It has often been noted that all five of America’s most recent wars – Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya – have taken place in societies that possess large Muslim populations (in the case of four of them, overwhelmingly so). Less noted is the fact that four of those five countries were also once part of the Ottoman Empire.
That unique empire ended following the First World War, like so many empires, after an impressive run of more than six centuries. It’s been back in the news in recent years because the government of Recep Erdogan has flirted with the Ottoman legacy in a manner which would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. While Erdogan has usually kept his flirtation with the lost (Islamic) empire to a respectable level, on occasion he has uttered jaw-droppers indicating that he considers himself a bit more than just the prime minister of the Turkish Republic. In June 2011, after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won reelection, Erdogan told the cheering masses gathered to celebrate the event: “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul; Beirut won as much as Izmir; Damascus won as much as Ankara. Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza won as much as Diyarbakir.” I was in the Balkans when I heard that one, and let’s just say that the Christians of Southeastern Europe, who endured long centuries of Ottoman rule, were less impressed with Erdogan’s message than the Turkish crowds seemed to be.
The point-man for the neo-Ottoman ideology, as it’s termed, is Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has expended considerable intellectual energy determining what Turkey’s colonial legacy in the Balkans and the Middle East means in the 21st century. Yet he has eschewed the term itself, explaining that its use reflects the sore-loser status of countries who seem less than enthused about Turkey’s newfound role as a powerbroker, as well as rising economic factor, in much of its onetime empire. Nevertheless, Davutoglu, too, has been coy about what his position actually is towards post-Ottoman states like Bosnia: “I am not a minister of a nation-state only,” he explained, leaving questions about what Ankara’s positions vis-a-vis the Balkans and the Middle East actually are.
Although Davutoglu and Erdogan view their country’s imperial past in an overwhelmingly positive light, others – Arabs, Serbs, Greeks, to name only a few – have much more ambivalent, and even negative, views of Ottoman rule. And there can be no denying that Ottoman ethno-religious policies laid the groundwork for many of the seemingly intractable problems of places like Bosnia and Iraq, where deep-seated hatreds with their origins in the Ottoman period have burst forth recently in war and even genocide.
In recent months, Erdogan and his government have mired Turkey deeply in the ugly civil war which is gradually engulfing Syria. Much like the fratricides in Bosnia and Iraq, the fighting in Syria is a complex witches’ brew of ethnic and religious hatreds made worse thanks to the pernicious legacy of an authoritarian regime which exploited such tensions in a cynical, divide et impera fashion – just as the Ottomans once did in those countries.
Turkey’s Syrian war, which began with not-so-secret arms shipments to anti-Assad forces, has burst forth publicly in recent weeks, with cross-border shellings and multidirectional bellicose rhetoric. One need not be a habitual pessimist to be concerned about where Syria is headed, and what it will mean if Turkey, a major NATO country, is dragged directly into the conflict. It is a war which the Turkish public does not want, yet Ankara’s actions are leading to ever-greater involvement in Syria’s nightmare. If this were not yet sufficient grounds for worry, it is now evident that Turkish and U.S. arms shipments are helping jihadist groups in Syria, some of them affiliated with Al-Qa’ida, more than they are boosting the more secular resistance to the Assad regime.
Where all this will end is difficult to predict, though anyone with close-up experience with recent wars like Bosnia or Iraq will probably incline to a world-weary pessimism. It seems likely that, barring a game-changing event like regime decapitation – which jihadists have been trying and failing to do – Syria’s war may become protracted, with worrisome humanitarian consequences, to say nothing of the geopolitical portents in a very unstable region of the world.
Will Syria become America’s fifth war of Ottoman succession in recent years? That is a question to ponder carefully. It’s probably overdue to seriously examine why the U.S. keeps getting dragged into so many wars which revolve around knotty issues of the Ottoman inheritance. That empire disappeared ninety years ago yet in some ways seems very much alive today.