Of the many points of contention between the ruling AK Parity of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the opposite Kemalist (secular republican) CHP, the war in Syria has been a notable one.
Under decades of Kemalist rule, Turkey’s relationship with most of the Arab world was one which undulated between friendship and distance. Part of the essence of Kemalism was to focus on the Turkish republic which meant a wholesale withdrawal from a hands-on approach to its former Ottoman territories. Ironically, while Kemalist leaders took a hands-off approach to the Arab world, historically the most loyal part of the Ottoman Empire, Kemalist leaders did often antagonise Hellenic states, most notably with the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. Also Kemalist leaders took a generally hard-line on Armenian issues.
When President Erdogan came to power, first as Prime Minister in 2003, he gradually pivoted his foreign policy to take a more hands-on approach to the Arab world. Erdogan has tended to align himself with the Muslim Brotherhood, a fact which continues to be at the root of extremely poor relations with Egypt, ever since a short lived Muslim Brotherhood regime was overthrown in Cairo, in 2013.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, the CHP tended to oppose Erdogan’s invasion. CHP leaders pointed to a costly and unnecessary conflict in Syria that turned a neighbour that prior to 2011 had relatively good relations with Turkey, into an enemy. After 1988, when Syria ceased provide shelter to the PKK, relations improved and under Erdogan, a free trade agreements was signed between the two neighbours. This was the kind of reconciliation and modern friendship that the CHP had wished to continue.
In December of 2016, around the time of Syria’s victory in the Battle of Aleppo, one which relied heavily on Russian military aid, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu lamented that Erdogan’s decision to invade Syria brought Turkey its “worst defeat ever in our foreign policy”. He also stated that sooner or later Erdogan and Assad will end up shaking hands.
While the handshake of reconciliation has yet to take place (they have of course shaken hands multiple times prior to 2011), what has happened is that the CHP now supports Erdogan’s participation in the Astana group which also includes Iran and Russia. This of course begins the long road to the inevitable and necessary (however symbolically painful) normalisation between Syria and Turkey.
The fact that the CHP endorsed Erdogan’s new Syrian policy, is not so much a matter of a strong Persident Erdogan pivoting to the CHP’s policies, rather, it is an example of neo-Ottomanism pivoting from a zero-sum mentality to a Eurasian one.
Turkey’s President is not only as ‘neo-Ottoman’ as he was when he invaded Syria, he is perhaps, more so than ever. The Kemalist ideology can be broadly described as “secular Turkish nationalism with pan-European characteristics”. Crucially, these pan-European characteristics are those of the late 19th century, rather than those of an increasingly sectarian and ultra-liberal 21st century Europe.
By contrast, Ottomanism emphasises Turkey’s role in what was then still referred to as the wider Orient, what today what is generally called a Eurasia and the wider pan-Asian world. This means that while Mustafa Kemal Ataturk tended to look away from the Arab world, Iranian world and central Asian world, he looked instead towards reconciliation with major and even medium sized European powers. Crucially, unlike Ataturk’s successors, he looked to Russia. Ataturk’s Republic was the first of three states to develop formal relations with the Soviet Union, the other two being Iran and Afghanistan. It was only after Ataturk’s death and moreover after 1945, that Turkey’s vision of Europeanism included joining NATO and serving as a closer partner to the west.
Today, Erodgan is looking to Eurasia and beyond, just like many Ottoman Sultans did during the golden age of Turkey’s empire. He is looking towards Iran, but this time as a partner. He is looking to the Arab world on many levels and he is looking beyond Turkic Central Asia, all the way to China and South East Asia, just as so many Ottoman traders, merchants and scholars did centuries ago.
Crucially, Erdogan, like Ataturk is now also looking to Russia, proof that like Turkey, Russia is a Eurasian power capable of looking either west or east. Currently, both Moscow and Ankara are looking firmly east and neither are having any regrets about doing so.
Experience has led Erdogan to embrace what can now be called Eurasianism with Ottoman characteristics. In this sense, Erdogan has embraced the eastward looking tendencies of Ottomanism, but within the spirit and context of the modern Eurasian approach which has been largely defined by China’s principle of “win-win” along with the related Russian principle of effective diplomatic balance among both allies and traditional/historical adversaries.
In this sense, Eurasianism with Ottoman characteristics was made possible due to the fact that Russia, Iran and China were willing to welcome Turkey into the Eurasian world and that they were moreover, able to do so with respect and dignity, the kind of which cannot be found among Turkey’s erstwhile western partners who have become increasingly racist and dismissive towards Turkey and Turks more generally.
Modern Eurasianism has a pragmatic element, which is clearly attractive in this respect of the CHP, who took a far more pragmatic view on Syria than the AKP during much of the conflict.
This is why it should not surprise anyone that CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu has stated,
““They (ruling Justice and Development Party – AKP) want to solve Syria’s problem. If it gets solved, we will be very happy. We defend the territorial integrities of Syria and Iraq. We want Turkey to live in peace with its neighbours. For that, we are ready to give any kind of support that we can”.
In this sense, the Eurasian attitude towards diplomacy has not only reconciled Turkey with countries like Russia, Iraq and Iran, but in a rare moment has provided comity between the two major rival parties in Turkish domestic politics.