Has Turkey's Syria Policy Failed?

The Foundational Logic of Turkish Foreign Policy 

Located in central London, with Buckingham Palace on one end and Trafalgar Square on the other, St. James Park is one of the most peaceful corners of Europe. The English go about that park with almost as much serenity and ease as the ducks gliding over ponds under the shadows of the magnificent plane trees. If you happen to have arrived there from any city in the Middle East, your surroundings seem to you like a natural opportunity for rehabilitation.

In the middle of such a rehabilitation session in the spring of 2016, I started getting alerts of explosions in two Middle Eastern cities on my phone. There were many dead and injured. An ordinary day for the “bloody region.”

When you lift your head up and look around after having read these news, all you see is those same ducks, the same English people, and that same carefree life, far away from the grief and misery of the region you came from.

Before that year ended, at least nine suicide attacks happened in Turkey.

                This start contrast makes one wonder. How come life can flow so peacefully, so carefree and easy over here, while over where we are blood has been flowing for years? Why is terror so extraordinary here while it is ordinary and unexceptional over there? Does the English woman sitting over there reading her book carry any anxiety about whether her child will make it back from school safe and sound today?

                I highly doubt it.

                The woman in Baghdad, however, worries about that everyday.


Are we to explain this contradiction away by the stupidity of the people of this region? Does the current “order,” which has its roots in the classical colonialist period but carries on today in new forms, have nothing to do with it? Do bombs explode in Baghdad and Istanbul and are cities like Mosul, Aleppo and Homs ruined because of a lack of intelligence on the part of Muslims or because the West is trying to maintain its hegemony in the Middle East? Could this bloody chaos that has cost hundred of thousands their lives and forced millions to leave their countries be for the sake of prolonging their order?

These are not questions we don’t know the answer to.

When the Warsaw Pact fell apart in the early 1990s, the dictatorships in Eastern Europe started falling like dominos, much like the early years of the Arab Spring. The US and Europe did everything they could to hasten the transition to democracy in that region, supporting the process politically and financially.

                So why do the same people who want democracy for the peoples living in Prague, Warsaw, Sofia, Bucharest and East Berlin see it as a luxury for those in Muslim cities like Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh, Amman and Baghdad?

How do we know that it is a luxury in their eyes, that they don’t actually wish for democracy in the Middle East? The example with much proximity is how they strangled the Arab Spring and provided endless support to dictators like Sisi, Salman and Abdullah after the people managed to get rid of them on their own.

                The Arab Spring was the name given to the uprising of the people against this political picture. Millions of people had raised the flag of resistance in the region  like never seen before in its history.

                Turkey is the only regional country that supported this popular uprising. In fact Turkey had started being vocal about the need to change the regional order long before the explosion of the Arab Spring, starting in 2003. Turkey said this via Prime Minister Abdullah Gul at the Tehran Summit directly to presidents and prime ministers of Islamic countries, telling them to listen to their peoples. The March1 mandate, the “One Minute” event, the ‘World is Bigger Than Five” slogan are all reflections of the same objection.

 Post-Cold War Policies

Under Turgut Ozal’s leadership. Turkey started to implement post-Cold War policies even in the first half of the 1990s. But those policies really came into a firm strategic standing after early 2003.

This strategic reasoning redefined Turkey’s position in the global structure, outlining the principles to be implemented in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, Turkey’s surrounding regions.

The two-word summary of this strategic approach is “regional integration.”

this integration was to start with acquiring Turkish-Kurdish peace on a firm foundation domestically, and to be expanded regionally later. The approaches known as the Peace Process or the Kurdish Opening were part of this strategic reasoning. The explorations for that process resulted from this need, and the processes were carried out to ensure this integration.

There is a very understandable reasoning behind Turkey’s point of view: Turkey is nearly the only country to profit from peace and stability in this region. Because it is the only democracy and the biggest economy of the region, peace and stability always serve Turkey’s interests, while conflict and insecurity hurt it. The same couldn’t be said of countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel; in fact the opposite holds more true for them.

Syria Policy Prior to the Arab Spring 

Regional integration meant that without changing its political borders, Turkey would enter into deep cooperation and partnerships on economic and social bases with its neighbors and the other countries in the region. As an extension of this approach, Turkey always saw its bilateral relations with these countries in the context of regionalism.

During the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, relations with Syria could be examined in two different periods, pre and post Arab Spring. The policies during these periods may look contradictory, but they are actually built on the same strategic vision. The ‘my brother Assad’ period was when Damascus shared Ankara’s vision and supported its integration politics. When the Syrian regime decided to quash protests with arms and engaging in massacres, the ‘murderer Assad’ period began.

Turkey tried to maintain good relations with Bashar Assad since the first days of his rule following the death of his father Hafez Assad in 2000. Abdullah Ocalan’s evacuation from Damascus had set a convenient basis for these positive relations. Starting from the end of 2002, the AK Party government carried relations with Damascus even further as part of the policy outlined above. Bilateral cancellation of visas, High Level Strategic Partnership meetings, attempts at forming a free trade zone that would include Iraq under the name ‘Mesopotamia Vision’ all took place during this period.

Turkey’s relationship to Syria at that time was so close that Assad became the first president to vacation outside of Syria when he toured Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, while his wife Asma Assad came to Istanbul on frequent shopping trips. Assad and Erdogan had started to see each other ‘as families,’ and not just two political leaders.

When addressing Turkey’s Syria policy, critics sometimes talk of “our Syria policy that changed overnight.”

Turkey’s Syria policy did not change “overnight,” but after eight months of grueling diplomatic negotiations, from January to August 2011, collapsed.[1] Turkey’s Syria policy started to change when the Arab Spring started with first thousands, then tens, hundreds of thousands and finally millions of people on the streets. For eight months, Turkey showed great effort to maintain its relationship with Damascus, which had increasingly become perfect. We could say that for those eight months. Turkey promised Assad all sorts of support so that he could foresee the probable results of the Arab Spring and manage this new situation that would inevitably arrive at his own door.

Afterall, Turkey could see that these popular uprisings that did away with Bin Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya would certainly spread to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. A new paradigm had arrived in Middle Eastern politics, with hitherto unheard of protests in which they rose up against their own regimes.

By 2009, Turkey was aware of the potential results of ‘brotherly’ yria resisting the demands of the street for change, let alone suppress them by force. Prime Minister Erdogan spent months trying to impart this upon Assad. During those eight months state officials from all sorts of levels traveled to Damascus, carrying Ankara’s message that if the demand for change was not managed properly, both countries would be facing serious risks.

Turkey is a country that knows the history of this region. It understood the danger on the horizon.  That’s why they were almost begging Assad trying to warn him.

One of Ankara’s two main concerns was facing a colossal wave of refugees. The memory of half a million Iraqi Kurds on Turkey’s borders escaping Saddam’s attacks was not forgotten. Ankara did not want to go through the same thing because of Syria. Moreover, the wave of refugees could potentially be even higher this time. Turkey’s second concern was about the impact of any wrong steps taken by the Syrian regime on the internal Kurdish issue. Turkey had been carrying out a peace process since 2009 to address this issue. Cutting off foreign support for PKK’s armed wing was a must for the process. Unwanted developments in Syria could disrupt Turkey’s game plan concerning the peace process.

Turkey’s Obligatory Path

When people of the region went out on the streets in tens and hundreds of thousands chanting “ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam” (the people want to bring down the regime) ignited by the wave of uprising in Tunisia, Turkey faced a choice. Either it was going to explicitly stand against large swaths of populations and continue to walk arm in arm with the regimes that those masses were trying to overthrow, or it was going to support the people’s demands.

The former meant defending the status quo, the latter meant supporting change.

Turkey chose the latter.

In reality this was not a choice but an obligatory path for Turkey.

That Turkey entered this obligatory path might haven given some the opportunity for propaganda that said “Sunni Turkey supporting Sunni movements.” That a conservative, religious according to some, party was in power gave this propaganda credence, but the reality lied elsewhere.[2] 

There were five key reasons Turkey entered this obligatory path:

1. The ‘order’ that was disrupted when Arab peoples went on the streets and toppled regimes was an order established by Western powers a century prior and that served their interests. That order was set-up in spite of Turks, Arabs and Kurds, and worked against them for a hundred years. Moreover, Westerm imperial actors set-up the Sykes-Picot by destroying the Ottoman order in Arabia and dividing up the territory of the Ottoman Empire. When the peoples of the Middle East rose up saying ‘we do not accept this order or want these regimes anymore’ it was not Turkey’s job to defend those regimes and that order. Turkey was not the owner but the victim of the Sykes-Picot order. That order had owners, who indeed did come to its defense.

2. As the only ‘Muslim democracy’ in the Middle East, Turkey could not object to the demand of the people in the neighboring countries for free elections. Having switched to a multi-party system in 1950 and governed since by cadres elected by the people, Turkey could not possibly object to people’s demands for freedom and democracy. Turkey’s status as the only Muslim democracy in the Middle East and being a negotiating country for European Union membership are the most important reasons behind Turkey’s positive perception in the region. There could be nothing more natural that such a democracy would support the yearning for democracy from the peoples of the region.

3. Turkey’s prestige in the eyes of the Middle Eastern peoples had reached unprecedented levels following the March 2003 parliamentary vote on giving the US a military mandate and the ‘One Minute Affair’ in Davos in 2009. In Lebanon, Palestine and all other Arab countries victimised by Israel, Turkey’s standing was improved tremendously. The night of the ‘One Minute Affair’ people in Gaza and Beirut had gone outside with Turkish flags, chanting pro-Turkey slogans. The Turkish president and primer minister were greeted with sincere enthusiasm by large crowds every time they visited Arab countries. These scenes were unheard of for the previous century. After a century, Turkey was becoming one with its own region once again, while the image of a new Turkey was being born in the minds of the people of that region.

In the spring of 2011, when those people went out on the streets to demand their rights, it was natural for them to expect this see Turkey with a positive image, which up until that point had acted as the conscience of the region on many occasions, on their side. Turkey could not let them down, and it didn’t. After all, regimes are temporary but the nations are permanent. The status quo may have returned after the second half of the Arab Spring, and dictators may have retaken their seats. But Turkey took a stance not on the side of the dictators but with the millions who wanted a dignified life, and history has recorded that.

4. Another reason that Turkey supported the systemic change brought by the Arab Spring has to do with the domestic public opinion. Never before had public opinion mattered this much when it came to foreign policy. Foreign policy is no longer the sole subject of state elites, diplomats, soldiers or intelligence officials, or the area of interest of select intellectuals. It is now a subject for the street. As I’m writing these lines at a tea garden in Istanbul’s Istinye neighborhood, two separate tables near me are having a dramatic conversations on Syria. What the state saw in Turkey, the people saw as well; that people in the Arab streets rose up against dictators was met with satisfaction at almost every level of Turkish society. It is widely believed that the Turkish public opinion is always on the side of the underdog.

Foreign policy cannot be determined according to the pulse of the street, and that’s correct. However, we have come to a point where it is not possible to implement any foreign policy in spite of the street in Turkey. It is no longer easy to follow a foreign policy that does not hear the street.

5. The most important reason for Turkey’s support for the Arab Spring was that its own strategic interests required it. If the Arab Spring ended in success, that would pave the way for Middle Eastern countries to integrate both economically and politically with the region and the world. This would mean the implementation of rational policies in the trade and finance fields of these countries. For a country like Turkey, which was trying to integrate with the region, carrying out integration politics through economic and social relations without trying to change its political borders, the Arab Spring carried great possibility. For a country that’s energy-dependent and needs large markets to sell its products and grow its economy, the Arab Spring was the biggest political development promising to deliver these results.

The success of this new wave that had taken over the Arab world would have meant new possibilities for a country like Turkey, which had attained a certain production power and skilled population. For instance, on the other side of the Mediterranean, Egypt with its 90 million population could have been a major partner for trade and tourism projects and joint investments. These were not possible with Mubarak’s mis-managed Egypt, running on a corruption economy where resources were gifted to Western companies. That 50 percent of Egypt’s total foreign investment belongs to British firms[3] cannot solely be explained with their sheer talent. (As a case study, see Egypt’s Stolen Gas, pp. 295-297)

This picture in Egypt is more or less identical to every country in the Arab world. These structures networked around the army or the intelligence lack rationality and accountability. It is not like these  places would have transitioned to democracy within three to five years and turn into paradise had the Arab Spring been successful, but at least elected governments would have accountability towards the electorate and the economies of these countries might have acquired a competitive structure in time. A country like Turkey with a supra-regional economy stood to gain a lot from such new circumstances.

Did Turkey Create the New Realities of the Middle East?

We are facing new realities today, such as the defacto disintegration of Iraq and Syria, the geopolitical impact of the Arab Spring, the emergence of sub-national or sub-regional new groups and the ascent of radical organizations.

The most important among those is the destruction of political integrity of Iraq and Syria, two countries Turkey neighbors. It does not seem possible for the capitals of these two countries to exert control over the entire country.

So how did this situation, which carries such strategic risks in terms of the future of the region, come about, who caused it, what were the determining factors?

There are those who try to blame the disintegration of these two states -especially Syria’s disintegration along ethnic and/or sectarian lines, on Turkey’s policies, but Turkey has tried to stop this scenario from playing out, since it knows that the same developments that would cause these two states to disintegrate would eventually threaten it as well. Turkey understands the consequences of 296 kilometers of its southern border becoming unstable.

Let us ask some questions at this point:

-          Did Turkey support America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003? Was Turkey not the country to oppose this invasion, riling up the entire region against it? Didn’t Turkey come up with the Iraq’s Neighbors Platform weeks before the invasion, struggle to prevent war and face America’s reaction as a consequence?

-          Isn’t Turkey the only country to spend a great deal of effort to keep all of Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups together in order to maintain its territorial integrity? Doesn’t Turkey object to Nouri al-Maliki’s and Iran’s sectarian politics in Iraq? Didn’t Turkey warn the US about Maliki’s said policies, and end up in a fight with Maliki himself?

-          Did Turkey start the Arab Spring era, shaking up the entire Middle East from Tunisia to Syria, and get millions of people to go on the streets?

-          Was it Turkey who overthrew Bin Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya, or was it the people who protested risking their lives?

-          Was it ever a possibility for this storm to not reach Syrian shores? Could a regime coming out of a Alawite minority in a majority-Sunni country, whose predecessor committed the Hama massacre in 1982 ever avoid this storm? Would the Syrian people not go out on the streets with the same demands after watching the dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya be toppled?

The answers to these questions are clear.

The uprising that started in March 2011 in Deraa, Syria was not different from what happened in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Yemen. If a leaf moves anywhere in the Middle East, its reverberations are felt in every corner of the region. Especially at a time when regimes proviously thought untouchable, if you are ruling Syria as the representative of a minority group and think that the wind is not going to reach you, there is no rational or logical explanation for it.

One could certainly have critical arguments on Turkish foreign policy, but those arguments must follow the answers based on information, reason and conscience to the questions above. Even if Turkey had wanted the Assad regime to remain in place and never opened its borders to oppositional elements, Syria was still going to go through this civil war, with all the blood spilled and millions of people displaced. Moreover, one would have to be completely ignorant about this region to assume that a country such as Saudi Arabia that controls a wide network of jihadi organizations in many places of the Islamic world would not act against its arch enemy and Syrian ally, Iran.

Moreover, those who argue that jihadis would not be able to enter Syria had Turkey not allowed it need to take another look at regional maps. Syria’s only border is not with Turkey; the country also shared a 600 kilometer border with Iraq. There was an uncontrollable flow of jihadi fighters from those regions of Iraq where those radical groups roam free.

Much has changed in Turkish foreign policy during AK Party years, but Turkey’s sensitivity to other countries’, especially neighbours’, territorial integrity has remained the same. That’s because Turkey knows that any such stability will not be limited to its neighbors and at the very least will jumpstart a period of great instability and regional conflict dynamics. This is the reason Turkey has opposed the invasion of Iraq and the following sectarian politics. A search for peace and prosperity through security, stability and integration is the basis of Turkey’s foreign policy direction.

Before the Arab Spring, this attitude had allowed Turkey to form positive relations with the countries of the region. At the time, even if through an iron fist, authoritarian politicians ensured stability and security in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Is it possible to argue that at the time Turkey pursued policies to undermine those regimes? In any case Turkey did not even have the capacity to do such a thing. Once the streets started galvanizing in these countries, the regimes started failing to be elements of stability, When they realized they could not contain the streets, they either gave up and resigned like in Egypt, or engaged in some of the worst massacres in history, like in Syria.

What Turkey did was to prefer a stability based on legitimacy provided by elected governments to one that was provided by oppressive regimes. Provided transitions would be bloodless and carried out without disrupting public authority, Turkey would naturally prefer democratic governments, because it saw these in line with its regional integration policies.

Snapshots Change, Processes Carry On

In this chaotic process we are going through, the alliances on both the battle and diplomatic fields can shift on a monthly, sometimes even weekly basis. The various groups on the field that the intelligence organizations work with, whose number at one point exceeded a thousand, can switch sides quite often. For example, the PYD/YPG organization has collaborated with the US, Russia, the Syrian regime and ISIS over the course of the conflict in Syria.

The US, which is Turkey’s biggest ally within NATO, is Turkey’s biggest opponent on the field in Syria. At the same time, Russia, which is an enemy within the context of NATO, is Turkey’s ‘tactical ally’ in Syria as of the writing of this book.

Turkey and Syria, regional and global powers respectively, had relations so strained at some point in the process that they almost went into active conflict (the shooting down of the Russian plane in November 2014), but managed after a while to act together against a third global actor (August 2016 Euphrates Shield operation and January 2018 Afrin operations). While Russia gave the PYD/YPG sophisticated weapons at the height of the airplane crisis in late 2014, in January 2018 it almost handed over the PKK to Turkey in Afrin.

When the situation on the ground is this fluid, all of the actors proceed by making nearly daily evaluations. There are no clear actors that know where events are leading to, have a bird’s eye view of the entire picture or are able to manipulate that picture for itself. Negotiations are carried out in the one step forward-two steps back fashion, or the exact opposite.

In these circumstances, analyses that depend on daily snapshots are bound to be misleading; the most rational thing to do seems to be following the process. When evaluating these subjects, there seems to be a tendency to look at the present and convict the decisions of the past from that point of view. For instance, the criticism that the policies that were employed thinking Assad would be toppled have been wrong because he remains in place.

There can be no policy that says “I will stand by the people if the regime is toppled, but I will stand with the regime if not.”

Who could have predicted that the protests that started in January 2011 in Egypt would topple a dictator like Hosni Mubarak within 17 days? When by June and July 2011, two grand dictators like Mubarak and Qaddafi had been toppled, how many believed that Assad, who represented a minority in his own country, would manage to stay put? It might have been predicted that Russia would support the regime till the end, but was it equally easy to foresee that the US would do a complete 180 degree turn on its policy of removing Assas even before a full year passed since the first protests, in September 2012?

When the Egyptian regime was quaking, the Turkish prime minister called on the Egyptian leader “to listen to his people and leave,” a speech that more than half a million Egyptian youth listened to on Tahrir Square and chanted “Turkey” after. Mobarak was toppled in the following days after that speech. Then came Mohammad Mursi, who was preparing to form a strategic alliance with Turkey.

Was it possible to call Turkish foreign policy “a failure” in those days?

If after Erdogan’s speech Mubarak had not been toppled and had remained in power, would Turkish foreign policy be deemed a failure? Only two years later, pro-status quo powers toppled Mursi in a counter-coup and brought Abdulfettah Sisi, in a way Mubarak’s successor, to power.

Did Turkey’s Egypt policy become a failure in that moment?

I write this to show that the analyses of Turkey’s foreign policy are usually not made at the right time and on the right bases. Certain moves can be criticized, but the strategy as a whole cannot be ruled either right or wrong by looking at temporary snapshots. Because at the end of the day, it is still a dynamic process on the field with many factors at play.

Another example would be ISIS and Iraq.

When ISIS captured Mosul, the second biggest city in Iraq, in June 2014, it created a traumatizing effect in the Middle East. A radical group had effectively changed the Syria-Iraq map drawn up in 1916 by British and French diplomats. Sunni-majority regions of Syria and Iraq had de facto been united under the ISIS flag.

That was the snapshot of the day.

The whole world become preoccupied with analyses on the “Islamic State.” The situation seemed permanent. 

Before three years passed, ISIS has been pushed out of not only Mosul, but its own headquarters in the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor region of Syria. It has been largely brought down as an organization on the field, let alone a state.

As this example shows, the snapshots change, but the process continues without a clear end in sight.

Let us look at another example:

When ISIS captured Mosul, Kurdish groups connected to the KDP took advantage of the situation to capture the regions designated “contested areas” in the Iraqi constitution. Among these areas was Kirkuk, whose final status was a sensitive matter for Turkey ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Iraqi Kurds needed the oil in Kirkuk for the survival of an independent Kurdish state. And now they had it.

That was the snapshot of the day from northern Iraq and it was, again, traumatizing.

Three years after forcibly taking the contested areas, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) held a referendum on independence, declaring that the people had voted for it.

What happened then?

In 2017, the central government in Baghdad made a counter move, forcibly pushing out all Kurdish groups out of the contested regions, taking those areas under the control of the central government. Masoud Barzani’s KDP had bit off more than it could chew.

Now we face a new picture in that region, the permanence of which we can’t be sure of.

Another example from Turkey:

Turkey carried the peace process with Kurds, which it started in 2009,  to its farthest point in March 2013. Per the negotiations with Ocalan, the PKK had started to move its armed forces out of Turkey.

A century old conflict was about to be resolved.

That was the snapshot of the day.

But that snapshot changed.

No one could have predicted that in a few years, a new bloodbath would start. The PKK decided that the developments in Syria were more to their advantage, and sabotaged the entire process. The violence started the following year.

There is a new snapshot now, but the process continues.

The Old and New Generations of Diplomats

One group who frequently criticise Turkish foreign policy are ‘retired diplomats,’ or the Hariciye group.

Leaving Harbiye, or the Military College, aside, it should be noted that together with Mulkiye and Maliye, the administration and the treasury, Hariciye, or the diplomatic corps, is one of the three pillars holding the state up since the Ottomans. These three pillars of the state each have their own institutional culture. The most qualified state officials have always been brought up from within this institutional tradition.

Unlike Mulkiye and Maliye, members of the Hariciye always maintain a connection to the outside of world as a requirement of their profession, and perhaps this worldly knowledge is what makes their cadres the most qualified among all state officials. A significant part of these cadres today are critical of Turkish foreign policy. As people who have long served the state, represented the country abroad and have experience, it is reasonable to listed to what they have to say and benefit from their experience as much as possible.[4] The problem is that the common point in many of these analyses seems to be that they were formed within the context of the Cold War mentality and reflect the reasoning and spirit of that era.

The view point espoused by these people for a long time after the Arab Spring was thus: ‘Turkey should not disrupt its relationships with allies.’ We don’t know whether there are retired diplomats at the Foreign Affairs Ministries in England, France and Germany who say ‘We shouldn’t damage our relationship with our ally Turkey,’ but it is debatable which side has more to do with damaging relations.

One thing is certain: Since 2014, when it comes to Syria Turkey has been treated in a way that does not match with laws of allyship. Its biggest ally, the United States, has finished handing 4 thousand 900 trucks full of weapons and ammunition to the PKK as these lines are being written. This ally sees no problem in leaving Turkey’s entire southern border to the PKK’s control. The same ally is hosting the leader of the organization that planned a coup, bombed the Parliament and attempted to kill the president. Just as there is no need to reinvent the wheel, there is no need to ‘discover’ that the July 15 coup attempt was carried out by the Gulen organization. Hundreds of statements in tens of indictments, communication logs, events, persons, facts, and confessions have laid it out perfectly clear. Despite all this and despite the evidence folder consisting of hundreds of files, the US neither wants to extradite the leader nor deport him. And they do this by ignoring the bilateral agreement of extradition of criminals they have with Turkey.

In summary, when the evidence clearly shows that the US sees Turkey more as an opponent rather than an ally, what is the logic of saying ‘let’s not damage our relations with out ally?’

One of Turkey’s most important European allies within NATO is Germany. After July 15, our German allies has granted asylum to ‘officers’ belonging to the Gulen organization. The head of German intelligence Bruna Kahl has said, “I don’t believe the July 15 coup attempt was carried out by the Gulan Movement.” [5] The German authorities refuse to allow the Turkish president to speak at a conference in Germany via satellite, but see no problem with PKK leaders addressing crowds in Berlin from Qandil.

These are the allies we are supposed to get along with.

Some of the old guard among the Hariciye community believes in something the opposition also echoes: ‘We should not get involved in the swamp of the Middle East.”

The eight years since the eruption of the Arab Spring have proven this approach incongruous with life’s realities. The Middle East is our region and whether it’s a flower garden or swamp, it has an impact on us. If it’s a garden, you can inhale the smell of roses coming from there, and if it’s a swamp, you will be facing the terror attacks, flow of refugees and the geopolitical risks associated with your neighbors’ disintegration.

American policies in Iraq since 2003 have de facto broken in Iraq up. After 2013-2014, a similar policy was implemented in Syria. These two countries make up 1,200 kilometers of Turkey’s southern border.

It might be hard for this older generation to go beyond these 40-year-old mental reflexes but the country still expects them to say new things based on the new conditions. The conflicts occupying the Cold War era diplomats mostly concerned the Greek-Cypriot-Aegean issues and the European Union. Reading the memoirs of Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil, who headed the MFA for years during rhe Cold War, or Kamuran Gurun, who worked there for 35 years and rose up to Undersecretary makes this clear. If you took out the parts about Greece and Cyprus from these memoirs, not much else is left.

The alliances during their time did not shift on a weekly or monthly basis. In the bi-polar world order of the Cold War this was not possible. One is dealing with diplomats who tried to represent their countries within an established order of two opposing sides. They did their work mostly in cities like Brussels, Strasbourg, Geneva and Paris and in the hallways of organizations like NATO, CENTO and ETO.

In a bipolar world, you had no opportunity to look at whatever was going on outside of your own polar. There wouldn’t be any grand occasion to necessitate such an involvement.

Our region is no longer stagnant like in the Cold War years when these diplomats were active. That international conjuncture no longer exists. We don’t mean to say that the diplomats of that era had it easy, because the events of those years were also destructive - the Cyprus operation, Islamic Revolution in Iran and its effects, the assassinations of the Armenian ASALA organization on Turkish diplomats. What we are trying to emphasize is the change in scale.

For instance, in the past, an assignment in a capital like Athens was dangerous; today what is the weight of Athens in Turkish foreign policy? Is it even possible to compare the significance of Athens for Turkish diplomacy to that of Baghdad’s or Tehran’s? Both cities used to be the kind of places scorned by these former MFA officials, places they couldn’t wait to leave after an assignment to Europe. [6]

No offense to the diplomats on assignment in Brussels but today even working in the “NATO capital” carries only so much weight. Instead certain embassies in critical points are much more meaningful and functional than those in most Western capitals.

Post-Cold War, but especially in the chaotic period after the Arab Spring, the shock of the geopolitical earthquake happening around Turkey is felt in the walls of the MFA in Ankara. One wonders if the memoirs, should they ever write them, of the diplomats who were there during this period, such as Feridun Sinirlioglu or Umit Yalcin, would resemble those who came before them.

In short, experience matters but the analyses of diplomats who spent their entire professional careers in another era cannot address many of the issues of today’s geopolitics.

Asked about alternative foreign policies, they fail to propose an alternative approach capable of addressing the new realities of the region and is also tangible, applicable and consistent.

The attitude that can be summed up in ‘Let’s not damage our relationship with allies’ and ‘let’s not get involved in the Middle East’ have no theoretical currency anymore, let alone on the field. The older generation of diplomats have failed to provide an alternative analyses that has some depth and offers any solutions. While the entire region is being shook by a colossal geopolitical earthquake, all they can propose is a return to the isolationist policies of the Cold War era centered around Washington and Brussels.

The Past and Present Meaning of the ‘Peace at Home, Peace in the World’ Motto

Some try to justify their view on “not getting involved in the Middle East” on Ataturk’s “Peace at Home, Peace in the World” motto. For example, columnist Ertugrul Ozkok writes, “It is now time to go back to the era of wise diplomats that were at one point scorned as ‘mon chers,’ that is, to go back to Ataturk’s ‘peace at home, peace in the world’ wisdom.”[7]

It is clear what geopolitical circumstances Ataturk uttered this phrase in. It was the 1920s. Ataturk spoke for a country that lost a great deal of its land and people in wars, was weakened and struggling to stand back up on whatever territory it managed to defend. Turkey was, in Ataturk’s own words, ‘a ravaged country standing on the edge of a cliff… coming out of years of war… and bloody struggles with various enemies.’ [8]


‘Peace at home, peace in the world,’ is an expression of the young Turkish Republic’s attempt to pull itself together in the post-war period. Explaining the circumstances in which the ‘ultimate motto of status-quo maintenance’ was formulated, Professor Baskin Oran writes:

“After the War of Independence, Turkey was in no state to turn outward unless threatened. It was a period of rebuilding; strengthening the regime and the state domestically. There were wounds to heal, Westernizing reforms to pass and a Kurdish rebellion to suppress. Meanwhile some leaders had to be purged…”[9]

Moreover, who could object to a humanitarian approach such as ‘peace at home, peace in the world’? Against the backdrop of today’s circumstances and bitter geopolitical competition, this motto works more as a wish than a strategic approach.

It is clear that Turkey can not play an effective role in any regional development that it is not an active part of. Those who insist ‘we should not get involve’ must answer this: If we hadn’t gotten involved with events in Syria, would northern Syria, from Qamishli to Afrin, not be left to the PYD/YPG? In other words, would America’s envisioning of northern Syria have been otherwise? If Turkey had stayed away and not partaken in Euphrates Shield and Afrin operations, would we have been better off?

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a realist and a patriotic soldier. If he was alive today to see Turkey encircled from the south by organizations that pose an existential threat to it, would he keep silent saying ‘peace at home peace in the world’? After all, we know how sensitive the topic of Hatay was for him by the end of the 1930s. If one looks at Hatay’s place on a map, they would see the continuum of strategic reasoning between today’s military operations in Afrin and Ataturk’s attention to Hatay.

People who were trying to explain in 2003 why Turkey had to invade Iraq with the US by writing that “Turkey is the strongest country in the region,” and that “it couldn’t dare ignore the developments in its own region,” need to explain why they are writing pieces today trying to keep Turkey away from the playing field at a time the region’s fate is being rewritten. These words from 2003 belong to Ertugrul Ozkok:

“We must ask ourselves this question: Are we going to be able to say ‘So what’ to any new circumstances that this war will create? When the power balance in the region is shifting, are we going to be able to stand aside and say ‘to hell with them’? … The last time borders were redrawn in this region, we were unfortunately on the losing side. It was the early 1900s and we were busy breaking up a large empire. Look at the consequences, at the cost for us and for the region because we weren’t at that table… The last time this region was reorganized, we were nothing but leftovers from a weak empire. Today we are the strongest state of the region. We cannot stand by as borders that were drawn despite us the last time are being redrawn again, despite as again. Doing so would mean giving up the claim to being a strong and great state. If Turkey says ‘I’ll stay out of this,’ it might have to pay for it for another 50 years.”[10]

Turkey got involved in the matters of the Middle East during the Cold War, but those all those interventions were done in the name of the bloc that Turkey was a part of. Since 2003, Turkey has been intervening in matters with direct impact on itself on its own behalf. Those who distort the meaning of the ‘peace at home, peace in the world’ motto and say Turkey should stay away from events happening in its own region are playing into the hands of Turkey’s opponents.

A note to the ‘let’s not get involved’ camp:

If you looked at the energy lines map of Iraq, you could see the Mosul-Haifa pipeline that was initiated by the British between 1935-1948 and lies dead today. The 942-kilometer-long pipeline carried oil from Mosul to Haifa, where it was processed before it was used as fuel by British and American forces in the region. It was shut down after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

Today, the oil from northern Iraq is able to reach international markets exclusively through Turkey (the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline). This line is one of the biggest geopolitical trump cards in Turkey’s possession. It is also vitally important for Turkey that the immense quantities of oil and natural gas found in the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq would also be carried into international markets through Turkish soil, a process that has already started. A shift in the balance of power in this region that we are implored ‘not to get involved in’ would mean a change in the routes of these pipelines. Do people believe that Iraqi oil going through the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik is not significant?

We see that Russia, an oil and gas giant, has started to make serious investments in Northern Iraq, buying or partnering with companies there. How do we know that Russia will not want to transfer that oil and gas to the Mediterranean through Syria, rather than Turkey?

Do these pundits claim that if Iraqi Arab and Iraqi Kurdish oil was to reach the Mediterranean through Syria, bypassing Turkey, this would not flip the picture completely against Turkey?

The moment Turkey loses control over the transfer routes of Iraqi energy sources into the Mediterranean, it will start to lose much more. Is the course that PKK cantons are established on in northern Syria not obvious?

It is striking that this ‘do not get involved’ approach is quite harmonious with the position of actors bothered by Turkey’s new profile in the region. The anger they feel towards the government has pushed some intellectuals to support Turkey’s opponents.

Between 2003-2018, Turkish foreign policy has been carried out in an autonomous fashion incomparable to previous years. The patronage-based relationship with global actors, the US especially, has been nearly reset in this period. (Examples of this autonomous foreign policy are numbered in the Crises with the US section)

The history of Turkish foreign policy includes decisions that were taken under the pressure of reelpolitik, or rather as a reflection of the patronage relationship Turkey had with the West and the US. These were shameful positions that the Turkish state or the nation would rather forget, but remembering some of them would illustrate the importance of today’s ‘national positioning.’

The First Muslim Country to Recognize Israel

When Israel was established in 1948, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize that state, in less than a year in March 1949. Up until that moment 30 countries had recognized Israel, but there was not a single Muslim nation among them. Why was Turkey in such a hurry to recognize a country that occupied Palestinian lands and ethnically cleansed Palestinians? Did the Turkish people agree with this decision, particularly the decision to become the first Muslim country to take this step? How did the Arab world and the larger Muslim world react to this decision? How did the Christian countries of Europe react?

No matter what anyone says, as a successor of the Ottoman Empire, which rules Palestinian lands for hundreds of years and rejected financial assistance offered to it in exchange for a Jewish state on those lands, Turkey’s becoming the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel was a traumatic event. In Turkish Foreign Policy, edited by Baskin Oran, Cagri Erhan and Omer Kurkcuoglu write the following on the motives behind the decision:

 “The pro-Western foreign policy adopted by Turkey after the Second World War required this decision… Wishing to join NATO once it was formed, Turkey thought it necessary to sync its foreign policy to that of its potential allies. Plus [Foreign Minister Necmettin] Sadak was to meet with President Truman in April in Washington. Since Ankara needed more political and financial support from the US, they thought to make this gesture for Truman, who followed a firmly pro-Israeli policy.”[11]

Turning Our Back on Algeria

During the Cold War years, a similarly traumatizing decision was taken regarding Algeria. Between 1954 and 1962, led by FLN (Front de liberation nationale), the Algerians carried out a great liberation struggle against France. They were defending their own land against a colonial power. More than a million Algerians died during the struggle.

When in 1957 it was faced with the vote on Algerian independence from French colonialism, Turkey did not support it in a denial of its own identity and history, and voted in France’s favor. Algeria’s first president Ahmed Bin Bella has said that Turkey’s pro-France vote at the UN was a great disappointment, and that they did not expect such a vote from a Muslim country, especially one whose anti-imperialist war of independence Algerians supported.

In his first statements after coming to power, Algeria’s second president Boumediene expressed anger and sadness at Turkey for taking a stance by France. Years later, during a state visit, president Turgut Ozal apologized to Algeria for past votes. In an article on Turkey’s relationship to the Middle East in the 1950s, Melek Firat and Omer Kurkcuoglu write:

“In order to maintain its relationship with the West and prove it was a loyal ally, Turkey carried out policies that opposed independence wars. Considering the importance of the Turkish War of İndependence against imperialism for the Third World, it is clear how much of a blow it was to relations with the countries of the region when starting in 1954 the Menderes government took a stance against Algeria’s war of independence against France.” [12]

Supporting Britain and France in the Suez Crisis

In July 1956, the Arab nationalist administration of Nasser announced that it was nationalizing the Suez Canal. This was their right. The Canal was under British control, and Nasser’s announcement was met with fury by Britain and France, the two countries that transported the oil they got from the Persian Gulf through the Canal. The tension turned into conflict when on July 26, Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. Turkey stood with Britain and France in this crisis.

Turkey attended the Suez Conference in August 1956, which Egypt boycotted, and supported the Dulles Plan proposed here. Even Greece, which was part of the same block as Turkey, did not attend in solidarity with Egypt but Turkey still did. Ambassador Nuri Birgi, who represented Turkey at the conference, made the following remarks in support of the Dulles Plan:

“We are a Muslim nation… We support the Arab countries in their struggle for freedom and independence. One of our biggest wishes is that Arab countries attain independence as soon as possible. However, we see no harm in putting the Suez Canal under an independent and international management and control in terms of Egypt’s independence and integrity.”[13]

When the conflict between Egypt and Britain and France would not be resolved with diplomacy, it turned into war. Israel attacked Egypt on behalf of Britain and France, both of which also sent soldiers to the Canal. This became one of the major crises turning into active conflict during the Cold War era.[14]

Despite having waged its own struggle for sovereignty over the Bosphorus Straits within its territory, Turkey refused to give Egypt the same right. The reason had less to do with Egypt itself and everything to do with Turkey’s obligation to go along the Western bloc. In other words, Turkey had to voice the West’s standpoint, not its own.

Carrying Out Foreign Policy with a Knife in the Back

The phrase “Turkey set up its tent on the hyenas’ road” is telling both in terms of Turkey’s value in the eyes of the opposing power centers and in terms of the character of these opponents. 

Since 2011, the Turkish state is not only implementing a foreign policy in the Middle East, it is waging a struggle for existence. The most important power element the state has in this struggle is the Turkish military of course. And that was where opponents dealt Turkey the biggest blow.

When waging this struggle, it did not occur to Turkey that almost half of the 325 generals in its army could be treacherous. Out of all figures in the armed forces that carry the General rank, 171 turned out to have a Gulen connection.

The treason was not limited to that.

Nearly half of fighter pilots in the Turkish Air Force were revealed to have a FETO connection. The state realized that the loyalties of the 250 pilots trusted with Turkish jets lied elsewhere. They proved their loyalty by bombing their own people and the Turkish Parliament.

Because if this treason, Turkey was almost unable to fly its planes on its southern border, where it was waging a great struggle.

The Turkish Military Forces, the most important element of power in Turkey, was punctured from the inside. In the final analysis, Turkey faced the biggest treason in its history at a time it was struggling to maintain its territorial integrity.

Turkey only realized it was involved in a struggle of this magnitude while dealing with such treason in July 2016. Had the July 15 coup been successful, that would be a disaster for Turkey. The fact that it failed transformed it into an opportunity.

I have written before how if nothing else, the Arab Spring heightened the consciousness of the Arab nations and created a widespread awareness in the future, in other words created an incredible enlightenment. The most tangible contribution of the Arab Spring to Turkey was that it led to the outing and, to the most extent, liquidation of this treacherous organization.

It was only revealed later how these generals locked down on the critical decision-making mechanisms at the highest echelons of the state. A former minister told us he only made sense of certain blocking moves taken at key meetings after July 15, retrospectively He said, “I never understood why that general always objected, I kept wondering if he knew something we didn’t. When he took part in the July 15 coup the picture became clear.”

The state only realized after the July 15 event that a traitor headed the Target Detection and Evaluation Unit, which coordinated the air movements against the PKK and determined the targets to strike. That “general” was the very person that organized the team tasked with assassinating the president on the night of the coup.

Journalist Abdulkadir Selvi shares the following information in his book: “They kept leaking the army’s operations. Many measures were taken after several anti-PKK operations were leaked, going as far as only informing the pilots of their targets once they were in the air.”[15]

At the toughest point of this geopolitical struggle, the commander of the unit known as the Maroon Berets, the special operations team on the field in Syria, was a member of this treacherous organization. This was one of the bitter facts to emerge out of July 15 and shake Turkey.

The general named Semih Terzi tried to go from Silopi to Ankara on the night of the coup in order to mobilize the special forces to overthrow the government. He was among the three most critical figures of the coup.

You are waging a merciless war with your opponents in Syria, while your special forces there are headed by an agent of those same opponents. If Turkey faced the biggest treachery of its history at this particular moment, this must mean something.

This is the organization that wiretapped the most sensitive conversations on Syria between the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Undersecretary and the Second in Command of the Armed Forces through a bug in the latter’s briefcase, and posted it on social media to damage Turkey.

This organization has dealt Turkey the biggest blow in history, at a moment when it became obvious Turkey could disrupt the game plan of its opponents.

The size of the treason in fact points at the depth of the struggle.

The July 15 move was a coup that they hoped would result in Turkey’s submission, but they failed.

The moment they failed, Turkey became stronger, and the state was able to actually use its power. Once the cadres loyal to the treacherous organization were weeded out, the state was able to take consequential actions. The success of the Euphrates Shield and Afrin Operations is thanks to this cleanse.

The biggest treason was within the army, but it wasn’t limited to that.

The ammunition sent to the groups adherent to Turkey in Syria by the National Intelligence Organization was covered in a slander campaign that claimed “Turkey is sending arms to ISIS,” aiming to corner the country on the international stage and create a disadvantage against opponents. 

While the debate on its success went on, these were the circumstances in which Turkey’s foreign policy was carried out.

Observations on the Region

Let us finish this section by enumerating a few observations on the process starting from 2011 and coming up to the moment this book was written:

1)   The borders that were drawn up after the First World War have started to change both due to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and factors such as the Arab Spring. This is the first time in a century that the region is being shaken to its core. There is a sort of geopolitical earthquake taking place.

2)  The order that was set up a hundred years ago no longer functions but the large actors or the guardians of the status quo would not allow a change that the people ask for. Instead of taking constructive steps to stop conflict in the region and establish peace, these actors continue to bolster their own order with steps that cause more chaos, which disrupt the region’s internal dynamics and, most importantly, normalization process. The main instrument of this normalization was the democratization that emerged with the Arab Spring. The process was first stifled in Syria, and then the status quo was reinstated with the Sisi coup in Egypt.

3) The global actors US and Russia are effective in pushing the processes in the region but at the end of the day lack the competence to  single-handedly dictate them. In 1916, it was impossible to speak of a regional actor that could stand up against Britain, France and Russia. When these three managed to agree, they were able to build the system they wanted, and they have: Only two of them have managed to build and prop up a number of new countries in the Middle East.

Today no actor possesses this kind of power.

The global and regional actors are only able to achieve results when they form alliances and even then the end result is not enough to complete the picture. As a country that invaded Iraq in March 2003, the US does not have a grip on what’s going on in the country right now. Its mighty military power can achieve results as a ‘destructive force’ but not as a building one. It is able to destroy existing structures but cannot, on its own, build a lasting peace. It also cannot impose its policies on other actors towards building a new system. The US destroyed Iraq with its military power, but failed to impose its hegemony on the resulting pieces. Iraqi Kurds that ‘cooperated’ with them during Iraq’s invasion have been able to enter strategic negotiations with Turkey over the oil that comes out of their own land, despite America’s protests, and sign 49-year agreements. The largest military power in the world is not able to break Iran’s sway over a country it is occupying and is forced into tactical agreements with them.

When it comes to Russia, despite also being a global power, it is only able to have a say in areas that the US has withdrawn from. Additionally, Russia is also unable to set up its own system. The Russians have managed, for now, to keep Bashar Assad in power, but have not managed to have him rule over the entire country. Looking at the power equations, even an alliance between these two global powers is not sufficient for lasting peace in the region. To build a strong ‘structure’ that cannot be easily demolished, at least two global powers are required to take responsibility in addition to a regional power. We say ‘at least’ because there are areas where even this composition will not be sufficient.

4)  Iran and Turkey are the rising powers in the region. In addition to its 80 million-strong population and established state tradition, Iran has the capacity to put tens of thousands of militias onto the field, which makes it impossible for Russia or the US to have free reign over the Middle East. This was proven definitively in Iraq after the the US occupation, and to a certain extent in Syria after the Arab Spring. Similarly, it has become obvious that certain projects cannot be fulfilled on the field despite a country like Turkey, which has a state tradition, controls transitions between East-West and North-South and has significant economic and military capacity. Specifically, the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations have proven that an Israel-like puppet state cannot be established on the southern borders of such a country.

5) The general picture on the field is composed of the active conflict between these large and small powers. Global actors like the US and Russia, and regional ones like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel agree on the continuation of the status quo. Iran and Israel are enemies, but both are against determining the government in Syria through free elections. Iran supports a democratic change of government in Egypt, because that country is a US puppet, but opposes it in Syria. Saudi Arabia, for instance, might not oppose a change in Syrian government through popular vote, but opposes the same thing in Egypt.  

6)   In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, state authority is effectively out of commission. The decisions adopted in the capitals of these countries are impossible to implement in the entire country, which only deepens the environment of confusion and chaos in these countries. Even though all four are Arab countries, Iranian influence on their decision-making processes is evident. The region had never seen Iranian influence becoming this far-flung. Specifically, Iran owes its sway over Iraq to the US invasion. This was the most tangible outcome of the strategic blindness of consecutive US administrations.

8)  Western actors led by the US have lost their moral and discursive superiority in terms of democracy, human rights and free elections. Barack Obama, who only three years prior was delivering a message of ‘it’s time for democracy for Egypt,’ kept silent in the face of the democratic demands of the Egyptian people. Then he effectively supported the military coup that quelled those demands violently. The new American president Donald Trump doesn’t even have an ostensible agenda of democracy, law or human rights. ‘Global leadership’ does not take up much space on the agenda of a president whose platform was ‘America First.’ The other global power, Russia, historically does not have space for concepts such as humanitarian aspect or democracy in its strategic vision. The Russians are more honest in this regard compared to Western players.


6) The main competition in the region is not over ethnic tensions or sectarian conflict. The main conflict is geopolitical; ethnic or sectarian tensions are used to mask this main struggle. Geopolitical tensions also further sharpen ethnic and sectarian differences. Iran and Saudi Arabia are countries that fuel sectarian tension and aim to come out of it with a geopolitical upper hand, but it should not be forgotten both are representatives of minority groups -Wahhabiism and Shiism-  in the Islamic thought system.

7) Both the great and regional actors are waging a struggle for dominance in the region. But they do it through proxies. In other words, proxy wars dominate the region as larger actors stay behind the curtain. This makes the situation on the field even more convoluted, especially because proxy groups change sides and are divided into factions, with the new factions then forming alliances with different actors.

8)   One of the main sources of tensions in the region is between the Turkish model, of which Turkey is the last representative in the region, and the authoritarian mode. If Turkey, as a Muslim country, is the only success story in the region, it is clear that that story would be a ‘bad example’ for those who want the continuation of the status quo in the region.

As a state, Turkey is the last castle of reformist powers.

Towards a solution to ‘the Eastern Question’

1871 is a turning point in Europe’s history. Unification of Germany happened that year thanks to Otto von Bismarck’s carefully planned maneuvering. Thus Germany had become one of the major players of the time along with Britain, France, Russia and the Austia-Hungarian Empire.

The Germans then took on one of the fastest development moves history had ever seen and by early 1900s acquired the power to threaten Britain and France, and of course Russia. Emperor Wilhelm II’s Germany now started to demand its place under the sun, which meant demanding new areas to colonize for the rising German economy. When this new European power went out to look for colonies, like Britain and France had once done, it realized almost all valuable land on Earth was ‘booked.’

There was not much space under the sun for the Germans. The German Emperor Wilhelm II, however, was very ambitious. He was determined to make Germany into Weltmacht, a world power. When he looked at the world map in Berlin, he saw areas to conquer. Moreover, he believed he possessed the power to do that. He wasn’t wrong either. In early 1900s, his country was the biggest land power in Europe and the biggest economy, along with Britain. It was impossible for such a country to not want access to sea and be sequestered in the middle of Europe.

At the Imperial Palace in Berlin of early 1900s, all conditions were in place for imperial dreams. 

During the same time, at Sultan Abdulhamid’s Yildiz Palace in Istanbul, anxiety and pessimism prevailed.

The years following 1871 when Germany was rapidly rising were the last stages of the Ottoman Empire’s 150-years long recession and collapse period. The great state appeared to own an enormous area, but in reality its rule had no meaning on these lands. Sultan Hamid was ostensibly the ruler of Egypt and Yemen, but he did not even have control Cyprus, let alone these places. His only priority was the survival of the Empire, and if possible doing it without losing anymore territory.

He was aware that the tsars of Russia, ever since Catherine’s rule, never lost their appetite for Istanbul and the Straits, and were looking for an opportunity for nearly a century to move in.[16] In the very first year of him ascending on the throne, the Russian tsar’s army had come as close as Yesilkoy. The trick played by history on the Ottoman state was that Russia’s rise had coincided with its own decline.

That is why, while imperial dreams were dreamt in Berlin and St. Petersburg, the state in Istanbul was in survival mode.

For a while now, the Ottoman state had been propped up by Britain, instead of standing up on its own power.

The Empire that the sun never set on did not want the shadow of Russian tsars falling on the road leading to India, the crown jewel. That had been the guiding principle of British policies in this region for a hundred years. This was the policy behind their dominion over Egypt and Cyprus. Istanbul and the Straits were on the route to India, which is the reason they had kept Russia away from it for so long.

Until the German state entered the stage and started its rise, Britain had the policy of ‘Splendid Isolation,’ in the words of famous politician Lord Salisbury, and not getting involved in the affairs of continental Europe. The emergence of Germany as a new center of power in Europe and a threat to Britain made it impossible to continue this policy. If the Germans wanted to have their place under the sun they would have to take it from Britain. The Queen’s massive and unparalleled navy guaranteed the continuation of the empire, but Germany, with its much larger land forces, was attempting to enter the maritime competition as well.

Securing the route to India was still important but Britain new faced a German threat in its own neighborhood. Germany constructing colossal shipyards and building war ships on top of its already humongous land forces worried Britain. In time this worrying would lead way to anxiety and then panic.

The British simply could not lose their dominion in the seas to Germans, they knew this would mean the end of their empire. By 1905, Britain and German were involved in a sharp Anglo-German naval arms race, or dreadnought, spending millions of sterlings and marks on adding new war ships to their navies.[17]


Realizing they could not continue with the ‘Splendid Isolation’ policy any longer, the British set out to look for new alliances. An alliance with France did not hold much value in terms of their struggle against Germany, since France did not possess such power to stop Germany. The only power capable of doing that was Russia, with its equally large land army.

When the British king knocked on his door with an alliance offer, the Russian tsar knew exactly what he was going to be asked. It was something he had wanted many times before but could not get from Britain. This time London was ready to give it up in the face of the German threat. The price of the Russian alliance was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, and the Straits.

When George V, the British king, and Nicholas II, the Russian tsar met in Reval (today’s Tallinn, the capital of Estonia), they were about to draw up the fate of the Ottoman state.

It Was Never About Sultan Hamid

There was no obstacle anymore for Russians to erase the  “sick man,” ie. the Ottoman Empire, from history. Britain would just no longer hold their hand while they got impatient to attend the patient’s funeral.

The ‘Eastern question’ was about to be resolved.

As it was resolved, the Ottoman intelligentsia of the time was not aware of the gravity of the situation. They blamed Sultan Hamid for what was happening to the Empire.

As the Reval Meeting took place between the British King and the Russian Tsar, it was Sultan Hamid’s 31st year on the throne in Istanbul.

For the intellectuals and the opposition of the time, Abdulhamid II was the source of all evil. Moreover,  they believed that if only this plague would be dethroned from the Yildiz Palace,  the empire would be rid of all its problems. They also believed that this tyrannical regime was responsible for the rebellions against the Ottomans in the Balkans. In their view, these rebellions were as a result of bad governance.

The cadres of the Union and Progress Party, which had long been trying to overthrow Abdulhamid through secret societies, agreed. Sultan Hamid would leave, and all troubles would come to an end. One of the active journalists of the time, Ahmet Emin Yalman, explains the outlook of the intellectuals in the opposition at the time:

“During Abdulhamid’s absolute rule, Turkish patriots who dreamed of the future always held on to this sweet thought. One day we will have freedom. This magical pill will cure everything. All ills will disappear, everything that is broken will suddenly be fixed. Britain, which gave us a hand during the Crimean war, who wants us to be strong and healthy, to progress, will embrace us once again as soon as the absolute rule is removed. It will protect us from Russian imperialism...”[18]

That was a fantasy. The situation was bigger than Sultan Hamid or the other domestic political actors. The intellectuals of the day could not make proper sense of the rebuilding of the international scene after Germany’s emergence; they failed to see that cards were being redealt, and that these new alliances would give birth to a strategic result that would soon determine their own fates.

Their allergic reaction to Sultan Hamid incapacitated the rational faculties of the intellectuals of the day. Ali Haydar Mithat, son of Mithat Pasha, was a leading intellectual of that period. Just like his father, he was also always close to the British embassy. He was among the intellectuals that placed the blame on Sultan Hamid:

“Because Sultan Hamid sabotaged the interests of the British in the Near East and privileged German politics, handing out even Baghdad to the Germans, there is no possibility for Britain’s Turkey policy to change before Abdulhamid dies.”[19]

That’s what we mean by ‘allergic reaction to Sultan Hamid incapacitating rational faculties.’ Ali Haydar Mithat makes it sound like Britain moved away from the Ottomans because Sultan Hamid allied with Germany.

That is not how history went down, however.

A year after the Reval Meeting, the Second Ottoman Constitution was declared in 1908. Sultan Hamid lost his absolute rule. Following the March 31 Incident the following year, he was removed from power completely, sent into exile in Thessaloniki.

The Committee of Union and Progress was now in power. In those happy and hopeful days a wave of excitement had taken over the whole country. Everywhere was a celebration.

After a while, however, the realities imposed by the larger strategic picture started to get the better of the situation. On October 5, 1908, Bulgaria declared independence. On October 6, Austria decided to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. The same day Crete announced it was merging with Greece. The foundations of the state continued to shatter.

Before the Great War, the states known as Great Powers were not concerned with Sultan Hamid himself, but his policies. Consequently, the Great Powers would come to hate the Committee of Union and Progress that replaced the Sultan, because they too adopted policies that defended their homeland.

As mentioned above, Britain left the Ottoman state facing Russia in order to secure Russian support against the German threat in Europe.

Let us see more from Ahmed Emin Yalman:


               “Unfortunately none of those sweet dreams came true after the declaration of the constitution… We lost the opportunity to drive and manage our own fate. We were pulled into a mysterious darkness… The reality is, cursed webs were all around us. Under every stone were snakes. The great states that conspired to divide up our heritage took up every crooked way to put obstacles in our way, make us into enemies, weaken us, create chaos...” [20]

These lines matter because they show how misleading it is to exaggerate the role played by individuals at the time of great geopolitical earthquakes. Karl Marx was right when he said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

The only solution that Abdulhamid was able to find in the face of this terrifying helplessness was getting closer to Germany. The Committee of Union and Progress, once in power, did the same thing because of the same helplessness. Abdulhamid did not replace pro-British policies with German ones out of nowhere, because he felt like it. He saw that Britain became increasingly detached from the Ottomans, leaving them to Russia. The road to the Reval Meeting wasn’t travelled in a day. 

The Sultan had prolonged the life of the empire by banking on the British-Russian rivalry throughout his entire reign. Once that rivalry disappeared, he tried to see if he could do the same through British-German rivalty, by allying with Germany.

Indeed, after his ousting, those who ousted him were condemned to the same policy.

Before the Great War, the states known as the Great Powers were Britain, France, Russia and Germany. The Ottoman Empire faught all of them during World War I. Notwithstanding the Germans’ nominal alliance with us, the Ottoman lands wetted their appetite too, and that is why for a long time they ignored the CUP’s calls for an alliance.[21]

kelime sayisi: 12364

[1] For the details of this process that was carried on between January and August 2011, see Gürkan Zengin, The Struggle: Turkish Foreign Policy During the Arab Spring, İnkılap Yayınevi, 2013

[2] Eighty-five percent of the Islamic population is Sunni. Therefore it is natural for the majority of political movements leading these populations to be Sunni. Morever, Turkey had perfect relations with the non-Sunni Assad regime between 2002 and 2010. There are countless examples to show Turkey did not follow sectarian policies. For details on this topic, see Hoca: The Davutoglu Effect on Turkish Foreign Policy. Inkilap Yayinevi, 2013.

[3] İsmail Numan Telci, Egypt: Revolution and Counter-Revolution, SETA Publications,  2017, p. 255

[4] The retired diplomats we speak of here are of course not the ones who regularly speak like the spokespeople for actors opposing Turkey. We are talking about those diplomats whose allegiance to Turkey is indisputable.

[5]  Chief of German intelligence Bruno Kahl’s interview by Der Spiegel, 1March 18 2017

[6]For certain diplomats who care less about the weight of their mission than the attractiveness of the city they reside in, Eastern capitals are still less than desirable. I remember, during a visit to the Middle East, a retired diplomat who had served in Baghdad being asked if he learned any Arabic during his tenure in Iraq. He said, “No I didn’t. I didn’t see any need to, and I didn’t feel any curiosity.” 

[7] Hürriyet, April 1 2017

[8] Atatürk’s speech at the Fourth Congress of the CHP, May 1935

[9] Turkish Foreign Policy, İletişim Yayınları, 1st Ed, Editor: Baskın Oran, p. 47,

[10] Hürriyet, February 27 2003, “Turkey will enter the war if mandate fails to pass”

[11] Turkish Foreign Policy, Ed.: Baskın Oran, İletişim Yayınları, Vol 1, 1st Edition, 2001,  p.641

[12] Turkish Foreign Policy,  p. 634

[13]  Leaders in Turkish Foreign Policy,, Ali Faik Demir, Bağlam Araştırma Dizisi, p. 101

[14] Faruk Sönmezoğlu, Turkish Foreign Policy, DER Yayınları, 2006, p. 190

[15] Abdülkadir Selvi, No Way to the Coup, Doğan Kitap, p. 42

[16] Russian tsar Nicholas I was the first to use the phrase ‘sick man,’ a term that went into world politics literature, to refer to the Ottoman Empire. On January 9 1853, the tsar told Hamilton Seymour, the British ambassador in St Petersburg, that ‘this sick man may suddenly die in our arms. If Britain is considering taking over Istanbul at this time, I must say clearly that I will not allow it. This might force me to occupy Istanbul.” The Russians, biggest culprits of the Ottoman’s bedridden state were now worried about burying the body and dividing up the will. But they would have to wait another 50 years to convince Britain to do that.

[17]Between 1912-1913, the budget of the British navy was 45 million sterlings.

[18] Ahmed Emin Yalman, Experiences of Recent History, Cilt 1. p 80

[19] Ali Haydar Mithat, My Memories,, Mithat Akcit Yayını, 1946, İstanbul

[20] Ahmed Emin Yalman, Experiences of Recent History, p. 80

[21] In his novel ‘Morning Prayers in Dersaadet,’ Atilla İlhan writes about what the British representative Sir Adam Block says to Cavit Bey: “If the Central Powers win this war, the Ottoman country will become a colony of Germany. If Allied Powers win, it will be torn apart!” The Allied Powers won the Great War, and the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.  When the Unionists announced the abolition of capitulations at the start of the war in 1914, the biggest reaction had come from the Ottomans’ ally, Germany. In his memoir, Cavit Bey, a leading figure in the Committee of Union of Progress, writes of the German ambassador von Wangenheim, who had come to protest the decision, ‘barking like a bulldog.’