The Ot­tomans are back

Tracing re­gional dy­nam­ics over the last cen­tury is vi­tal to un­der­stand­ing the com­bustible sit­u­a­tion to­day

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

In late Novem­ber, Tur­key set its sights on a new goal. In Libya, a long-for­got­ten civil war was rag­ing. The govern­ment in Tripoli, of­ten called the Govern­ment of the Na­tional Ac­cord, was los­ing ground to the Libyan Na­tional Army, led by a man named Khal­ifa Haf­tar, whose forces were based in eastern Libya. Tur­key sup­ports Tripoli; Egypt sup­ports Haf­tar. It is part of a much wider strug­gle that rep­re­sents Tur­key’s at­tempt to re­vive in­flu­ence not seen since the end of the First World War. A cen­tury ago, the Euro­pean pow­ers thought that the Ot­toman Em­pire could be eas­ily chopped up and its ter­ri­to­ries given away.

To­day Tur­key is back, mov­ing into ar­eas like north­ern Iraq, north­ern Syria, Libya and even the Gulf and So­ma­lia.

The Paris Peace Con­fer­ence that ended in Jan­uary 1920, 100 years ago, helped the stage for many of the is­sues still fac­ing the Mid­dle East. It is hard to re­mem­ber now, but much of what we take for granted re­gard­ing the bor­ders of the Mid­dle East is in some ways ar­bi­trary. They were de­cided on partly af­ter World War I in a se­ries of treaties, such as the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 and Treaty of Lau­sanne of 1923.

Why is Hatay prov­ince, once called Alexan­dretta, in Tur­key, when it could have been in Syria? Why is Mo­sul in Iraq and not in Tur­key, as Tur­key once claimed it? Why do the Kurds lack a state? The re­cent ten­sions in the Mid­dle East, the un­re­solved ques­tions from Le­banon to Iraq, Libya, Tur­key and Gaza, are all part of this.

LET US begin where Tur­key now ends its re­cent am­bi­tions – in Libya. Libya was once the set­ting for a quiet proxy war that re­flects di­vi­sions in the Mus­lim world be­tween the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, which Tur­key’s rul­ing party has roots in, and coun­tries that op­pose the Broth­er­hood.

Tur­key’s ruler Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan has in­creas­ingly global am­bi­tions. Em­bat­tled Libya could be a key to them, thought Turk­ish lead­ers around Er­do­gan. Tur­key was al­ready send­ing drones and armored ve­hi­cles to Tripoli. But they had not stemmed the tide. Haf­tar vowed in Novem­ber to take Tripoli and rid the coun­try of “ter­ror­ists” and “mili­tias.” Tur­key re­sponded that the “war­lord” Haf­tar would have to be stopped.

But Tur­key wanted some­thing in re­turn for help­ing to stop him. It wanted rights to the Mediter­ranean be­tween Tur­key and Libya.

If you draw a line from Libya to Tur­key, you run into Greek is­lands like Crete. But if you draw a line from eastern Libya, there is a pas­sage be­tween Cyprus and the Greek is­lands that nar­rowly links Tur­key to Libya. It is here that Tur­key made a bold chess move. In ex­change for send­ing some fight­ers to bol­ster the Tripoli govern­ment, Tur­key would get an ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone that splits Cyprus from Greece by sea and gives Tur­key rights to ex­plore for nat­u­ral gas. It also sinks the dreams of Greece and Cyprus to in­vite com­pa­nies like ENI to ex­plore for nat­u­ral re­sources un­der the sea.

The play by Tur­key has mus­cle be­hind it. Ankara has been send­ing its navy out to con­duct drills around Cyprus, show­ing the flag and its power. Tur­key has new sea-based mis­siles. It is buy­ing new drilling ships. Cyprus thought it was ahead of the curve, sign­ing deals with Egypt in 2003, Le­banon in 2007 and Israel in 2010. But Tur­key has thrown down a gaunt­let.

One should un­der­stand Tur­key’s treat­ment of the Greeks and Cypri­ots his­tor­i­cally. Tur­key in­vaded Cyprus in 1974 claim­ing to help pro­tect mem­bers of the Turk­ish mi­nor­ity. Tur­key has stayed ever since, rec­og­niz­ing North­ern Cyprus as a coun­try. No one else rec­og­nizes it, but Tur­key says North­ern Cyprus has wide­spread rights to ex­plore for gas around Cyprus. Tur­key has sent drones to Cyprus to show that it will police those wa­ters it claims.

For Tur­key, the Cyprus op­er­a­tion was a way to show it would not be re­moved from more is­lands in the Mediter­ranean – for in­stance, the Dodecanese Is­lands, near Rhodes, were taken by Italy dur­ing a war with the Ot­toman Em­pire in 1912. Rhodes also was held by Italy, then by Ger­many dur­ing World War II, and fi­nally be­came part of Greece in 1947. Tur­key to­day says that these is­lands, even though they are part of Greece tech­ni­cally, can­not be used by Greece to de­ter­mine its rights to the wa­ters off the is­lands. In­stead, the con­ti­nen­tal shelf that ex­tends from Tur­key gives Er­do­gan’s coun­try rights to the sea.

TUR­KEY’S DE­CI­SION to re­vive its claims to the sea and send forces to Libya should be seen in light of a cen­tury of Tur­key’s poli­cies since the fall of the Ot­toman Em­pire. The Ot­tomans lost Libya to the Ital­ians in 1912. Now, the Turks are back.

Tur­key has flirted with var­i­ous poli­cies since the end of the Ot­tomans. For a few years in the 1920s, it looked like the coun­try would be dis­man­tled. How­ever, Tur­key pushed the Greeks out of mod­ern-day Tur­key and em­barked on a cam­paign of Turk­ish na­tion­al­ism and sec­u­lar­ism that sup­planted Euro­pean rule in Is­tan­bul and cre­ated the cur­rent bor­ders. But Ankara was never en­tirely sat­is­fied. It felt that its for­merly pow­er­ful role had been re­duced.

Dur­ing the Cold War, Tur­key was an ally of the US and also suf­fered its own in­ter­nal trou­bles and coups. At the time, Tur­key’s neigh­bors seemed to be ad­vanc­ing. Syria un­der Hafez As­sad, fa­ther of the cur­rent em­bat­tled pres­i­dent, was try­ing to be an Arab so­cial­ist par­adise. Borrowing heav­ily from sec­u­lar na­tion­al­ist tra­di­tions of Euro­pean fas­cism blended with so­cial­ism and Arab na­tion­al­ism, the As­sadist regime was bru­tal to dis­senters, but treated loy­al­ists de­cently. It wanted to mod­ern­ize and look like an eastern Euro­pean state, with the Com­mu­nist-style bru­tal­ist high-rises and lots of Soviet tanks and other as­sorted ac­cou­trements. It left to fes­ter the ques­tions that arose af­ter 1920. For in­stance, what about the Kurds in eastern Syria? The As­sadist Ba’athist regime treated them like they didn’t ex­ist, sup­press­ing them and deny­ing many ci­ti­zen­ship.

The As­sad regime also ig­nored large Arab tribes along the

Euphrates. Those tribes some­times looked to Sad­dam’s Iraq across the bor­der for cul­tural re­la­tions with other tribes in An­bar prov­ince. Sad­dam Hus­sein, like the As­sads, was a prod­uct of the Arab na­tion­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary era. All these regimes, from As­sad to Sad­dam to Nasser’s Egypt, were prod­ucts of a re­ac­tion against the colo­nial era of the Bri­tish and French man­dates. They had re­placed the old sys­tem of kings and colo­nials and sheikhs. They wanted moder­nity.

In some way, they were re­ac­tions also against the Jewish na­tion­al­ism of Zion­ism, which they hated, and also the sec­u­lar Turk­ish na­tion­al­ism of Ataturk. If there were to be Jewish and Turk­ish states, so there would be an Arab na­tion­al­ist group of states as well.

Iraq never worked out the prob­lems the Bri­tish colo­nials had sad­dled it with. The Bri­tish wanted to in­clude Mo­sul in Iraq so there would be more Sunni Arabs to sup­port the Hashemite king they had cho­sen. The king was from what is now Saudi Ara­bia and a brother of the king of Jor­dan at the time. But for Iraq, he be­came the first Iraqi.

That didn’t mean much to Kurds in the north, who also wanted free­dom and in­de­pen­dence. It is some­times for­got­ten that a brief in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state called the Repub­lic of Ma­habad had arisen in 1946 af­ter World War II. Like the changeover in power of Rhodes, or the ques­tion of whether Hatay would be part of Tur­key, this repub­lic was a byprod­uct of un­re­solved ques­tions from the 1920s.

Kurds wanted free­dom and rights. In­stead, they were forced to be part of states that didn’t rec­og­nize or want them. They were told to be Arab na­tion­al­ists or Turk­ish na­tion­al­ists, not Kurds. For the colo­nial pow­ers, this didn’t mat­ter. For the na­tion­al­ist regimes, they were a headache. For the US and Sovi­ets in the Cold War, they were tools to be used and dis­carded.

This sys­tem that arose in the 1920s and then in the 1960s re­volved around ques­tion­able states like Iraq, Syria and Le­banon. Egypt was an an­cient state, but Da­m­as­cus had its own am­bi­tions. At one point, the Arab Re­volt had sought to hold Da­m­as­cus as part of a greater Arab state. The Bri­tish and French said no to that.

In­stead, the King­dom of Jor­dan be­came a Be­douin king­dom. The king­doms that were cre­ated in the 20th cen­tury may have seemed weak at the out­set, but they had more stay­ing power than the na­tion­al­ist regimes. In­stead, the regimes – from Gaddafi in Libya to Sad­dam in Iraq and Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh in Ye­men – were over­thrown. The Nassserist regime, too, fell apart in 2011 when the Arab Spring broke out. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tu­nisia was also forced out. So too the Al­ge­rian regime.

Why did some of the monar­chies sur­vive and not oth­ers? The Bri­tish helped shep­herd to power the king­dom of Egypt of Farouk. King Idris of Libya ap­peared a more for­mi­da­ble ruler, but he was pushed from of­fice in 1969 while away for med­i­cal treat­ment in Tur­key. The Gulf monar­chies, by con­trast, and the Moroc­can and Jor­da­nian monar­chies, have sur­vived. Likely be­cause their states are ei­ther more ho­moge­nous or be­cause of their tra­di­tions of rule, they have had more suc­cess.

THE PAST 10 years have wit­nessed an ex­tra­or­di­nary re­ver­sal, as most of the Arab coun­tries have been torn apart from within. Where monar­chies or Arab na­tion­al­ism failed, a ris­ing re­li­gious ex­trem­ism preyed on weak states. But even this Is­lamist ter­ror­ist rise did not sup­plant the new states.

ISIS came and went. Even the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, briefly ris­ing in Gaza and even in Tripoli or other ar­eas, and seek­ing elec­tion in Tu­nisia, Jor­dan and other places, has not been the suc­cess that some thought. Po­lit­i­cal Is­lam is not win­ning.

What has hap­pened is that the his­tor­i­cally pow­er­ful pe­riph­ery states, Tur­key and Iran, have risen to grab in­flu­ence through­out the Mid­dle East. These states, as the Ot­toman Em­pire and Per­sian Em­pire, were weak­ened in 1920 and Euro­pean pow­ers sup­planted their his­toric role. But now, with Europe look­ing more in­su­lar, these coun­tries are ris­ing again.

Tur­key’s ex­pe­di­tion to Libya is just one sym­bol of that new world or­der in the Mid­dle East.

The Ot­tomans lost Libya to the Ital­ians in 1912. Now, the Turks are back

(Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

A MEM­BER of the Syr­ian forces of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad ges­tures in front of a pic­ture of for­mer pres­i­dent Hafez al-As­sad, dur­ing prepa­ra­tions for evac­u­a­tion of rebels in Da­m­as­cus in March 2018.

(Mu­rad Sezer/File Photo/Reuters)

TURK­ISH DRILLING ves­sel ‘Yavuz’ is es­corted by Turk­ish Navy frigate TCG ‘Gem­lik’ (F-492) in the eastern Mediter­ranean Sea off Cyprus on Au­gust 6.

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