An Enduring Tension: Turkey Caught in the Middle

Much as in the past, it is Turkey’s relationship with the West that continues to be the biggest factor shaping its relations with the Middle East

An Enduring Tension: Turkey Caught in the Middle
Peter O’Toole (L) and Egyptian-born actor Omar Sharif in a still from the film, ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ / Columbia Pictures / Courtesy of Getty Images

Penning an obituary for Lawrence of Arabia in 1935, the editor of the Turkish satirical weekly Akbaba announced: “Lawrence is dead. As with any miracle, it is not easy to believe the good news.”

“The world’s gain,” he went on, “is as great as England’s loss,” for Lawrence was a microbe “more fearsome than the plague.” There was only one problem: Lawrence might now spread unrest in the hereafter. “How,” the obituary concluded, “can you say ‘rest in peace’ for anyone who has gone to an afterlife where Lawrence is present?”

The violent dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in World War I created a complex and enduring relationship between Turkish attitudes toward the Arab world and Turkish attitudes toward Europe. During the war, a generation of Turkish leaders had fought both with and against their former Arab compatriots in a failed effort to prevent French and British forces from colonizing the Middle East. After the war, these same men continued fighting to secure Turkey’s independence, while the rest of the region stayed under European control.

Not surprisingly, this fraught history led to a range of different attitudes among Turkish policymakers and the broader public over the coming century. Anger over the Arab revolt was real, as was the sense that the Arabs had betrayed their government and co-religionists by siding with the British. But there was also genuine sympathy for former Ottoman subjects in the Middle East who were still struggling against European colonizers. This sympathy, in turn, took different forms, from sincere anti-imperial solidarity to slightly condescending explanations of what the Arab world could learn from Turkey’s example.

Over the last century, these attitudes have been repeatedly reconfigured by geopolitical developments. With the advent of the Cold War, for example, Turkey joined with France and Britain in NATO to defend its independence against the Soviet Union. Many Arab nationalists, by contrast, saw in the Soviets a potential ally in securing their full independence from the West.

Now, Turkish attitudes toward the Arab world are being rapidly reconfigured again. In trying to understand these shifts, though, commentators and analysts have too often fallen back on a simple binary, pitting a long-standing Republican contempt for the Arab world against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s religiously inspired sympathy. Making sense of current Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East requires recovering a more nuanced account of the historical legacies that drive it.

Several months after Lawrence’s obituary, Akbaba published an equally gleeful cover in response to news of a popular uprising in Egypt. The image shows a porcine, pipe-smoking Britain perching uncomfortably on the point of a pyramid and saying, “[The sun] has begun to set here too!” Like other anti-imperial cartoons from Akbaba, the image appears to revel in Britain’s humiliation, while Egypt’s residents remain absent.

Akbaba cover / courtesy of author

Indeed, during this period anti-British sentiment did little to ameliorate Turkish-Egyptian tensions, which came to a head in the early 1930s with the infamous “fez incident.” At the end of a 1932 reception in honor of Turkey’s Republic Day, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk precipitated a diplomatic spat by knocking the Egyptian ambassador’s fez off of his head. The incident has often been depicted as a revealing example of Atatürk’s hotheaded Westernizing zeal. But, as explained by historian Amit Bein, it was actually part of a broader dispute arising from Atatürk’s desire to lay claim to the Ottoman Empire’s (financial) legacy. Following the empire’s breakup, Turkish citizens and pious foundations retained substantial economic interests in Egypt, which both governments naturally felt they had a claim to. As would happen again and again over the next century, a fairly conventional conflict over competing national interests was grafted onto a powerful cultural and historical narrative that did not necessarily fit.

With the advent of the Cold War, the relationship between cultural politics and Turkish interests in the Middle East became even more convoluted. Turkey’s anti-Soviet orientation brought it into an alliance not only with the British but also with the very Hashemite dynasty that had led the Arab revolt. During the 1950s, Turkish leaders frequently commented on the cultural and historic ties they shared with their Arab counterparts and repeatedly pushed NATO to be more accommodating of anti-imperial sentiment in the Arab world. But they ultimately acknowledged that this was not enough to overcome a much deeper geopolitical divide. And as it became clear that many Arab leaders would pursue their own interests at Turkey’s expense, the Turkish press unleashed a wave of invective against them.

Following a Middle East tour in the early 1950s, Turkish Foreign Minister Fuat Koprulu reported to an American diplomat that he “found a warm and sincere response from Arab leaders,” many of whom were “old friends” and almost all of whom spoke with him “directly in Turkish.” “He did not pretend” however, “that this had any conclusive significance.”

Koprulu’s candid admission offers the perfect coda for Turkey’s mid-century efforts to build ties with the newly independent states of the Arab world. In Iraq, for example, relations began swimmingly. Turkish diplomat Bekir Tunay recounted how he bonded with Iraqi regent Abdul Ilah over the Hashemite royal’s appreciation for Turkish raki and cigarettes. On a subsequent visit to Istanbul, Abdul Ilah waxed nostalgic about spending his youth on the shores of the Bosporus, asking Tunay to invite “the best Turkish musicians” to entertain them till dawn on the terrace of his waterfront mansion. The trip also provided the opportunity for a series of diplomatic discussions (and nightclub visits) with Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. These helped consolidate the Baghdad Pact, a U.S.-backed, anti-communist alliance spearheaded by Turkey and Iraq. But geopolitics quickly intervened. In 1958, a left-wing nationalist coup toppled the British-backed Hashemite monarchy, leaving Abdul Ilah dead and the Baghdad Pact in search of a new name. The pact was dissolved in 1979.

American and Turkish diplomats agreed that Turkey should be a “bridge between East and West,” but they each understood the cliché differently.

For much of the ’50s, the Turkish government navigated competing interests, often pushing Washington to take a more conciliatory stance toward popular, anti-imperial sentiment in the region — even if this came at the expense of Britain or the local monarchs it supported. American and Turkish diplomats agreed that Turkey should be a “bridge between East and West,” but they each understood the cliché differently. Washington continually hoped Ankara could use its cultural understanding to convince Middle Eastern leaders of the unfortunate necessity of deferring to Britain. U.S. policymakers seemed hesitant to accept that it was often this very understanding that led Ankara to the opposite conclusion. As Koprulu explained to an American counterpart at the outset of the Suez dispute, “rising nationalism” in the Middle East was “exploited by Commies,” but the situation was “greatly worsened” by the Western powers’ pursuit of their “own special interests.” This meant that in order to thwart the Commies, “Western powers must abandon [their] ‘old methods’ in dealing with states of the area.”

By the late 1950s, however, it was clear that Cold War geopolitics had doomed Ankara’s bridge-building efforts and left Turkey increasingly aligned with Western powers. Indeed, in 1957 it was Washington that had to dissuade Ankara from launching a military operation aimed at securing a friendly government in Syria. Yet this new alignment still created a degree of ideological discomfort for anti-imperialist Turkish commentators. Some tried to reconcile it by channeling their frustration toward Arab nationalist leaders. Future Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, for example, lamented that every Arab revolutionary wanted to be another Atatürk, but they failed to properly imitate Atatürk’s example. The cartoonists at Akbaba, meanwhile, repeatedly implied, with greater and lesser degrees of subtlety, that Arab leaders had in fact become pawns of Soviet imperialism. As the decade wore on, men like Gamal Abdel Nasser appeared more frequently in Turkish cartoons as dogs, camels, horses, caged birds or windup dolls being ordered around by Moscow.

Akbaba / courtesy of author

After relations reached a low point in the 1950s under Menderes’s conservative government, subsequent Turkish leaders tried to improve Turkey’s ties with the increasingly anti-Western Arab world. The junta that toppled Menderes, for example, expressed its support for Algeria’s independence struggle, drawing parallels with Turkey’s own battle against colonialism. Subsequently, in discussing the “leftward course” of Ecevit, who by then was prime minister, one former U.S. ambassador described him as “calling for a more independent foreign policy that emphasized improved relations with other Muslim countries of the Middle East.”

In the end, however, none of these modest efforts at realignment were able to overcome the fundamental divergence in interests created by Turkey’s NATO membership. Instead, Cold War dynamics generated new sources of conflict. In the 1980s, for example, the Syrian government became a chief sponsor of Kurdish separatism in Turkey. This continued to cause problems even after the end of the Cold War, eventually prompting another Turkish threat to invade Syria in 1998.

When Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party came to power in the beginning of the 21st century, many of the trends that had shaped Turkey’s relations with its Arab neighbors were fundamentally changing. For most people in Turkey, it was now the U.S., not Britain or Russia, that had become the main imperial power in the Middle East. For U.S. officials, in turn, the transition from the Cold War to the war on terror meant that Islamism had replaced Arab nationalism as the most threatening anti-Western movement in the region. Amid these shifts, many Western observers, whether supportive or suspicious of Turkish policies, often had trouble making sense of Ankara’s motivations.

In the 1950s, U.S. diplomats who wanted Turkey to take a leadership role in the Middle East urged Turkish politicians to tone down their praise for the Ottoman Empire, lest this needlessly alienate Arab public opinion. In the 2000s, by contrast, some U.S. commentators worried that Erdoğan’s glorification of the Ottoman past was some kind of Islamist catnip that would instantly gain him a dangerous following in the region. Other commentators, in turn, hoped that the Ottoman legacy of tolerance and economic integration could help Turkey spread peace and trade in a fractured geography.

When Erdoğan, for example, initially befriended Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an effort to improve Turkish-Syrian ties, some saw it as a form of anti-Western neo-Ottomanism. Others hoped it could lay the groundwork for Western rapprochement with al-Assad and even a Syrian-Israeli peace deal. Not surprisingly, when Erdoğan then set out to topple the Assad regime in 2011, opinion remained equally divided — his efforts were variously viewed as part of a campaign to Islamize or, alternatively, to democratize the region.

Throughout this period, the people of the Middle East also interpreted Turkish policy and historical rhetoric in relation to their own evolving interests. In the early 2000s, Turkey appeared to be offering economic opportunities and a model of pious democratization that were genuinely popular in the region. Then, amid the collapse of the Arab Spring and Turkey’s turn toward a more militarized foreign policy, Erdoğan became an increasingly divisive figure. Arab leaders, alarmed by Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its military involvement in Syria and Libya, increasingly came to see Turkey as a threat. More and more frequently, “neo-Ottomanism” appeared as a term of abuse, used by Arab commentators to condemn what they perceived as Turkish imperialism.

Indeed, perceptions of the Ottoman past were regularly revised in light of contemporary Turkish policy. At a particular low point in their relations with Turkey, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates picked a fight with Ankara over the Ottomans’ expropriation of religious relics during World War I. The Islamic State group too, after it fell out with Ankara, took a more decidedly anti-Ottoman tone, denouncing Erdoğan’s beloved sultans as “perverts” and “polytheists.”

In other quarters, though, Erdoğan’s popularity continued to resonate. Many people who had nowhere else to turn for support, including Palestinians and members of the Syrian opposition, continued to see Erdoğan as he saw himself: a champion standing up to the real imperialists on behalf of the downtrodden.

Much as in the past, though, it is Turkey’s relationship with the West that continues to be the biggest factor shaping its relations with the Middle East. From Ankara’s perspective, a key turning point came in 2014 when Washington began supporting Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria as part of the fight against the Islamic State group. For commentators across the Turkish political spectrum, Washington had decisively taken up the mantle of Lawrence of Arabia, leading a separatist insurgency against the Turkish state. Where Erdoğan had once proudly championed the Syrian people in their struggle against al-Assad, this new threat perception forced a recalibration. Ankara dialed back its support for the rebels as Erdogan sought Russian approval for a series of cross-border operations against Kurdish forces.

As Turkey’s foreign policy took on a more aggressive and anti-American tone, particularly after the country’s 2016 coup attempt, this was reflected in worsening relations with many of America’s partners in the region. Shared concerns over Turkey’s military interventions helped consolidate closer ties among Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. More recently, Ankara’s efforts to tone down tensions with Washington have been matched by similar efforts aimed at Egypt and the Gulf.

It remains to be seen how far these efforts at rapprochement will go. Perhaps the clearest lesson from history is that so long as Turkey and its neighbors both view each other through the lens of historical imperialist threats, relations will remain strained.

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