Is Turkey’s idea of a Muslim Middle Zone more than a dream?

Mr Erdogan and his AKP inner circle see their country as pushing back against Western dominance

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) sets sail in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Yoruk Isik/File Photo
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Turkey has been in a tizzy of late over a letter by 104 retired admirals. The letter, made public on April 3, criticised President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long-gestating plan to build a canal parallel to Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait, potentially voiding the 1936 convention regulating maritime traffic in and out of the Black Sea.

Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials and pro-government news outlets denounced the admirals as coup-plotters, as authorities took 10 of them into custody, while Mr Erdogan took to playing the victim to gain a political bump.

“They targeted Turkey’s national presence, its resistance, its struggle to recover after a century,” Ibrahim Karagul, columnist at a pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, wrote of the letter, echoing the Turkish president. “Those 104 admirals took action to place Turkey under US patronage once again, to doom it to EU control, to keep Turkey out of all the action as the world is being re-established.”

Any state with ambition needs a national narrative to guide its rise, a founding story outlining a bold vision and an ultimate objective. Known for his wavy mullet and paragraph-long headlines, Karagul, like Mr Erdogan and many other key government figures, comes from Turkey’s Black Sea region. He is known to be close to the leadership in Ankara and has emerged in recent years as an instrumental government advocate, distilling the latest news through his grand dream of a rising Turkey.

Turkey’s narrative always marked a break from its Ottoman past, with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk saving Anatolia from being sliced up by the victors of the First World War and establishing a secular state that would embrace modernity and take its rightful place among western powers. Setting aside some bumps in the road, Turkey had made steady progress: joining Nato in 1962, seeing significant economic expansion that led to G-20 membership and EU accession talks in the early years of this century.

Our cartoonist's take on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen being left without a seat at a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Our cartoonist's take on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen being left without a seat at a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Today all that has been turned on its head. Turkey is no longer a serious candidate to join the EU. And Mr Erdogan and his AKP inner circle see their country as a leader in pushing back against western dominance and fighting for the world’s oppressed, namely its Muslims. Since Ataturk’s early Republic instead sought to marginalise Islam and conservative Turks, the pre-AKP years are looked at with disdain, while the Ottoman era is valorised.

“This awakening will shift the axis of the region and destroy the West’s post-Ottoman status quo, making Turkey, with its indigenous political rhetoric, a prime threat,” warns Karagul.

With Mr Erdogan’s victory over a mid-2016 coup attempt – which was backed by Ataturk’s beloved West, according to this narrative – the Republic was reborn. Now, as global power shifts from West to East, Turkey, with its geographic centrality and increased military, economic and technological might, is poised to reassert its dominance and emerge as the hub of a mainly Muslim “Middle Zone” stretching from Morocco to Indonesia.

“This zone will determine the global system,” Karagul writes. “Almost all land trade routes, maritime trade routes, the majority of the earth’s energy resources, almost all energy corridors and the majority of mining resources are located in this zone.”

Much of Turkey’s current foreign policy fits into this vision, including its Blue Homeland doctrine and defence industry development. Last week prominent political scientist Francis Fukuyama praised Turkey’s military adventurism, particularly its advanced drones, which he views as tilting conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Turkey has elevated itself to being a major regional power broker with more ability to shape outcomes than Russia, China, or the United States,” wrote Mr Fukuyama.

A few years ago, analysts saw Turkey as having no friends. Now friends seem ubiquitous, despite Mr Erdogan’s independent streak and authoritarian drift. Ankara has forged stronger ties and greater influence across Africa, the Balkans and South-East Asia through aid and development, Islamic outreach, new embassies and increased trade.

Turkey has strengthened ties and made defence deals with Ukraine, while balancing a tenuous alliance with Russia, as seen in Mr Erdogan calling Russian President Vladimir Putin and meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the weekend.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a joint news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, April 10, 2021. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Istanbul, April 10. Reuters

AKP officials have persistently avoided offending Beijing not only out of concern for much-needed Chinese investment, but also to help ensure Turkish influence in Muslim-majority Central Asia – aka the “new Silk Road” to the Far East. Most recently, Turkey has renewed ties with Saudi Arabia, sought to make nice with the US and EU and reached out to Egypt, Israel and the UAE in the hopes of rapprochement.

This explains why Karagul has in recent months refrained from criticising these key regional states (attacking the West seems fine; it’s in decline). Ankara knows its Middle Zone vision has no chance of coming to fruition if Turkey is isolated or frozen out of major regional alliances like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).

Cairo offers a way in. Mr Erdogan has long been critical of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, since he took power with the mid-2013 ouster of Turkish ally Mohammed Morsi. The two states recalled their ambassadors and Turkey welcomed hundreds of exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood and allowed them to set up news outlets.

In Libya’s war, Egypt supported the country's military chief, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army while Turkey intervened in support of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), in return for a maritime borders deal. In the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt made its own maritime deal with Greece and joined the EMGF, which has also welcomed the US and France as observer states.

As The National reported last week, Turkey-Egypt talks have made significant progress. Security co-operation has increased and Ankara has advised Brotherhood-linked media outlets in Turkey to halt negative coverage of Cairo.

But Egypt announced at the weekend that it had suspended talks with Turkey, potentially leaving Mr Erdogan at a crossroads. Turkey’s leader can either hand over prominent Brotherhood exiles in Turkey in an effort to normalise ties, and maybe persuade Cairo to sign a maritime deal and welcome Turkey into the EMGF. Or he can refuse to do so and likely end any short-term chance of renewed ties with Mr El Sisi’s Egypt.

The former would signal an end to Turkey’s decade-long support of Brotherhood-linked groups across the region, from Syria to Libya and beyond, and potentially limit the AKP’s Islamist ambitions. Yet Ankara may have already begun moving in this direction, with steps such as forcing the resignation of the imam of Hagia Sophia, who had repeatedly called for Islamic tenets in Turkey’s new constitution.

Turkey’s path to Middle Zone leadership surely runs through key Arab capitals. Mr Erdogan’s choice seems clear, though he is likely reluctant to give up all hope of being an Islamist hero and champion of the oppressed, particularly with Ramadan starting this week.

“It should be conveyed that there is no longer an interior policy but rather a new establishment and rise,” writes Karagul, following the dictum that if you repeat something enough people will believe it. “The region’s power equilibrium is changing, and one of the most powerful states of the 21st century must rise from here.”

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National