By James M. Dorsey
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ushered in the new year, pledging to employ his country’s military to secure Turkey’s place in a rebalanced new world order.
Mr. Erdogan spelled out his vision when he inserted himself on December 30 into an address by his defense minister, Hulusi Akar, to several hundred masked Turkish and Azeri military officers in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.
Speaking on the loudspeaker of Mr. Akar’s handphone that the defense minister held up to the microphone, Mr. Erdogan compared Turkish military interventions, foreign bases and/or participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions in lands of the former Soviet Union, Kosovo, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Qatar to the creation during World War One of the Islamic Army of the Caucasus by Enver Pasha, the Ottoman war minister.
The Islamic Army captured Baku in the last days of World War One but failed to cement a basis for military support in the century since for pan-Turkist or Turanist ideologies that seek to unite peoples of Turkic origin.
Critics, nonetheless, assert that Turkish support for last year’s Caucasus war in which Azerbaijan defeated Armenia constituted a step in that direction.
Mr. Erdogan, however, appears to define Turkey’s place in a new world order as Turkish leadership of a broader Muslim world of which lands populated by Turkic ethnicities are part.
“The Turkish military, with a past full of glory and honor, will continue to fulfill…the task assigned to them in our country and all over the world… I wish our soldiers success, who fight to preserve peace, calm and stability in many places from Syria to Libya, from Somalia to Kosovo, from Afghanistan to Qatar,” Mr. Erdogan said.
Mr. Erdogan’s broader focus has not stopped his defense minister from stepping up meetings with representatives of Turkic minorities, until recently the preserve of a separate government department.
“Ankara’s interest in its ethnic kin abroad has markedly perked since the flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in late September,” said Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan, referring to the disputed Armenian enclave that is legally part of Azerbaijan..
Mr. Erdogan made his Baku remarks against the backdrop of heightened strains with Iran, efforts by Turkey’s Mediterranean detractors backed by the United Arab Emirates to stymie Turkish efforts to expand its access to regional gas deposits, and domestic criticism of his massive expenditure on religious soft power at a time of economic hardship.
Mr. Erdogan’s emphasis on military power was likely to complicate his overtures to Israel with which he has had tense relations in past years in a bid to ease potentially difficult dealings with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Mr. Biden has criticized Turkey’s abysmal record on human rights and the rule of law and is unlikely to look kindly at NATO-member Turkey’s acquisition of an advanced Russian anti-missile defense system.
Israel backed last month’s admission of the UAE as an observer to the Cairo-based Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that groups Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine alongside the Jewish state.
Turkey has denounced the forum as an effort to deprive it of its economic rights in the Eastern Mediterranean and last year dispatched an exploration vessel to disputed waters.
The move by the UAE, one of Turkey’s foremost rivals in a struggle for dominant political and religious influence in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa into Central Asia, potentially constitutes a change in Emirati strategy.
Middle East scholar Samuel Ramani argued recently that the UAE’s hard power and coercive efforts to block Turkish advances had failed. Those efforts included military backing of Libyan rebel leader Khalifa Haftar and threats to sanction Algeria for its stepped-up cooperation with Turkey.
“In recent months, the UAE’s efforts to forge an Arab consensus against Erdogan’s ambitions have unraveled. Despite Iraq’s periodic frustrations with Turkish cross-border strikes on the PKK, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has courted Turkey as a regional partner. In an even greater blow to the UAE’s anti-Turkey agenda, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman struck a conciliatory tone with Erdogan after their November 20 discussion,” Mr. Ramani said.
Mr. Ramani was referring to recent Saudi overtures to Turkey, with which it has been on a collision course since the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) that increasingly wages its intermittent 30-year old guerrilla war against Turkey from bases in the remote mountains of pre-dominantly Kurdish northern Iraq.
“The seemingly collapsing foundations of the UAE’s anti-Turkey strategy suggests that Abu Dhabi needs to rethink its approach to containing Erdogan’s ambitions... the UAE could devote more resources towards containing Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa,” Mr. Ramani said, suggesting that the Emirates may pivot to a soft power approach.
That would likely entail stepped up competition with Turkey in the provision of emergency and development aid to third countries as well as increased rivalry for religious soft power in the Muslim world.
The UAE has cast itself as a paragon of a moderate and tolerant albeit statist strand of Islam as opposed to Turkey’s more strident advocacy of a heavily nationalist tinted political interpretation of the faith.
The UAE has been on the warpath against political Islam for more than a decade. It has designated the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and backed French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in their crackdown on Islamist and Turkish nationalist groups.
Mr. Erdogan has for more than a decade rejected notions of more moderate and more radical strands of Islam. “Islam cannot be classified as moderate or not… Animosity (towards Islam), unfortunately, strengthens the scenarios that there is a so-called clash of civilizations in the world. Those, who defend such speculations, may go further to identify terrorism with Islam which is based on peace,” he asserts.
Taken by his word, Mr. Erdogan was suggesting with his year-end remarks in Baku that as far as he is concerned, his strategy of hard and soft power, in contrast to the UAE, is working and is likely to continue to shape Turkish policy in the coming year.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute