When Turkey invaded Syria as part of Ankara’s long standing meddling in Syria’s battle against proxy terrorism, it represented the principle of what should be called “Neo-Ottomanism in the service of the NATO world order”. This expressed itself in the form of Turkey’s always ambitious President Erdogan attempting to secure Turkish influence in Arab territories of the former Ottoman empire, without any consent from Arab rulers, instead only from the United States. This was true of Turkey’s meddling in Syria prior to the Astana Memoranda which gave Ankara’s presence in Syria some tentative legitimacy, and it also was true during the period when Baghdad criticised Turkey’s presence in Iraq.
Today, while Syria still maintains its legal position that unless invited, Turkish troops do not represent a legitimate force in Syria, Iraq and Turkey have begun an intense cooperation, beginning in earnest with Turkey’s assistance in helping to isolate the renegade autonomous Kurdish region in September of 2017, when Kurdish factions attempted to declare themselves a state. Likewise, Turkey’s cooperation with Syria’s traditional allies Russia and Iran as part of the Astana group, combined with Ankara publicly renouncing ‘regime change’ in Damascus, is indicative that Turkey’s presence in Syria has been reduced in scope to a primarily anti-Kurdish rather than anti-Syrian fighting presence.
Although Turkey today continues to look towards the geographical Ottoman east and south, it’s doing so in a very different way than it did just over a year ago. Today, like the Sultans who oversaw the great trans-Asian shipping routes, Erdogan is looking to China and to One Belt—One Road as a means of bringing greater wealth to Turkey while at the same time diversifying Turkey’ geo-economic portfolio which in the late 20th century had become overly reliant on western trading partners and geographical routes. Likewise, some of the most intense diplomatic efforts Turkey is engaged in are not with Europe but with both Russia and Iran—the Ottoman Empire’s greatest rivals. At the same time, Erdogan has embraced the cause of the Palestinian justice more vocally than any Sunni Arab leader, a sign that Turkey is all too happy to act as a rhetorical and possibly diplomatic mover and shaker in an Arab conflict that of course is taking place within the former borders of the Ottoman Empire.
As opposed to Turkey’s intervention in Syria which was deeply sectarian in nature, Turkey’s diplomatic statements on Palestine have thus far been highly ecumenical and have won the praise of Iran as well as many others throughout the Arab world. This is symptomatic not of Erdogan foregoing his Neo-Ottoman ambitions, but instead pivoting them away from the zero-sum NATO mentality and more towards the Chinese “win-win” mentality as defined in the thought of Xi Jinping. In this sense, the year has seen Turkey transitioning from “Neo-Ottomanism in the service of the NATO World Order” to “Neo-Ottomanism with “win-win” characteristics”. The most apparent trait of Neo-Ottomanism with “win-win” characteristics is Turkey’s ability and eagerness to cooperate with its old Ottoman era foes Russia and Iran. Furthermore, in doing so, Turkey is allowing natural alliances to be built up in the Arab world including in Iraq, Palestine and Qatar, where previously, Ankara’s relationship with the Arab world was sectarian in methodology and antagonistic in terms of a lack of normal diplomacy.
A recently confirmed partnership with Sudan, demonstrates the geographical breadth and geo-political depth of a “win-win” version of neo-Ottomanism. Sudan’s own pivot back to the so-called ‘eastern powers’ was made apparent when recently, President Omar al-Bashir invited Russia to establish a military base in his country. Al-Bashir has also praised China, whose investment in the region, Sudan clearly feels is preferable to that of Washington whom many Sudanese accuse of aiming towards a further destruction of their nation, after previously backing the breakaway statelet of South Sudan.
Ankara and Khartoum have announced plans which will allow Turkey free reign in reconstructing the abandoned but once deeply important Ottoman port of Suakin on the Red Sea. Under the agreement, Suakin will temporarily become effective Turkish territory until the port is formally transferred back to Khartoum. The agreement solidifies Turkey’s pivot towards its old Ottoman realms, but in the spirit of cooperation rather than with the bellicosity which defined and to some extent continues to define Turkey’s meddling in Syria. Furthermore, as Sudan is rapidly pivoting back to the ‘east’ after an overwhelmingly negative post-Cold War experience with the west, it would appear that both Khartoum and Ankara are now contented with the ‘eastern’/’Ottoman’ nature of their new partnership. Moreover, the rebuilding of Port Suakin also demonstrates Turkey directly challenging Saudi Arabia’s position as a self-defined “leader” of the Sunni Muslim world.
When Suakin was a substantial Ottoman Port, it served as a key transit link from East Africa to Mecca for pilgrims on the Hajj. When speaking of the new Port Suakin, Erdogan stated,
“Imagine, people from Turkey wishing to go on pilgrimage will come and visit the historical areas on Suakin Island. From there … they will cross to Jeddah by boat”.
In this sense, Turkey is once again asserting a pivotal role in facilitating the Hajj to Mecca, thus challenging predominate land and air routes into Saudi Arabia’s largest cities.
With Ankara-Riyadh relations continuing to plummet, a renewed Hajj route from Suakin across the Red Sea to Jeddah, may give Turkey a meaningful material stake in the Hajj for future generations. This is exactly the kind of legacy Erdogan seeks for his country, which in terms of social and cultural policy is pivoting away from Ataturk’s secularism and back towards state sanctioned Islam with Ottoman characteristics.
Beyond this, a new Suakin port could easily be yet another of many options for China along the north-east coast of Africa as part of an increasingly important region for One Belt—One Road.
In receiving the Neo-Ottoman “keys” to Port Suakin, Erdogan has achieved the following:
- Turkey has managed to establish a meaningful partnership with an eastward looking Sudan.
- A “new” Turkish port in Africa will almost certainly play a meaningful role in One Belt—One Road
- Turkey is challenging modern Saudi Arabia’s self-styled monopoly over the Hajj, by offering a Neo-Ottoman alternative.
For Turkey, Sudan and in the long term, for China, it is a “win-win” situation based on an old Ottoman atlas.