By Manish Rai
Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is working hard on both domestic and international fronts to advance his grand design of reviving an Islamic caliphate under his rule.
It is now no secret that he sees himself as the rightful heir of the former Ottoman caliphate which was abolished in 1924 by the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. A caliphate can be described as a religious-political system of governance in Islam in which the territories of the Islamic empire and the people within were ruled by a supreme leader called a caliph (“Khalifa” in Arabic – meaning successor). The Ottoman caliphate was the last Sunni Islamic caliphate of the late medieval and the early modern era. It was a global power that, at its peak, controlled vast areas of territory in the modern Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus and the Balkans before its ultimate dissolution after the Ottoman empire defeat in World War I.
Erdogan’s dream of a caliphate stems from an idealistic outlook on the splendour of the Ottoman empire and its extensive capability to influence the political dynamics of two continents i.e. Europe and Asia. Therefore, he wants to restore the former Ottoman empire’s glory, to achieve greater political influence not just in today’s Turkish state but also in the countries and territories formerly part of the Ottoman empire in the Middle East and Europe.
In fact, new maps of Turkey published in 2016 include northern Syria up to Latakia, the district of Mosul in Iraq, and extend beyond the boundaries of the European part of Turkey across the Bosporus Straits to parts of Bulgaria and to Salonika in Western Thrace. The area was under Ottoman rule still when the ceasefire was signed in 1918 but was stripped from Turkey by the treaty of Lausanne in 1923. These maps are a clear indication of irredentism.
The Turkish president is not only propagating his grand desire of establishing a caliphate through his speeches or by publishing new maps. He is also working aggressively towards it on the ground. Ankara’s neo-Ottoman approach in the region has been clearly visible through its various engagements on multiple fronts. Today Turkey has a strong military presence in northern Syria, where it has positioned its troops along with its proxy Sunni militias. It uses its Islamic militias against President Bashar Assad’s regime while also fighting Kurds suspected of helping the Turkish PKK movement seeking autonomy. Turkish forces have invaded northern Iraq in the name of fighting PKK Kurdish guerrillas while they are also training Iraqi Turkmen a minority of Turkish origin to develop them as their proxies in the future. Ankara entered into a security cooperation agreement with Qatar in 2010. It established a military base in Qatar in 2015 and sent a further 3,000 troops in 2017 to show support to the beleaguered kingdom blockaded by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain.
Along the Red Sea, a military base named Camp TURKSOM has been set up in Somalia, allegedly to train local troops, but it is more aimed towards keeping an eye on important shipping lanes of Red Sea. Turkey has blatantly intervened in the Libyan civil war on the side of Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Turkey has been covertly and overtly helping the GNA by providing arms and ammunition in violation of the embargo imposed by the UN Security Council. Turks are even sending their Syrian militias to fight in Libya. Turkey is getting involved in conflicts which pose no direct or immediate threat to its interests. This is all done to push forward the grand dream of Erdogan as an aspiring caliph.
In addition to direct military involvement Turkish President is also supporting extremist and terrorist outfits across the region. Erdogan’s dubious and murky links with various organisations such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir-Al-Sham (Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria), and the Islamic State have been brought out by various intelligence agencies time and again.
President Erdogan’s power-driven and Islamist oriented regional policies are consistent with his approach on the domestic front as well. When he took power in 2003, Turkey was largely a secular and modern country but that is no longer the case seventeen years into his rule. Now it’s widely believed that radical Islamist ideas are winning out in Turkey which was made more evident by the recent conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
But aspiring Caliph Erdogan’s dream of reviving the Ottoman caliphate is bound to fail as his popularity wanes both nationally and internationally. Turkey is sliding into authoritarianism and dictatorship which is setting the country back in terms of democracy, civil rights, free media, and economic development.
In the region, Erdogan has infuriated important Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt thus creating more enemies for him rather than friends. Turkey’s Islamisation drive is likely to drive the rest of Europe further away.
The economic situation is dire, foreign currency reserves are depleted, the Turkish lira is down, and inflation is rampant. Some experts believe that the country is on the verge of a potentially devastating recession. This is due in part to the exorbitant cost of the expansionist policies of the president, at a time when growth is severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Turkey is turning to the International Monetary Fund for emergency relief, though an agreement is yet to be reached.
Opposition to Erdogan is growing, and parliament members from his own party are deserting to join a new opposition movement named Al Mustaqbal, which means “The Future”, created by no other than former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu against what they call a corrupt and dictatorial regime of President Erdogan.
The aspiring caliph from Istanbul should focus more on troubles at home otherwise one day he may meet the same fate as Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, or Ben Ali.
Manish Rai is a Middle East columnist and editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround [email protected])