Turkey embraces role as Arab 'big brother'

By Sami Moubayed
Asia Times
January 14, 2010

DAMASCUS - After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Ankara, many in the West referred to a new Turkish foreign policy called "neo-Ottomanism", suggesting a revival of the intellectual, political and social influence of the Ottoman Empire, which departed the scene 92 years ago.

That policy was attributed to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his advisor, now foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Quickly, however, the term "Ottomanism" began to fade, given that it was difficult to market in countries formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire due to continued indoctrination against Ottomanism by the Arabs over nine decades.

Some, however, continued to stand by the term, including Cuneyt Zapsu, an advisor to the Turkish prime minister, who said: "A new, positive role for Turkey in the world requires a reconciliation with its own past, the overcoming of societal taboos, and a positive new concept of Turkish identity. We are the Ottomans' successors and should not be ashamed of this."

Decision-makers in Turkey had once tried to hide their Ottoman past, ashamed of it during the heyday of Kemal Ataturk because it looked backward and was too Islamic for the secular state that was being carefully erected in Turkey. That is now a thing of the past thanks to the steady policy of the AKP, which has been opening up to countries such as Syria and, more recently, Lebanon.

Many wrongly interpreted Erdogan's policy towards the Arab world, now entering its seventh year, as purely a Syrian-Turkish alliance. By nature of his new orientation, Erdogan is striving to restore Turkey to its rightful place amongst Arab and Muslim nations, and that by no means stops at the gates of Damascus. It is a policy that embraces Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

During the past few years, Turkey has sponsored indirect talks between Syria and Israel, tried to hammer out solutions between Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, and worked on mending broken fences between Damascus and Baghdad after relations soured last August.

Turkey has permanently stood as a mediator between Iran and the Arab world and has worked hard to help embrace non-state players like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, whose leadership it received in Ankara in 2004, despite public outcry from the United States.

Additionally, it has tried to flex its muscle within the complex world of Iraqi politics, calling on Sunni leaders to take part in the political process that was started after the 2003 downfall of Saddam Hussein. Big brother Turkey, after all, had mediated in similar waters at the turn of the 20th century and apparently still knows the region, its people and their plight only too well, and still feels best suited to solve existing conflict within it.

This week, Erdogan received Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in a groundbreaking visit to Turkey, adding yet another link to the long chain of alliances that Erdogan is carefully creating for the Turkish republic.

Among other things, the two countries agreed to increase technical and scientific cooperation in military affairs and lift visa requirements between Lebanon and Turkey. At first glance, this will boost tourism and people-to-people contact between Beirut and Ankara.

According to official numbers, 50,794 Lebanese tourists went to Turkey in 2008 - an increase of 18,000 from 2007 and large when compared with the number, not more than a few hundred, of Turkish tourists who streamed into Beirut.

It will certainly affect bilateral trade, which stood at US$225 million in 2002 and now stands at $900 million. It also means that Turkey has now lifted visa requirements with six Arab countries, the others being Libya, Morocco, Tunis, Jordan and Syria.

Erdogan best explained it by saying that a "regional Schengen" system, similar to the agreement signed between European countries in Luxemburg in 1985, has now gone into effect in the region, removing systematic border control between these countries - making them closer to how they had been under the Ottoman Empire. When Iraq normalizes, he added, it, too, could join the regional "Schengen" system.

Clearly from all the optimism shown by Erdogan for the Hariri visit, cooperation between Turkey and Lebanon will not end there. The Turkish premier, after all, has visited Beirut twice, in 2007 and in 2008, and was the most senior foreign guest attending the inauguration of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

During the Israeli war of 2006, he firmly stood by the Lebanese, and in its immediate aftermath, sent 600 Turkish troops to take part in peacekeeping on the Lebanese-Israeli border by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Erdogan saw to it that $50 million worth of aid was given to reconstruct southern Lebanon, along with building 41 schools, five parks and a rehabilitation center worth $20 million.

Politically, Lebanon and Turkey are now colleagues in rotating positions at the UN Security Council, and this is where real political cooperation will materialize in the months to come. Turkey's heavyweight influence will come in handy as Lebanon tries to waiver Security Council resolution 1559, which called on the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon and stipulates the disarmament of non-state players, including Hezbollah.

In as much as the Hariri team once called for implementing 1559 in 2005-2009, they would now prefer that it disappears, given that, far from being an adversary, Hezbollah is now a Hariri ally, strongly represented in both parliament and the Hariri cabinet.

The Lebanese government recently claimed that the resolution should be canceled, saying that all of its clauses had been fulfilled, noting that Hezbollah was a part of the Lebanese state and defense system and not merely a non-state player or a militia, as many in the West claim it to be.

That argument, which saves both Hezbollah and Hariri the burden of having to deal with 1559, was put forth last December by Hariri's new Foreign Minister Ali al-Shami, an appointee of the Hezbollah-led team in the Hariri cabinet.

When speaking at a press conference with Erdogan, Hariri noted that not a single day passed where the Israeli Defense Forces did not infringe on Lebanese waters or airspace, claiming that this was a legal breach of UN resolution 1701, which was passed after the war of 2006.

Erdogan nodded, saying that Israel had breached "no less than 100" resolutions in recent years, adding: "This requires serious reforms at the United Nations. We do not support Israel's position and will not remain silent."

Having Turkey on Lebanon's side will be a great boost for Hezbollah, which is preparing for a possible new round of confrontation with Israel in summer this year. From Ankara, Hariri came to Hezbollah's defense, telling reporters, "Terrorism is not when one defends one's land - the opposite is correct," thus supporting Hezbollah's war against Israel until the Sheba Farms are liberated from Israeli occupation.

This fits in nicely with the barrage of criticism that Erdogan has been firing against Israel for the past year, started in January 2009 when, speaking at Davos right after the Gaza war, he told Israeli President Shimon Peres: "President Peres, you are old, and your voice is loud out of a guilty conscience. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches."

Erdogan, in the weeks to come, will help further normalize Syrian-Lebanese relations, saying that he advised his "friend" President Bashar al-Assad to reciprocate Hariri's visit by paying a visit of his own to Beirut. He will further work with Syria and Lebanon to see to it that Hezbollah is sheltered from another Israeli war, and try to pressure Israel to return to the negotiating table to lift the siege on Gaza and restore the occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

Best mirroring Erdogan's new policy is that, despite the new and firm relationship with the Arabs, he has not wasted his country's historical relationship with Israel. Although critical, his embassy remains open in Tel Aviv, and he is preparing to receive Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Ankara in late January.

Only by being able to talk to all parties will the Turks achieve the security and normalcy they aspire to in the Middle East. While Israel is not pleased with Erdogan's new policy, claiming that he has clearly taken sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arabs are thrilled that the Turkish giant has emerged and, unlike the case since 1918, is now clearly on their side in the battlefront.

He has reminded the Arabs that despite a very rough period in bilateral relations during World War I, the Ottoman legacy in the Arab world was not all bad, and not all autocratic. Why? Because by defending Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, Erdogan feels that he is also defending Turkey, seeing all four countries as one, given their geographic, historical, social, religious and cultural proximity.

Many of the finest buildings in Damascus and Beirut, after all, were constructed during the Ottoman era. So were many of the codes, laws of commerce and aspects of civil administration, which lasted well into the 20th century. The Ottoman influence on Arab language, heritage, music, heritage and cuisine, cannot be ignored, despite years of trying to write off anything Ottoman as being destructive to Arab culture.

Although the Ottomans struck with an iron fist at the Arabs working with Great Britain against them during the Great War, they also - very symbolically - refused to sell land in Ottoman Palestine to the Zionists during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. It is that part of Ottoman history that Erdogan wants the Arabs to remember, not the hangman's noose that was erected by the Ottoman governor of Syria, Jamal Pasha, in the central squares in Beirut and Damascus in 1915-1916.

When the republics were young in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria, Turkish and Arab nationalism stood in the way of a clear appreciation of history, leading to nothing but bad blood between Arabs and Turks. That era is now hopefully gone - never to return - thanks to the efforts of Erdogan, referred to, very symbolically, by Hariri as "Big Brother" during his Ankara visit.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.