Erdogan reminds Turks of old empire, with his eye on new powers

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends an event in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016.


By SELCAN HACAOGLU | Bloomberg News | Published: November 8, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has started talking about Turkey’s borders, hinting they should be shifted outward a bit. In Syria and Iraq, his army is involved in wars over territory once ruled from Istanbul. Maps of a Greater Turkey have circulated.

That has led to speculation that Erdogan, fresh from surviving an attempted coup, wants to crown his 14-year rule in Turkey by annexing chunks of its neighbors. But analysts see a more mundane domestic calculation behind the rhetoric: They say the president is really trying to expand his own powers, not his country’s frontiers.

Erdogan still hankers after making his office the focus of all power in Turkey, instead of the largely ceremonial post it was before he took over — and, on paper, still is. But he doesn’t have support in parliament to make that constitutional change — and maybe not in the country, either, if it went to a referendum. In both cases, the likeliest bloc of voters to be won over is nationalists who aren’t at all averse to talk of Turkey’s historic claims on nearby lands, or military attacks on Kurdish groups who live there.

“Erdogan is seeking to expand his support base among nationalists by talking tough over regional matters,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. It’s “part of his political calculations for a presidential system,” Ozcan said.

Last week’s domestic crackdown on Kurdish politicians, which triggered sharp falls on financial markets, may be part of the same calculus. Likewise Erdogan’s recent support for reinstating the death penalty, which could be applied to Kurdish militants as well as members of the Islamist secret society said to be behind the failed putsch in July. That idea won backing from the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, whose lawmakers would be swing voters when plans for constitutional change reach parliament.

Requests for comment for this story to the Turkish presidency’s press office went unanswered. Ilnur Cevik, a chief adviser to Erdogan, also didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.

Erdogan’s foreign policy has become more assertive since the coup attempt. In August, he sent troops into Syria, where they’re pursuing Islamic State but also clashing with fighters linked to the separatist Kurdish PKK — the group that’s a main target of Erdogan’s crackdown at home. Its Syrian affiliates have established control over much of that country’s north during five years of civil war, and in doing so, emerged as a favored U.S. fighting force in the ground war against Islamic State.

In recent days, Turkey has been sending tanks and troops to its Iraqi border too, ready to bolster a 2,000-strong force that’s already inside the country — despite loud protests from Baghdad.

Erdogan insists that Turkey will join in the ongoing liberation of Mosul, the biggest Iraqi city in Islamic State’s self-proclaimed Caliphate. Justifying that stance, which has dismayed many allies, he’s repeatedly referred to Turkey’s past rule over the region.

Pro-government media dug up the history of oil-rich Mosul and Kirkuk, provinces of the Ottoman Empire that almost became part of the Turkish republic created after World War I. Instead they went to another new state, Iraq, which was then under a British mandate, and Turkey formally dropped its claim over them in the late 1920s.

Still, “Mosul maintains a position of unique historical relevance in Turkey’s collective memory,” the Soufan Group, a security analyst, said in an emailed report. It said Erdogan’s deployment of troops nearby is part of “Turkey’s effort to strategically position itself and the forces it supports to prevail in the aftermath of the battle.”

As in Syria, Islamic State isn’t Turkey’s only enemy in Iraq, and not necessarily the most important one. Erdogan has called Sinjar, west of Mosul, a “sensitive target” for Turkey. Over the past year, it’s become a base for PKK fighters who helped drive the jihadists out of the town.

To be sure, Erdogan has other reasons besides domestic politics to seek influence over the conflicts convulsing Turkey’s neighbors.

“Turkey sees that Iraq and Syria are going to be, for the foreseeable future, failed states,” said Soner Cagaptay, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That entails “huge amounts of instability, civil war, jihadist threats,” he said. And Turkey’s best response is “a forward military presence in both countries.”

There are also sectarian allegiances at stake. Erdogan is a Sunni Muslim, like most Turks, and his politics are rooted in religion. He portrays Turkey as the protector of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria who face oppression at the hands of rulers backed by Iran, the region’s main Shiite power. “Erdogan is unhappy — as would be any Turkish leader, secular, Islamist, you name it — to see Iran rising,” Cagaptay said.

On that, at least, Turkey and the U.S. can see eye to eye. But as the battle for Mosul approaches a climax, it’s their disagreements that threaten to unstitch the fragile anti-ISIS coalition assembled in Washington. The Iraqi government that Erdogan fulminates against is an American ally, and so are the Kurdish fighters in Syria that his army is targeting.

Not all the Turkish leader’s trademark verbal volleys are directed at Kurds or Shiites. Erdogan has also criticized NATO allies for failing to prevent the slaughter in Syria, and for giving his government only lukewarm support as it faced down the coup attempt.

That’s one reason Erdogan’s domestic agenda is widening the rift between Turkey and the west, according to Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“Talking tough never hurts a president running a campaign geared toward an inward-looking and hypernationalist constituency,” Stein said. But it creates a “toxic mix for trans-Atlantic relations.”


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