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Turkey, the Middle East, and the Revival of the “Eastern Question”

Dino Bašović and Ikbal Saračević
Dino Bašović is a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara. Ikbal Saračević is a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at Uludag University in Bursa. Both authors are graduates of the Department of International Relations at Yildirim Beyazit University.

This article analyzes the relationship between Turkey, the countries of the Middle East, and the major powers in the context of a revival of the “Eastern Question.” Moreover, it places special emphasis on the position of Turkey, which the authors believe is often not taken into account sufficiently in the Balkans, despite Ankara’s unavoidable role in regional issues and beyond.

Photo by Mücahit Yıldız

We begin with a historic reminder: The “Eastern Question” was one of the main strategic, diplomatic, and economic phenomena of the nineteenth century, which began with the Serbian and, especially, Greek uprisings against the Ottoman Empire. We can see today that similar phenomena are taking place in the Middle East, and that the revival of the “Eastern Question,” which was triggered this time with the Arab Spring, brings greater difficulties and poses a huge threat to the Muslim world, and that it could have an exceptional influence on the Caucasus, the Balkans, and even Europe. Moreover, Turkey and Iran, as countries with great influence in the region, could easily find themselves in a position of total gain instead of zero gain. However, the influence of great powers like Russia and the United States, each of which is inspired by its own paradigms (the paradigm of “Five Seas” in the case of Russia, or the theory of hegemonic stability in the case of America), provides different dimensions to regional dynamics, closely resembling one period of the Cold War.

Following Napoleon’s defeat and the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Austria, Russia, and Great Britain began supporting nationalist movements in Greece in 1820. In the wake of the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Balkan Crisis (1875-1878), and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the “Eastern question” reached its pinnacle.

What actually was historically the "Eastern Question"? Viewed from the political perspective, it consisted of supporting nationalist movements whilst simultaneously preventing the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire, which was considered as being a potential cause of general conflict. Viewed from the social perspective, the Ottoman Empire, which was often described as “the sick man of Europe,” was to modernize itself through a period of reformation beginning in 1839, the 1856 Edict of Gülhane, and the First Constitution of 1876. Most of the reforms of the Ottoman Empire at that time were shaped in response to the growing nationalist tendencies of non-Muslim communities, and were implemented to appease precisely those communities much desired greater political, economic, and even military operationality within the empire itself.

There are similarities and differences between the “Eastern Question” of the nineteenth century and today’s “Eastern Question.”

The first similarity can be seen in the fact that, with the addition of America, the same powers are involved in the contemporary process.

The second similarity is reflected in the fact that the rebellions which occurred during the period of the “Eastern Question” in the nineteenth century were supported by the great powers, which is also the case today—when non-state actors, mostly in the form of terrorist or insurgent groups—including the Islamic State, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG ), the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Hezbollah, Houthi, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—are striving to alter borders in the Middle East and create new states on the basis of their beliefs, ideologies, and convictions. Today, as in the nineteenth century, this process unfolds with at least the tacit support of certain great powers.

The third similarity can be seen in the Ottoman Empire’s nineteenth century aspirations to preempt major degradation in its then sovereign backyard, in order to prevent war. Today we see Turkey in a similar role, with Ankara interested in preventing deepening instability in its neighborhood. However, Turkey, which has accepted more than three million refugees onto its territory—thereby preventing additional regional anarchy—is not fully understood by the major powers and other relevant actors, which keep subjecting Ankara to constant political pressure.


Regional Powers

It is widely misunderstood that Iran’s aspirations to become a leader of the Muslim world are fundamentally based on the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Rather, its roots go back to the period immediately following the relocating of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632). Shia scholars insist that Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib (601-661) was destined to succeed Prophet Muhammad, but leadership was instead seized from him by force. This period had resulted in division between Muslims, rendering a political case a religious one.

From the aspect of global justice, Iran’s perspective is particularly interesting. In this context, it is important to emphasize that in Islam there are three main principles for Sunnis, which are: proclamation, mission, and monotheism. For Shia, however, there are two additional principles: justice and leadership. For them, justice is not satisfied by the establishment of a socially regulated state, but rather the punishment of those who took away the leadership of the first Imam, Ali.

The evident glory of the former Persian Empire and its control over the world at that time, from one point of view, are very appealing to Iran. Controlling five seas (Mediterranean, Black, Red, Arabian, and Caspian) means having control over Asia. He who controls Asia controls the whole world—or at least the whole region. Although Iran often seeks to present itself as a promoter of peace and justice with the aim of unifying Muslims, with the wars sponsored by Iranian centers in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, Tehran is actually implementing a realist policy aimed at creating greater influence.

Individual experts dub this type of tactic “the diplomacy of false reflection,” given that Iran avoids becoming directly involved in conflict, and that it exerts its influence via groups located on territory not under the official control of Tehran. In the aforementioned ideal of regional domination, Iran primarily sees Turkey and Saudi Arabia as its main rivals.

Turkey, as one of the few functional democracies in the Middle East and a country that is permitted, according to a 2014 agreement, to station troops in Qatar, was quick to recognize that Qatar is under threat. This is why the issue of the Qatar crisis can be resolved. It must be noted in the case of Qatar, however, that Doha is fully aware of its weaknesses and advantages, which indicates that a resolution to the situation can only emerge gradually. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani announced fairly recently that Qatar is ready to negotiate, but not with those who violate the country’s integrity and sovereignty. Qatar’s decisions must be made internally, and not under the pressure of foreign powers. In accordance with the current state of affairs, the impression is that the Gulf powers deliberately submitted a list of demands that they knew Qatar would reject, which in this specific context is reminiscent of the ultimatum issued to Belgrade by Vienna in 1914.

In any case, it could be said that the Qatari issue is slowly heading in a positive direction, with the evident political will to find the best solution to prevent further tension in the Middle East. One of the main agreements reached between Iraq and Turkey also includes the understanding that Turkish troops must remain in Bashiqa in northern Iraq, while obliging the Iraqi authorities and Kurdish Peshmerga to prevent the PKK from entering Turkish territory. On the other hand, should the Iraqi authorities establish closer ties with Iran, the alliance with Turkey will certainly become much more complicated. Iraq, thus, must renew its relations with neighboring countries in order to rediscover its Arab identity and reorder governance structures in a way that reduces Iran’s influence.

Following Moscow and Ankara’s signing of a ceasefire in Syria, significant bilateral conciliation was achieved, such that relations between the two countries currently seem even more intensive than Moscow’s official relations with Iran. From the perspective of liberalism, increasing trade is the primary way to overcome the current Middle East crisis. In the context of current regional dynamics, this relates to strengthening bilateral relations between Iraq and Turkey, which would bring about regional stability, and thus enable peace as the flow of goods increases. The social construction of Iraq has unraveled due to Sunni and Shiite demands in the region.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held an independence referendum on September 25th, 2017. This was not the first attempt to hold such a referendum, with the same aspiration being violently disturbed in 2014 with the Islamic State’s conquest of Mosul. The KRG is a body located in northern Iraq, and the Iraqi constitution designates this area as being under KRG authority. Included in its area of control are cities like Erbil, Duhok and Sulaymaniyah, where the Kurdish population forms the majority.

Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, has great ambitions that he seeks to realize by ignoring international politics, and hence also regional security. As such, it is no surprise that analysts of the Middle East see the project to separate majority-Kurdish and majority-Arab Iraq as unnecessary, and logically, unstable in the long term. As for the KRG, it controls around 10 percent of Iraqi territory, including strategically important suburbs of the city of Mosul, a city that has huge oil reserves and through which passes the main oil line connecting Turkey and the city of Kirkuk. Reserves are estimated at 600,000 barrels of Iraq’s total production of 3.7 million barrels exported annually.

When it comes to Egypt and the new political game in the Middle East, it began with the 2011 Arab Spring and the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. Soon thereafter, on July 3rd, 2013, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, was overthrown with a military coup led by then General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who had the support of the major powers in assuming power. Sisi is now permitting Russia to open a kind of military base in Cairo, entering into an alliance with Iran, and conducting unfriendly policies towards Turkey. Although Sisi’s behavior may seem useful in the short run, this type of game in the Middle East can have negative consequences in the longer term, both for Egypt and for many other actors in the region.

Since the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia, a drastic change has occurred in Saudi foreign policy, particularly reflecting growing diplomatic tensions with Qatar. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubier has said that Trump’s major arms deal marked the beginning of a period of better relations for America, Saudi Arabia, and their allies. After concluding this deal, we can note that Saudi Arabia is shifting its position from defensive to offensive realism.

The diplomacy of the two-edged sword, through the sponsoring of terrorist or rebel groups like YPG, PKK, PYD, Hezbollah, and Hash’d al Shaabi is shaping the Syrian chessboard with various movements. In light of the fact that the final goal is to create a free Iraq and Syria, mate positions on that chessboard are connected with Mosul and Iraq. However, the checkmate move is connected to the city of Deir ez-Zor. Fighting around that city will be much tougher, because the Shiite corridor via Lebanon and Iraq not only disturbs Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, but also poses a great threat to Israel and other Gulf states. Washington’s idea of achieving goals in Syria and reducing Iran’s influence by supporting Kurdish rebel groups like YPG and PKK is unacceptable to Turkey and most Sunni Arab countries, primarily because PKK and YPG most commonly attack Turkey.

If foreign policymakers of any country, including the United States, believe that they will succeed in eradicating a terrorist group by arming another one, we can easily find ourselves repeating a situation similar to that of the 1980s, when the arming of Taliban forces against the Soviets led to the creation of Al Qaeda and, ultimately, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It is important to emphasize that Israel has insisted on good relations with Turkey since 1990, but also that the general premise of that relationship has never been directly hostile towards Iran—even after the conclusion of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Current U.S. relations with Israel and Turkey are not at such a high level as they were in the 1990s. If such trilateral cooperation has yet to reach its peak, this is likely to be reflected in the economic domain and will result in a stable security situation.

Israel has had good relations with Turkey since the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. However, the period following the unsuccessful Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David in 2000 brought with them a strain on the relationship that culminated in the attack on the Mavi Marmara vessel in 2010, when ten activists of the Turkey-based Foundation for Human Rights, Freedom and Humanitarian Relief were killed by members of the Israeli Defense Forces. The full re-normalization of relations is linked closely to public approval, which politicians often use to boost influence and create strong movements, and thereby conclude better deals for reducing tensions in the Middle East.


Great Powers

The major strategies of U.S. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama still shape the order and diplomacy in the Middle East, while the possibility of achieving lasting peace remains a dead letter on paper. During the course of one previous meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, President Obama offered advice to the Gulf States in the context of economic progress, neighborhood policy, and respect for human rights. However, the Middle Eastern autocrats are unfamiliar with the concept of “land-sharing,” for occupation and invasion remain the main objectives, but also the dominant foreign policy goals of individual Gulf states.

In this context let us briefly recall the “Madman theory”—linked to former American President Richard Nixon—which envisions the potential for total chaos and irrational movements with unpredictable consequences, which further coerces the opposing side into accepting the threats of the attacking side. We saw something similar at the United Nations recently, when U.S. Permanent Representative Nikki Haley stated that it was not in the interest of the United States to overthrow Bashar al-Assad—a statement that was followed up then a few days later by U.S. air strikes against Syrian government positions.

In many countries on the territory of the former Ottoman Empire, but even further afield, one can often hear the thesis that the United States wants to use regional instability and uncertainty to then be able to appear as a savior. Such a perception could, for example, explain America’s aspirations to shift the framework of the existing peace talks, which have been held several times in the Kazakh capital of Astana, back to Geneva and New York. Another Obama doctrine, entitled “Leading From Behind,” reflects the main idea that America is not the world’s policeman and that every sovereign state needs to solve its internal problems on its own. In this way, governments in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen should not allow major global or regional powers to closely sponsor wars.

A large number of research institutes and think tanks that supported Obama’s policies have contributed to distorting Turkey’s image, portraying it as a country that forges certain agreements with the Islamic State or even trades with this terrorist organization. If this assessment is indeed correct, how could it be that Turkey launched the ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation together with the international coalition? As a reminder, the aforementioned operation represents a successful mission to exterminate elements of the Islamic State in Mosul, Erbil, and other Iraqi territories.

Trump and Erdoğan have a common primary goal of eliminating extremism and fighting terror. The closely sponsored war being led in Syria by major and regional powers is leading to the greatest human catastrophe since World War II.

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov once stated, “history has taught us that it hasn’t taught us anything.” Russia is becoming ever more progressive and determined in its foreign policy and its quest for a partner in the Middle East. It is for this reason that Turkey is recognized as a safe country that can sit at the negotiating table when it comes to the issue of the war in Syria, all while enabling a Russian military presence in the Levant. Although Russia and Turkey are supporting opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, the two countries have reached an agreement to exclude the United States from certain proceedings. That is why it can be argued that this is how the principle of the “balance of power” is shifting from the European and American continents to the Eurasian region.

At the same time, the European Union exerts pressure on Turkey through coercive diplomacy, such that it constantly attempts to reverse positions of the Turkish Administration, with the aim of reducing Turkey’s influence in the region. However, the European Union should carefully analyze the advantages and disadvantages of such a policy, taking into consideration the fact that Turkey has concluded an agreement with the EU on the issue of hosting three million refugees on its territory.


Possible Outcomes and Responses to the Eastern Question

The revival of the “Eastern Question” at the international level, which could lead to the expansion of war in the Middle East, and potentially further afield, actually represents the negligence of global leaders. Back in 2003, former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan said at a conference that if Syria were to become a theatre of war, the main target would be Turkey.

From that perspective, we can say that he was correct, because the war in Syria began in 2011 as one of the waves of the Arab Spring, and in 2013, during mass protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, opposition to Erdoğan’s rule in Turkey came to the fore. Today, if the EU fails to provide essential support to Ankara in terms of the refugee crisis whilst continuing its policy of interfering in Turkey’s internal affairs by supporting rebel groups via media outlets, Turkey could respond by allowing refugees to proceed to Europe.

If so many refugees were to cross the EU’s borders, it would lead to chaos that would create major internal problems, primarily due to Europe’s growing intolerance of Islam and Muslims, which comprise the majority of refugees. And given that so many refugees would likely be prevented from entering the EU, there is a real threat that the countries of the Western Balkans will be forced to take care of them in the long run. In light of the aforementioned, one should pay particular attention to Erdoğan’s statement of September 2016, during a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, that “the world is bigger than five [permanent members of the Security Council].”

So, why then is Turkey important? Until 2002, Turkey conducted a defensive foreign policy, before the AK Party came to power. This produced rapid changes, instigating the country to become much more determined in its foreign policy. The religious instrumentalism of the countries of the Middle East, along with the Cold War rhetoric between America and Russia, leads to the intensifying of tensions that can only result in mutual losses—all of this is due to the “Eastern Question.” Reopening the question, much like Pandora’s box, could only lead to inevitable disaster.


Dino Bašović is a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara. Ikbal Saračević is a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at Uludag University in Bursa. Both authors are graduates of the Department of International Relations at Yildirim Beyazit University.

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