Turkey: Erdogan’s 2023 neo-Ottoman imperialist agenda, from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean
As Hamas allies, the Iranian and Syrian regimes, along with Hezbollah in Lebanon, are the center of attention for Israeli and US strategists. But a much stronger Islamist camp has been seeking to change the geopolitical map from the South Caucasus to the Mediterranean and beyond. While Iran’s regime has been setting off false alarms, Turkey has been busy building Trojan horses filled with different ethnic janissaries and sending them abroad in preparation for the revival of a Turkic-led Islamic empire stretching over parts of three continents. In this project, Hamas and other Islamist groups have been given roles. If things continue this way, we will be speaking of a bloodier age: the self-fulfilling prophecy of both Islamists and Huntingtonians of the so-called “clash of civilizations,” compatible with the Islamist notion of war between the so-called “nation of Islam” and its alleged enemies. Except civilizations do not clash and there is no such thing as “nation of Islam”. What we have is a conflict of exclusionary and expansionist forces, a clash of barbarians, where ordinary people are sacrificed on such scales that entire populations are dragged into the conflicts. Hamas’s role and — what in my view are — false justifications of its acts as a form of resistance only further condition the world for racial and sectarian violence conducted through the most advanced technologies available.
For years, Islamists in Turkey have been bragging about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to wipe out their enemies and announce a new Ottoman empire in 2023. I argue that Hamas’s attack was part of a broader religious crusade to mark 2023 as the beginning of the neo-Ottoman empire. During the last two weeks of September and the first week of October, a series of events took the world by surprise. Even for the Middle East, so many events in such a short period of time are not normal. Rather than assuming they are coincidences, we can easily diagnose their common denominator: Erdogan’s Turkey. In Nagorno-Karabakh and northern Syria, the Turkish government has not hidden the fact that it is a main player. However, because Erdogan knows Turkey’s involvement in any attack on Israel would never be viewed by his Western allies as just another regional dispute in which Turkey violates international treaties, invades other countries, and forcibly displaces populations on nationalist, ethnic, or religious bases, any potential involvement has to be clandestine.
At the time of writing (October 8), no media platform has alluded to a possible link between Turkey and Hamas’s attack on Israel, But it is more than reasonable to search for such a link. Turkey has been the main base for Hamas’s leadership outside Gaza as well as for numerous other Islamist leaders, from the heads of the Egyptian and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to those of organizations that have tens of thousands of jihadi fighters in Syria, Libya and beyond. Today, Islamism is more dangerous than ever because it has a global capital where its strategies are planned and coordinated. The Hamas attack seems to have been designed to conclude 2023 by fulfilling one of the most central promises of Islamism: the takeover of Jerusalem. Turkish Islamists have been pointing to 2023 as the year of the fulfillment of their most important objective: the revival of the Ottoman empire, the caliphate that enforces its old territorial borders.
Let us first revisit what happened in the weeks leading to October 7. Nagorno-Karabakh fell under Azerbaijani control, forcing the entire Armenian population to leave. Internationally Nagorno-Karabakh is considered to be part of the Azerbaijani state, but international recognition of a state’s sovereignty over a territory has previously been used by states to commit genocide, as occurred for example in South Sudan (before its independence), Darfur, Kurdistan, Rakhine and Tigray. The accepted norms of international relations often obscure rights of minority peoples and international laws systematically disadvantage those racialized and dehumanized by the ruling groups of nation-states. Nationalist ruling groups often use ultranationalist and fundamentalist discourses to prepare ethnic majorities for legitimizing genocidal state politics. This is especially the case in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where fascism is yet to be problematized and denialism (of past and ongoing genocides) is the norm rather than the exception (for more on this see Ahmed 2023).
With Ankara’s support, and Moscow’s implicit complicity, the regime in Baku launched an attack in September 2023 putting an end to Artsakh and forcing more than 150,000 Armenians to flee their homes. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Erdogan shamelessly paraded themselves as victors in the war against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, who had been living under a blockade imposed following a previous Azerbaijani attack, with the direct support of Turkey, in 2022 that ended with Azerbaijan seizing control of the Lachin corridor, used to connect Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. To anyone who followed the Azerbaijani military campaigns in 2022 and 2023, it was abundantly clear that Turkish drones and warfare expertise made the decisive difference. Turkish involvement was so open and substantial that Azerbaijani soldiers who entered Nagorno-Karabakh were typically displaying the Turkish flag along with the Azerbaijani flag on their military uniforms and vehicles.
One hundred years after the mass killing and displacement of Armenians in what is now Turkey, Turkish nationalism has again gone to war against a defenseless Armenian population, under near-complete international silence. In Turkey, any affirmative mention of the Armenian genocide is punishable by law; non-denialism, as opposed to denialism, is banned. What is most disturbing is that it is a symptom of the continuation of the project of genocide, or at least genocidal tendencies. The dominant politics in MENA showcase this point: Arab nationalism, for example in Sudan; Turkish nationalism, for example in Rojava; and various versions of Islamism across MENA continually reaffirm this.
During the three weeks separating the surprise attack on Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19 and Hamas’s surprise attack on Israeli towns on October 7, the Turkish government intensified its attacks against Rojava and the areas under the control of the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In early September, some Arab tribes in the east (especially in the Deir ez-Zor province, most of which is under SDF rule) and in the eastern towns of Aleppo (such as Jarablus, run by Turkish-backed Syrian Islamist groups) declared jihad against the Kurds and targeted the SDF positions. The Turkish government has been trying to create a civil war between Arabs and Kurds to instigate an ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Rojava (Ashdown 2020; Boyle 2023). The recent religious and tribal mobilization among Arabs in parts of Iraq and Syria was especially alarming. Yet the issue was contained quickly by the SDF, with plans for instigating a wide-scale ethnic war failing. Immediately after those events, Turkey escalated its threats on Rojava. During the first week of October, the Turkish government attacked power facilities across SDF areas in Rojava, with the bombing of Kurdish-majority towns and cities intensifying on October 8-9. It seems Erdogan is pushing to occupy more parts of Rojava while the world’s media focuses on the crisis in Israel and Gaza. In the meantime, he will wait for the conflict between the US-Israel coalition and the Iran-Syria camp to transform into a war. Should that happen, Erdogan might seek to seize the moment and have Sunni Islamist militias strike against Israel in another, and perhaps more devastating, surprise attack.
Erdogan sees the political aspirations of Armenians and Kurds as an obstacle to his pan-Turkic and Islamic empire, but that is not all. A caliphate — the ultimate goal of all Islamists — would not be complete without Jerusalem. Erdogan, like every other Islamist leader, has been capitalizing on antisemitism but in his own pragmatic way. Targeting the state of Israel is strategized within the neo-Ottoman imperialist project. The exploitation of the Palestinian plight by Hamas and other Islamists should be understood in this context.
However, even if Turkey’s involvement is uncovered by Western states’ intelligence services, it is naïve to think the information will be made public. It is doubtful that US intelligence capabilities have not gathered plenty of information to condemn Turkey’s direct responsibility for the rise of ISIS, yet the topic remains widely hushed. Turkey’s rulers, like those of Qatar, have been playing a double-sided game: on the one hand, supporting Islamist groups; on the other hand, leveraging their indispensable role as mediators between Islamist groups and interested parties in the West. In the current Israel-Hamas clash, Erdogan’s role has already become evident as an indispensable mediator to allegedly negotiate a potential release of the hostages. State politicians everywhere are used to this kind of disingenuity (or diplomacy!).
What is disturbing is the false moral arguments often presented to justify Hamas’s and other Islamist forces’ acts as some sort of legitimate resistance. Referring to the frustration of Gazans to justify Hamas’s acts makes such an apologetic position worse because Gazans themselves, including Hamas’s sympathizers and the youth who have become Hamas followers through a combination of material desperation and ideological deception, are systematically used as hostages by Hamas’s leadership. Islamists are a small minority, but unfortunately, they have too many enablers. In the MENA, some people’s failure to realize that Islamist movements, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, represent right-wing movements of the worst kind likely originates from sheer frustration in the age of the demise of emancipatory and egalitarian movements in the region and beyond.
The demise of the internationalist and secular movement of Marxism was not a separate event from the rise of ultra-nationalism and Islamism. Following decades of brutal crusades against Communists from Egypt to Indonesia, nationalists and Islamists became the only main political players. In reaction to the corruption of the nationalists’ rule across the MENA region, Islamists presented themselves as the only option for populations who had suffered decades of bad education, poverty and political oppression. While Islamists are still relatively small in numbers, they have been successful in deploying populist means to gain more sympathizers while deploying terrorism against populations whom they stand little chance of winning over. For Islamism’s apologists in the West, the failure to recognize that Hamas and other Islamist parties are ultra-right-wing movements is likely to be rooted in a racist mentality that is incapable of conceiving a non-white society as politically diverse, with internal right-wing and left-wing, fascist and anti-fascist, oppressive and emancipatory forces, potentialities and conflicts. A mentality that normally considers Islamism to be the general worldview of any society is deeply immersed in a racist mode of perception. In case the fallacy I am alluding to is unclear let me add: just as it is not accurate to label Europe and the United States as the Christian world and assume the European and US political world is normally determined by political Christianity, it is not accurate to assume that political Islam (or Islamism) is the general or the normal political outlook in the MENA region.
Globally, right-wing politics have been on the rise for decades, and that is catastrophic. What makes things even worse is that right-wing politics, including fundamentalism, of antagonistic camps could unwittingly reproduce each other endlessly. Islamism has been on the rise, and the majority of people in MENA have been brutalized by that. But those who have suffered the most are populations who, historically and presently, have been vilified on racist and religious bases. This is why the struggle of anti-fundamentalists and anti-nationalists, which includes Arabs, Jews, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Yezidis, Zaza, Armenians, Assyrians and Darfuris, can and should be comprehended politically as one and the same: a universalist struggle. Islamism is a project of mass murder, and its victims are everywhere. Those who claim Hamas is an anti-colonial resistance and that Hamas’s acts are a normal reaction to Israeli occupation are either Islamists or Islamist apologists, and knowingly or unknowingly support the worst kind of ultra-right movement in the region, which can only result in more miseries for ordinary people.
The rise of right-wing politics, including nationalist and religious variations, coincided with the brutal suppression of egalitarian movements (Ahmed 2014a). Egalitarian movements have been almost diminished in some places, but in other parts of the region continue to reinvent new forms of dissent against exclusionism, fundamentalism and inequality in all its forms. Just as during the first half of the last century societies in MENA produced popular parties that were against both ultranationalism and fundamentalism, in the future it is possible that currently marginalized egalitarian movements might build a different world, where exclusionary politics will be too unpopular to dehumanize any group of people. However, before that happens, a process of de-Islamification of politics must take place, and it should be led by movements within Muslim majority societies. The Rojava-Bakur movement provides an excellent example, and the progressive youth in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia should take inspiration from it and stand in solidarity with it.
Saladdin Ahmed is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura (SUNY 2019), Revolutionary Hope after Nihilism (Bloomsbury 2022), and Critical Theory from the Margins (SUNY 2023). His forthcoming books are Oppression, Resistance, and Exclusion: Political Movements in the Middle East. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa. @SaladdinAhme
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