Turkey finds that trouble knows no bounds

Hugh Pope writes: As instability undermines the Arab states established in the post-First World War map of the Middle East, a now vigorous Turkey, heir of the Ottoman Empire that was the main loser from that 20th century order, is taking a new look at the region.

‘Those borders are all false’, sniffed one of Turkey’s former top diplomats over dinner in February. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, says that Syria’s growing troubles since 2011 now amount to ‘an internal affair’ for Turkey, while in private officials talk breezily of Syria as ‘our former province’.

In the capital Ankara, a senior security official agreed that tumult in Syria over the past two years had vaporized much of the Cold War frontier of barbed wire and watch-towers. ‘The borders have become meaningless,’ he said.

In short, a major change is under way after decades in which Turkish policy was predicated on making the best of what it found in the Middle East.

This is not just a reaction to the catastrophic collapse of Syria into a failed state. In northern Iraq, Turkey is now moving firmly to cement a privileged energy, trade and security relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government. ‘We warned the United States for 10 years, “you’re going to break up Iraq”. For this whole time we paid the price [of trying to hold Iraq together]’, the senior security official said. ‘Finally we saw the situation now that America is leaving, and said, “well, let’s turn this to our advantage”.’

Nobody in power in Ankara is talking of new annexations. But Turkey’s more opportunistic approach is rooted in the centuries during which it controlled most countries of what is the Sunni Muslim Arab world today, and a lingering grievance about how that empire was dismantled after the First World War ended in 1918.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu often says that uprisings in the Arab world can be seen as ‘closing a century of parenthesis’ – shorthand for rebuilding links between former Ottoman lands, even though he denies the policy is ‘neo-Ottoman’. [Continue reading…]

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