A Second Palestine? Neo-Ottoman “Sultan” Erdogan Captures Syria’s Kurdish Enclave of Afrin

By Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkey’s capture of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria has added a new dimension to the highly volatile geopolitical environment in the Middle East. Not only is it a major assault on war-ravaged Syria’s territorial integrity and political sovereignty, the event speaks of Turkey’s opportunistic foreign policy and signals a return to Ottoman era territorial conquest and expansion.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan boasted of hoisting the Turkish and allied Free Syrian Army flags in the city center of Afrin on March 18. He said: “In the centre of Afrin, symbols of trust and stability are waving instead of rags of terrorists”, referring to the sons of the soil – the Kurdish YPG fighters, who valiantly fought against the Islamic State militants. He justified the invasion and capture of Afrin in the name of stopping a Kurdish “terror corridor” along Turkey’s western borders with Syria and vowed to press eastward to target other Kurds-dominated towns, including Manbij raising the specter of a direct military clash with the US.

A return to Ottoman era conquest and expansion

Afrin is modern Turkey’s first, but may not be the last, territorial takeover after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in November 1922 (Turkey also sent troops to support ethnic Turks in Northern Cyprus in July 1974). The Ottoman rulers expanded their territorial boundaries across the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe especially after 1453, the year they conquered Constantinople (what was later renamed Istanbul) forcing the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire (330 –1453). By the seventeenth century the Ottoman territorial expansion reached its limits; there was little scope for further conquests, with Sahara Desert to the south of the empire, Western Europe to the west and imperial Russia to the northeast.

In the Middle East, present-day Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and much of the Arabian Peninsula territories went under Ottoman control. After their defeat in World War I, the Ottoman leaders had signed the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920 with the Allied Powers agreeing to cede all non-Turkish territories to the Allied administration and the eventual dismemberment of the empire.

The Sevres treaty sparked the War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who forced the Allied Powers to negotiate another treaty – the July 1923 Treaty of Lausanne paving the way for the creation of the Republic of Turkey the same year, mostly covering the original Turkish territory of Anatolia.

Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey on the two principles of Turkish nationalism (non-Turkish minority groups were required to be Turks in education, taste and values) and secularism (the Ottoman policy of Islam as the official religion was discarded), with the objective to modernize and westernize Turkey. Isolation from the Arab Middle East followed suit. President Erdogan is faithfully following Ataturk’s principle of nationalism to suppress the Kurds but maintains a generally oblivious stance on secularism.

A new “Sultan” in the making

Nearly a century after its creation, the distinction between the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey is gradually getting blurred, at least in some respects. The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic empire and the rulers, since they had no relations with Prophet Muhammad or his descendants, assumed the title of “Sultan” (not “Caliph”, a title the Prophet’s four close companions used to spiritually and politically guide the nascent Muslim community after he had passed away in 632). President Erdogan is not an imperial ruler but appears to have some striking similarities with the Ottoman sultans. He is, after all, an Islamist and a nationalist leader, as was the case with the Ottomans who privileged Islamic governance and Turkish nationalist temper in determining state policies and decisions. President Erdogan is not Islamizing Turkey publicly, but there has been a creeping return to Islam. His primary support base consists of a rising group of conservative small and medium businesses, known as the “Anatolian tigers” and the ultranationalists.

Like the Chinese, Indian or European imperial rulers, almost all Ottoman sultans took great interests in territorial expansion of the empire. So is the case with “Sultan” Erdogan. The Ottoman sultans saw “infidel” enemies all around to be defeated; Sultan Erdogan sees the presence of so-called Kurdish “terrorists” in Syria and Iraq as excuses to attack, invade or conquer Kurdish territories. Unlike other Turkish governments, President Erdogan has pursued more repressive policies to stifle the Kurds’ demand for regional autonomy in southeastern Turkey and regionally.

Internal dynamics says a lot

Sultan Erdogan’s political arm the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide electoral victory in 2002 and has been in power since. The AKP is the modern version of the National Order Party founded by Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan in early 1970. Taking a middle position between Islam and Ataturk’s policy of secularism, the AKP has pursued Islamist zeal (not actual Islamization policies) at home and neo-Ottoman policy abroad. In the process, the party has distanced itself from the Gulen movement whose supporters played a vital role to Erdogan’s rise to power. Sultan Erdogan has also survived two coups – the 2013 corruption scandal and the 2016 military putsch that helped him consolidate domestic power base through a blanket purge of political foes and opponents.

The neo-Ottoman foreign policy has been both peaceful and violent. The AKP government’s policy of “zero problems” with neighbors has attempted a peaceful return to former Ottoman territories and peoples, while its naked interventions in Iraq and Syria represent the violent dimension of the policy.

Pursued since 2002, the “zero problems” policy initially succeeded in building bridges of mutual trusts with the immediate Arab neighbors and in reaching out to the Gulf Arab states. Visa-free travel arrangements were signed with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and even with historical rival Russia. But the policy faced an untimely death due to the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

The policy of zero problems with the neighbors hit a snag especially after Syria had plunged in unending violence in March 2011. After some initial mediation efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict, the Erdogan government chose the realpolitik option to promote Turkey’s regional geopolitical ambitions. First, along with Qatar, it unsuccessfully supported the Muslim Brotherhood groups’ crusade against the secular but pro-Iran and Pro-Russia Bashar Al-Assad government. Secondly, once it realized the impossibility of political change in Syria, the Erdogan government started using the “Kurdish phobia” to implement the neo-Ottoman geopolitical agenda.

The ultimate trump card

As far as the shocking revelations by former Qatari prime and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani go, President Erdogan’s Turkey, alongside Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US, was directly involved in covert regime change operations in Syria. Of the four countries, only Turkey has had common borders with Syria. Turkey also has deep historical ties to ethnic Turkmen minority groups in Syria. The pro-Turkey Free Syrian Army is considerably dominated by the Turkmen rebel groups whom Sultan Erdogan is using to push his territorial conquests in north and northeastern Syria. He sees the so-called Kurdish “terrorists” as his ultimate trump card to play to pursue Ottoman era expansion.

And the occupation of Afrin may eventually create a “second Palestine” in the Middle East, a Palestine of Kurds inside Syria but under Turkish occupation. This may be a reality unless Sultan Erdogan resists his neo-Ottoman policy of territorial conquests and expansion.

Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Associate Professor of International Relations, Gulf University for Science and Technology, West Mishref, Kuwait

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

VOA: “Turkey Proclaims Complete Control of Afrin, Announces Next Target in Syria”

Posted in Kurds,Syria,Turkey | 6 Responses | Print |

6 Responses

  1. This article contains an error. The Ottoman sultans did not take that title as a substitute for “caliph,” but in addition to it. Key was that they controlled the three main Muslim holy cities: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Saudi monarchs very proudly proclaim themselves to be “Protector of the Holy Cities,” but do not claim to be caliphs because they do not control Jerusalem.

  2. This is a flawed understanding of the Ottomans and their thinking. So much so that it is a waste of time to pick through. It is also flawed in terms of their perception of adherence to a specific religion, IE, Islam. Obviously, the writer is quite ignorant of Ottoman History, which also shows up in the timeline of dates. Perhaps he should understand the term Eurasianism.

  3. In response to Barkley Rosser

    A few points should be noted here. The title “caliph”, meaning the civil and religious head of the Islamic state or the Muslim ummah, is a Sunni usage. It started with Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, who succeeded Prophet Muhammad as khalīfah rasūl Allāh, “successor of the Messenger of God”. Omar ibn Khattab, the second caliph of “Rashidune Caliphate” (632 – 661), officially used the title caliph. Subsequently, the Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid rulers also assumed the title of caliph. There were even rival claims to caliphate. Abbasid caliphs (750 – 1258), based in Baghdad, the Cordoba-based Umayyad rulers (755 – 1031) and the Fatimid rulers of Egypt (909 – 1171) simultaneously claimed caliphate and assumed the title caliph.

    The Ottomans entered the picture especially after 1517, the year they conquered Mamluk Egypt and gained control over Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina. Yet, their claim to the title of caliph was prompted more by political than religious reasons. In the late eighteenth century, the Ottomans laid the claim to caliphate to counter their arch-rival Russian empire’s claim to protect Christians living in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultans, in turn, claimed the right to protect Muslims under Russian rule by assuming the title of caliph (but they were known as sultans).

    It is unheard of, as you have pointed out, that control over the three holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem is the key to claim the title of caliph. During Abu Bakr’s period Jerusalem was not under Muslim control. Does that mean Abu Bakr was not a caliph, the first caliph of Islam? The Umayyads of Cordoba were far away from the Middle East, so they did not have any claim to caliphate? And lest we forget, the Shia Muslims castigate the Sunni caliphate and even reject the first three caliphs of Islam as illegitimate since they did not have any blood relations to the family of Prophet Muhammad. The Shias prefer the title “imam” who must be a lineal descendant from the Prophet of Islam.

  4. In response to Barkley Rosser

    A few points should be noted here. The title “caliph”, meaning the civil and religious head of the Islamic state or the Muslim ummah, is a Sunni usage. It started with Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, who succeeded Prophet Muhammad as khalīfah rasūl Allāh, “successor of the Messenger of God”. Omar ibn Khattab, the second caliph of “Rashidune Caliphate” (632 – 661), officially used the title caliph. Subsequently, the Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid rulers also assumed the title of caliph. There were even rival claims to caliphate. Abbasid caliphs (750 – 1258), based in Baghdad, the Cordoba-based Umayyad rulers (755 – 1031) and the Fatimid rulers of Egypt (909 – 1171) simultaneously claimed caliphate and assumed the title caliph.

    The Ottomans entered the picture especially after 1517, the year they conquered Mamluk Egypt and gained control over Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina. Yet, their claim to the title of caliph was prompted more by political than religious reasons. In the late eighteenth century, the Ottomans laid the claim to caliphate to counter their arch-rival Russian empire’s claim to protect Christians living in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultans, in turn, claimed the right to protect Muslims under Russian rule by assuming the title of caliph (but they were still known more as sultans).

    It is unheard of, as you have pointed out, that control over the three holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem is the key to claim the title of caliph. During Abu Bakr’s period Jerusalem was not under Muslim control. Does that mean Abu Bakr was not a caliph, the first caliph of Islam? The Umayyads of Cordoba were far away from the Middle East, so they did not have any claim to caliphate? And lest we forget, the Shia Muslims castigate the Sunni caliphate and even reject the first three caliphs of Islam as illegitimate since they did not have any blood relations to the family of Prophet Muhammad. The Shias prefer the title “imam” who must be a lineal descendant from the Prophet of Islam.

    • There isn’t good historical evidence that Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali called themselves caliphs. The inscriptions that survive say ‘commander of the faithful.’

  5. Patricia Crone and Martin Hind’s book is a good one to look at for the history of the term ‘Caliph’: link to en.wikipedia.org

    God’s Caliph : Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    God’s Caliph : Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam
    GodsCaliph.jpg
    Authors Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds
    Language English
    Subject Caliphate
    Genre Non-fiction
    Published 1986,
    Publisher Cambridge University Press
    ISBN 0521541115
    God’s Caliph : Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam is a book co-authored by Middle East Scholars and historiographers of early Islam Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds.

    The book examines how religious authority was distributed in early Islam. It argues the case that, as in Shi`ism, religious authority was concentrated in the head of state, rather than dispersed among learned laymen as in Sunnism.

    Crone and Hinds argue that originally the caliph was both head of state and ultimate source of religious law; and that such ideas persisted during the Umayyad Caliphate.[1] To Crone and Hinds, the Sunni pattern represents the outcome of a conflict between the caliphs and early scholars who, as spokesmen of the community, assumed religious leadership for themselves. Many Islamicists have assumed the Shi`i concept of the imamate to be a deviant development. In contrast, this book argues that it is an archaism preserving the concept of religious authority with which all Muslims began.

    Contents
    Introduction
    The title khalifat Allah
    The Umayyad conception of the caliphate
    Caliphal law
    From caliphal to Prophetic sunna
    Epilogue; Appendices; Index.
    References
    Islam portal
    Crone, Patricia; Hinds, Martin (2003). God’s Caliph religious authority in the first centuries of Islam (1st paperback ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge university press. pp. 27–32. ISBN 0521541115.

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