Can the would-be caliph from Turkey be stopped?

The Turkish leader is uniquely poised to take center stage in many of the area conflicts and advance his grand design of reviving an Islamic caliphate under his rule.

TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a meeting in Brussels in March.  (photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a meeting in Brussels in March.
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
During the past decade, Turkish President Recep Erdogan, taking advantage of the chaos in the Middle East, was busy establishing a military presence in a number of strategic sites in that region, as well as in North Africa and even further, without encountering any real opposition. World attention focused on efforts by Tehran to fulfill its nuclear ambitions while advancing its long-term goal of creating a Shia crescent encompassing all Middle Eastern countries and resulting in the annihilation of Israel.
Today the Turkish leader is uniquely poised to take center stage in many of the area conflicts and advance his grand design of reviving an Islamic caliphate under his rule. It is no secret that he sees himself as the rightful heir of centuries of Ottoman rulers, and as such, intends to extend anew Turkey’s influence over countries and territories formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.
In fact, new maps of Turkey published in 2016 include northern Syria up to Latakia, the district of Mosul in Iraq, and extend beyond the boundaries of the European part of Turkey across the Bosporus Straits to parts of Bulgaria and to Salonika in Western Thrace. The area was under Ottoman rule still when the ceasefire was signed in 1918, but was stripped from Turkey by the treaty of Lausanne in 1923. These maps are a clear indication of an irredentism, which could lead to war.
It would fit in with the doctrine of Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s erstwhile foreign minister and mentor, who wrote a book about the sacred duty of his country to unite the Middle East under its mantle dubbed Neo-Ottomanism and revive the Islamic caliphate.
This is a purpose very much in line with the aspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood, who found in the Turkish president an ally. Indeed, the bonds got stronger after he cut off relations with Egypt when Muhammad Morsi was ousted and the Brotherhood was branded a terrorist organization. The leaders of the movement who escaped arrest fled to Turkey or to Qatar, a long-time supporter, leading to a further rapprochement between Ankara and Doha, thus furthering Erdogan’s aims.
Today Turkey has a strong political and security presence in northern Syria, where it coordinates its activities with Russia and Iran. It uses its Islamic militias against President Bashar Assad’s regime while fighting Kurds suspected of helping the Turkish PKK movement seeking autonomy.
Turkish forces have invaded northern Iraq, where they also fight Kurds while training Iraqi Turkmen – a minority of Turkish origin allegedly in danger. Ankara entered into a security cooperation agreement with Qatar – formerly part of the Ottoman Empire – in 2010, selling it military equipment, drones of its own fabrication, and armored cars.
It established a military base there in 2015 and sent a further 3,000 troops in 2017 to show support to the beleaguered kingdom blockaded by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. It thus has an important foothold in the Gulf.
Along the Red Sea a military base has been set up in Somalia allegedly to train local troops; off the coast of Sudan’s Suakin Island, once the seat of the Ottoman governor of the region, has been leased to Ankara though its fate is unclear now that Sudanese President Omar Bashir is in jail.
AT THE same time, Erdogan is weighing in the Palestinian issue: downgrading links with Israel to curry favor with the Arab world, hosting meetings and conferences of Islamic organizations bent on condemning the Jewish state, mobilizing Turkish aid organizations – ostensibly to provide food for the needy in eastern Jerusalem and restore Islamic sites, but in fact agitating and inciting against Israel.
This serves a dual purpose: positioning Turkey as a defender of Islam and challenging Jordan, which in virtue of its peace agreements with Israel, has a special status regarding Islamic institutions and the Temple Mount.
However, it was Turkish blatant intervention in Libya, which made Europe sit up and take notice because it sees it as a direct threat. The endless civil war in that country pits the legally elected Tobruk Parliament and the Libyan National Army (LNA) – led by Gen. Haftar, de facto ruler of the eastern part of the country – against Islamic organizations backing the Tripoli Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez Sarraj recognized by the UN and ruling the western part of Libya.
Turkey has been covertly helping the GNA since 2013 by providing arms and ammunition in violation of the embargo imposed by the UN Security Council. Of late, as Haftar’s forces appeared close to taking Tripoli, Erdogan openly dispatched attack drones to the Islamic militias as well as military advisers and thousands of mercenaries recruited from Islamic movements in Syria, effectively ending Haftar’s offensive, as his army had to retreat and abandon positions it had conquered in western Libya.
This created a major shift in regional policy. Haftar has the support of Egypt, the Emirates, Russia and even France, the latter battling with jihadi groups in the South of the country, threatening Sahel African countries. However for Egypt, the new situation constitutes a clear and present danger.
Haftar has played a major role in keeping their long common border safe, helping to thwart attempts by Islamic militias to send militants and military equipment to the Islamic insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
Following his setback, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued the “Cairo Declaration” calling for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of all foreign troops and working at a political solution. Fayez Sarraj turned it down and pursued his offensive toward Sirte, gateway to the Haftar-held major oil stockage and export infrastructure of Ras Lanuf and Al Sidra.
At this point, the Egyptian president issued a clear warning: The capture of Sirte would be a direct threat on the security of his country, and his army was ready to intervene to prevent it. Turkey hastened to reply that a ceasefire was conditional on the LNA withdrawing from Sirte.
Sisi was asked by the Tobruk Parliament for help in defending Libya, and received the support of a delegation of Libyan tribes, thus giving him the legal basis for sending his troops across the border.
As a gesture of support for Egypt, Russia has stationed a number of MIG-29 warplanes in eastern Libya.
It is unclear whether Erdogan will back his threats with actions, and whether Sisi would then move his troops across the border.
FACED WITH this new Turkish aggression, Europe appears indecisive and unwilling to act. Ankara is preventing millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan from reaching the coasts of Italy and Greece – against payment of billions dollars a year. So far, Haftar has been blocking Libyan and African refugees trying to flee.
The new isolationist policy of US President Donald Trump, who has indicated that he did not want to be drawn into endless regional conflicts, has led to the waning influence of America. Furthermore, Trump has no wish to quarrel with Turkey, a member of NATO. He has already demonstrated it by abandoning his Kurdish allies in Syria and leaving them defenseless against the Turkish Army.
Relations with the European Union are shaky at best and the West is unlikely to unite against Turkey.
Russia is a quandary. Erdogan’s expansionist policy threatens its efforts to establish outposts along the Mediterranean and take part in the reconstruction of war-torn countries. Should it confront the Turkish president or seek a compromise?
It has done so in Syria, at least for the time being, by including Turkey together with Iran in the Astana forum intended to coordinate actions in that country, letting Turkish troops take over the Afrin Province and reaching a ceasefire in Idlib.
China, busy promoting its ambitious new Silk Road project in the region, has no wish to get involved though it is undoubtedly happy to see the decline of the West. Besides, even the persecution of the Uyghur minorities, which are of Turkish origin, has only led to tepid condemnations from Ankara and has not damaged the relations between the two countries.
Though Turkey has been able to extend its tentacles throughout the Middle East, it does not appear thus that anyone on the international scene is ready to intervene. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that it is ready for a direct confrontation in Libya with Egypt and Russia. The latter will probably endeavor to find a temporary compromise, both armies keeping their present positions with Haftar and Lybian Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, agreeing on sharing oil revenues.
Such a compromise would in no way herald the end of the civil war, but would demonstrate that it is Erdogan who holds the key to further developments.
What could make the would-be caliph from Istanbul stumble, however, could be troubles at home. The economic situation is dire, foreign currency reserves are depleted, the Turkish lira is down, and inflation is rampant. This is due in part to the exorbitant cost of the expansionist policies of the president, at a time when growth is severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Turkey is turning to the International Monetary Fund for emergency relief, though an agreement is yet to be reached. Opposition to Erdogan is growing, and parliament members from his own party are deserting to join a new opposition movement – Al Mustaqbal, “The Future” _ created by no other than former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu to fight what they call a corrupt and dictatorial regime.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party lost its parliamentary majority in 2018 and had to form a coalition with a small nationalistic party. The embattled president is at a crossroads.
He may call for early elections, hoping for better results, or use a conflagration in Libya as a diversionary tactic. What is not in doubt is his determination to achieve his goals, perhaps even at the price of a military coup to maintain his position.
The writer is a former ambassador of Israel to Egypt, Romania and Sweden, and a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.