Slightly edited version of an article originally published under the title "Russian Imperialism Meets Illusions of Ottoman Grandeur."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) says he doesn't understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) intervened in Syria, since Russia "does not even border Syria."
In a 2012 speech, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, then foreign minister, predicted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's days in power were numbered and that he would depart "within months or weeks." Almost three and a half years have passed, with Assad still in power, and Davutoglu keeps on making one passionate speech after another about the fate of Syria.
Turkey's failure to devise a credible policy on Syria has made the country's leaders nervous. Both Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have lately resorted to more aggressive, but less convincing, rhetoric on Syria. The new rhetoric features many aspects of
a Sunni Islamist thinking blended with delusions of Ottoman grandeur.
On December 22, Davutoglu said, "Syrian soil is not, and will not be, part of Russia's imperialistic goals." That was a relief to know! All the same, Davutoglu could have been more direct and honest if he said that: "Syrian soil will not be part of Russia's imperialistic goals because we want it to be part of Turkey's pro-Sunni, neo-Ottoman imperialistic goals."
Erdogan's rhetoric on Syria blends Sunni Islamist thinking with delusions of Ottoman grandeur.
It is obvious that Davutoglu's concern is not about a neighboring territory becoming a theater of war before it serves any foreign nation's imperialistic goals. His concern, rather, is that neighboring soil will become a theater of war and serve a pro-Shiite's imperialist goals. Hardly surprising.
"What," Davutoglu asked Russia, "is the basis of your presence in Syria?" The Russians could unconvincingly reply to this unconvincing question: "Fighting terror, in general, and ISIL in particular."
But then Davutoglu claims that the Russian military hits more "moderates" (read: merely jihadist killers, not to be mixed with jihadist barbarians who behead people and cheerfully release their videos). Translation: more Islamist targets and fewer ISIL targets.
A legitimate question to ask the Turkish prime minister might be: What is the basis of "moderate" Islamists' presence in Syria?
Could the basis be the religious bond? Could Prime Minister Davutoglu have politely reminded the Russians that the "moderate" fighters are Muslim whereas Russia is not? But then, one should ask, using Davutoglu's logic, "What is the basis of the U.S.-led Western coalition's airstrikes in Syria?" Since when are the Americans, British, Germans and French Muslims?
In Turkish thinking, there is just one difference between non-Muslim Russia's presence in Syria and non-Muslim allies' presence: The non-Muslim Russians seriously threaten the advancement of our pro-Sunni sectarian war in the Levant, whereas the non-Muslim allies can be instrumental in favor of it. Hence Turkey's selective objection to some of the non-Muslim players in Syria.
For Davutoglu, only countries with regional ambitions convergent with Turkey's have the right to tamper in former Ottoman lands.
Earlier in 2015, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he found it difficult to understand what Russia was doing in Syria, since "it does not even border Syria." By that logic, Turkey should not be "doing anything" in the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan or any of the non-bordering lands into which its neo-Ottoman impulses have pushed it over the past several years. By the same logic, also, Turkey should be objecting to any allied (non-Muslim) intervention in Syria, or to any Qatari or Saudi (non-bordering) intervention in the Syrian theater.
In the unrealistic imperial Turkish psyche, only Turkey and the countries that pursue regional ambitions convergent with Turkey's can have any legitimate right to design or re-design the former Ottoman lands.
Such self-righteous and assertive thinking can hardly comply with international law. The Turks and their imperial ambitions have already been declared unwelcome in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Nor would such ambitions be welcomed in any former Ottoman land to Turkey's west. But if, as Turkey's Islamists are programmed to believe, "historical and geographical bonds" give a foreign nation the right to design a polity in another nation, what better justification could the Russians have had for their post-imperial designs in Crimea?
When they have a moment of distraction from their wars against Western values, the West, Israel, Jews or infidels, the Sunni and Shiite Islamists in the Middle East fight subtle-looking (but less subtle than they think) and cunning (but less cunning than they think) wars and proxy wars, and accuse each other of pursuing sectarian policies. Turkey's rulers are no exception.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.