On the morning of February 22, over 500 Turkish soldiers drove into Syria to extract the remains of Suleyman Shah—grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire—from a small mausoleum on the banks of the Euphrates River. Though Suleyman Shah was never terribly famous or important as far as Ottoman ancestors go, the tomb was part of Turkey according to a 1921 treaty, and its guards were technically on Turkish soil. Since both had been surrounded for months by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted that withdrawing the remains and their guards was a means to protect national honor. “Countries which do not look after their historic symbols cannot build their future,” he said. The opposition, meanwhile, was quick to accuse the government of sacrificing Turkish territory for the first time in nearly a century.

This incursion into Syria has naturally renewed concerns that modern Turkey is, in a manner, exhuming its Ottoman past. Indeed, such accusations arose as early as 1937, only 15 years after the end of the Ottoman Empire, in response to a different territorial conflict with Syria. According to historian Sarah Shields, the French imperial officer Damien de Martel invoked the specter of neo-Ottomanism when Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, demanded that France cede Alexandretta (now the southern Turkish province of Hatay) to Turkey, even though Syrian nationalists considered it an illegal annexation. Ataturk’s demand, as Martel warned at the time, was proof that he would soon “return to the politics of the sultans” and begin a reconquest of the Near East.

From the 1930s to 2015, Turkey has indeed brandished neo-Ottoman rhetoric to support a range of different, even contradictory, policies. Examining the evolution of how this term was used can help explain the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s current foreign policy dilemmas in the Middle East. 

MIND OVER HEART

Ataturk’s foreign policy was largely neutral and isolationist. With the exception of Alexandretta and, briefly, a dispute with the United Kingdom over the Iraqi province of Mosul, he rejected irredentist claims to former Ottoman lands. Largely concerned about keeping what he had from the grasp of Western imperialist powers, Ataturk focused on rebuilding the Turkish state and economy within Anatolia.

This policy changed dramatically, however, with the start of the Cold War. Joining NATO to counter a renewed Soviet threat was, in one sense, an extremely neo-Ottoman policy; for most of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had allied with the United Kingdom, then the preeminent Western superpower, to balance against czarist Russia. With the Truman Doctrine, which provided millions in economic and military aid to Turkey, the United States took Britain’s place.

Unsurprisingly, in the early years of the Cold War, Turkish and American diplomats regularly invoked the Ottomans’ long history of conflict with Russia both to inspire and to use as propaganda. Turkish soldiers fighting in the Korean War were hailed as grandsons of the janissaries, the elite infantry of the sultans. Ottoman war heroes were even rumored to have mystically joined them on the battlefield. But renewing neo-Ottoman rhetoric also brought complications. U.S. diplomats feared it would alienate Turkey’s new ally, Greece, and its newly independent Arab neighbors. At the time, Washington was encouraging Turkey to lead the Middle East, Ottoman style, in an anti-Soviet alliance, but it cautioned Turkey to tread carefully since many Arabs did not have particularly fond memories of the Ottoman Empire.

With the end of the Cold War, the term “neo-Ottoman” came into vogue, most often in reference to Turkish leader Turgut Ozal’s economically motivated outreach to Central Asia—a region, incidentally, that had never been part of the Ottoman Empire. 

It’s unlikely that Ozal worried about reviving the Ottoman past. He was a businessman, and his motive in expanding Turkey’s regional influence was entrepreneurial—to open opportunities for increasingly export-oriented Turkish manufacturers. Ozal's so-called neo-Ottomanism was driven by his enthusiasm for the free market, which had never been an Ottoman ideal. In fact, Ozal adopted a pro-Western interpretation of Ottomanism itself—even comparing the Ottoman's domestic policy of liberal decentralization with that of the United States.

ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY

When the AKP came to power in 2003, it continued Ozal’s economic policies, and many observers continued to use the term “neo-Ottoman” to describe its regional foreign policy, which had pivoted toward the Middle East as Turkey searched for new markets for its dynamic industrial sector. A new sense of wealth, as well as geopolitical security, drove a more confident foreign policy, which fit nicely under an Ottoman label.

At the same time, the AKP's Islamist worldview and its frequent clashes with American policymakers led to the use of “neo-Ottoman” among critics as shorthand for some kind of ill-defined Islamist or anti-American policy. Over the past decade, these critics accused the AKP of neo-Ottomanism or Islamism whenever Turkish leaders traveled for official visits anywhere east of Ankara, even if the country was Shiite, aggressively secular, or sometimes, in the case of Russia, predominately Christian.

But these policies made sense in light of Turkey's expanding economic interests, which led the AKP to foster relations with often anti-Western countries that offered profitable opportunities for Turkish businessmen. This, indeed, was the approach that led then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to spend years trying to cozy up to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not to mention Tehran.

Only when the Arab Spring arrived did the AKP’s pragmatic foreign policy give way to an increasingly Islamist one. At a chaotic moment with no clear or logical approach to regional politics, Turkey aligned itself with a group of state and nonstate actors—in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere—that shared a Sunni Islamist bent. Ironically, one of the AKP’s clearest shifts toward Islamism occurred in Libya. When the uprising occurred, the AKP initially stood by the government of Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi, with which it was doing billions of dollars in business. But for a party that purports to be democratic, the cynicism of this realpolitik approach became an embarrassment. After joining the Western campaign against Qaddafi, the AKP government tried to stay on the right side of history by coming out forcefully against Assad. Its newfound opposition to secular dictators led to increased support for Islamist opposition movements in Egypt, too. There, the AKP backed President Mohamed Morsi and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood—and, by continuing to support him after he was overthrown in a July 2013 coup, antagonized Egypt's new military leaders.

The consequences for Turkish interests were even more severe in Syria. The AKP was hardly alone in its desire to topple Assad. But it was more reckless, supporting the extremists who eventually became ISIS, because at the time, they seemed to be the ones vicious enough to get the job done. It became clear that the Turkish government had badly miscalculated when ISIS forces overran the Turkish embassy in Mosul. The AKP certainly never endorsed the ideology or savagery of ISIS, but its miscalculation was the sort policymakers might make if they, like Erdogan, believed that a Muslim cannot commit genocide. 

ZERO PROBLEMS

The Arab Spring also unraveled then Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy—both the most pragmatic and the hopelessly idealistic aspects of his approach to the region. On the one hand, it was sensible to be on good terms with neighboring countries, especially for the sake of doing business. On the other hand, many countries in the region still had problems with Turkey, not to mention with one another.

Davutoglu’s initial success lay in making the ambitious goal of “zero problems” appear more realistic by grounding it in Ottoman history, speaking of Turkey’s efforts to “reintegrate” with its neighbors, for example, or its “historic responsibility” to build stability in the Middle East. Davutoglu imbued the cliché of Turkey as a bridge between East and West with romanticized ideals of Ottoman tolerance. By referencing a past in which the empire secured harmony among those it governed, whatever their religion or nationality, he made it easier to imagine that Turkey could serve as an intermediary between longtime foes such as Israel and Syria or Armenia and Azerbaijan. When many of Davutoglu’s policies were initially successful, it fueled the appeal of Ottoman rhetoric. Ankara made remarkable strides, for example, in lifting visa requirements with neighboring countries in the Balkans and Middle East. Sometimes Turkish leaders compared this effort with the European Schengen zone. But people in Turkey and abroad were far more taken with the idea that Turks would soon be able to travel visa-free to all territories formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.

Of course, many of the very problems Davutoglu sought, and failed, to overcome had emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s disputes over Ottoman territories such as Alexandretta and Cyprus created long-standing conflicts with Syria and Greece, respectively, while Turkey’s denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide has perpetuated considerable tensions with its neighbor. 

The idea of Ottoman harmony made for effective rhetoric, but Davutoglu may have paid the price for his belief in an exaggerated version of it. Turkish nationalist history has long maintained that the conflicts that brought down the Ottoman Empire were the result of Western imperialists, who turned once peaceful minorities against their tolerant rulers. Just as many now consider the Middle East’s borders, created by the postwar Sykes-Picot Agreement between the United Kingdom and France, to be artificial imperial impositions, Davutoglu believed that the region's conflicts were likewise a remnant of colonialism. In turn, his belief has led to the overconfident assumption that the region could be quickly brought to order through his “zero problems” diplomacy.

Turkish policymakers are unlikely to abandon their rosy take on Ottoman history. But they are wise enough to once again recalibrate their application of it. The surprisingly practical decision to relocate Suleyman Shah’s tomb, but the ostensibly idealistic reason for doing so, aptly mirrors Turkish leaders’ manipulation of the country’s Ottoman past to create foreign policies that suit Turkey's contemporary needs.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now