now heavily involved in supplying weapons and diverting foreign mercenaries from Syria and Libya to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which creates long-term threats to the security of the entire region.
Erdoğan has been unashamedly ambitious with his proclamations to bring the Sunnis and Shiite together in the hope of uniting ‘Al-Umma Al-Islamiya’. Afterall, the opening of Hagia Sophia Mosque for worship after 86 years with Friday prayers, in Istanbul on July 24, 2020 was infused with symbolism signifying Turkey’s geopolitical posturing.
The head of Turkey’s highest religious authority, the Diyanet, Ali Erbas carried an Ottoman sword (instead of the ceremonial wooden staff) as he ascended the pulpit and later explaining to journalists: “This is a tradition in mosques that is a symbol of conquest. For 481 years without interruption, [Imams] went with a sword [to the minbar]. Insha’Allah [God Willing], we will continue this tradition from now on.”
Turkey’s military posturing in Iraq, Syria, Libya, the Mediterranean and the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict only cements its role in the eyes of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims as a neo-Ottoman Caliphate ‘conquering the world by the sword’ to defend their interests, and remedy the centuries old injustices that have beleaguered Muslims and saw them subjugated to the tyranny of despotic infidels.
However, Erdoğan’s foreign policy ambitions may be unsustainable due to the slowing Turkish economy. Foreign interventionism, while it energises the nationalist fervour, is only a distraction from domestic problems. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) popularity are in steady decline, due to a drop in annual per capita income growth to -0.5% in 2019 (from 8% a year in 2010/11), a revitalised opposition and a growing unease within his own party due to his appropriation of executive powers and growing domestic repression.
Some analysts dismiss Erdoğan’s belligerence as just another spectacle of a megalomaniac who seems to think that the ‘world superpowers need Turkey more than it needs them’. However, that view assumes ‘expediency’ on Erdoğan’s part and misses his (and the Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood) long-term stated goal of bringing the Sunni and Shi’a world together in a neo-Ottoman Empire or Caliphate.
This may explain why Erdoğan is positioning himself (and Turkey) as the overseer of the Muslim World and ‘diversifying’ Turkey’s geopolitical alliances (and financial backers) among the competing interests of China, EU, Russia and the United States in the Muslim world and Central Asia.
It is not a coincidence then that the world’s top three intelligence chiefs have one thing in common: Turkey. The CIA Director Gina Haspel, along with MI6 Chief Richard Moore and DGSE Head Bernard Emie have all professionally served in Turkey and speak Turkish.
In essence, Turkey has been playing off the superpowers against one another, by plying the threat (disruption) levers to demonstrate its ability of holding the reigns of disruption to those competing interests.
For example, the release of Syrian refugees into Europe did not only demonstrate how Turkey was critical to EU’s security, but had also led to EU divisions about ethnic (religious?) identity, refugee rights, border controls, a serious rise in nationalism and a probable fragmentation of the EU in the long-term.
Despite Turkey’s “Middle Corridor” being critical to the future of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, Erdoğan did not stop the flow of foreign fighters from the Middle East, Central Asia, China and South East Asia into Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere to disrupt Arab, Chinese, EU, Russian and U.S. interests.
It is yet to be seen if (and for how long) Erdoğan will be able to ‘manage’ such a fine balancing act between Turkey and these superpowers with their competing interests. He may end up being ambitious beyond his capabilities, just as President Sadat of Egypt was when he overestimated his importance to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.