erdogan ottoman
© Adem Altan/Reuters
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdoğan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire.
Neo-Ottomanism is the driving ideology behind contemporary Turkey's domestic and foreign behavior

It's no secret that Turkey endeavors to restore its Great Power status all across its former Ottoman realm, driven in part by the strategic calculations outlined by former Foreign and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and carried through to its present iteration through the pioneering charisma of President Erdogan. The policy of so-called "Neo-Ottomanism", as it's been popularly referred to by outside commentators over the years, has proven itself to be one of the most disruptive ideologies of the 21st century. Supporters laud its ambitious vision to return Turkey back to its Ottoman roots - both in terms of de-facto religiously influenced governance and Great Power status - while detractors point to the death and destruction that Neo-Ottomanism has directly contributed to in Syria as evidence that it's resulted in much more harm than good.

No matter which side of the debate one stands on, it can generally be agreed that Neo-Ottomanism is the driving ideology behind contemporary Turkey's domestic and foreign behavior, and that it's indeed one of the most influential forces shaping the future of the Mideast, for better or for worse. That being said, it's absolutely important to understand the nature of this grand strategy in order to accurately forecast its development across the coming years, hence the reason for conducting this research.

The author argues in Part I that Neo-Ottomanism relies on soft power nostalgia for the Ottoman past, emphasizing Turkey's central role in building what would eventually become the world's largest caliphate, albeit modified in political-administrative ways to adapt for the present post-modern/post-Western reality. In its quest to de-facto recreate the Ottoman Caliphate, Turkey is transforming its internal governing structure in order to ultimately make it more suitable for expanding and retaining its foreign influence. Pertaining to the latter, the transnational Muslim Brotherhood network which is clandestinely embedded across all levels of society in the Mideast and North Africa (MENA) acts as the vanguard 'revolutionary' force for Neo-Ottomanism, but given its recent setbacks over the years, it's insufficient for sustaining Turkish influence across this large region.

Therefore, Turkey is simultaneously pursuing a broad-based strategy to secure as many reliable sources of energy as possible in order to position itself as a more independent player unencumbered by the structural restraints which come from its present dependence on Russian resources, which occupies the focus of Part II. As it turns out to be, there's almost a perfect overlap between the soft power, geopolitical, energy, and military components of Neo-Ottomanism, and this second section endeavors to shed light on these connections in order to imbue the reader with a more comprehensive understanding of this Great Power project. In order to present a more comprehensive level of analysis, Part III then briefly examines the opportunities and challenges that Turkey faces on its path to build the Neo-Ottoman Caliphate.

Soft Power Underpinnings

Historical Memory

Neo-Ottomanism builds off of the historical memory of the Ottoman Caliphate, a period of time which has become very popular to reminisce about in Turkish society and which also has its fair share of admirers among some of the more religiously focused Arabs all throughout MENA. While some people such as the Syrians, especially the secular ones, view the Ottoman centuries as almost half a millennium of occupation (just like their Serbian counterparts do in the Balkans), there are still many others which interpret it very differently and see it as a high point in their history. These very religious individuals are much more loyal to the concept of the Ummah - especially its political-administrative embodiment as the former Turkish-led Ottoman Caliphate - than they are to their respective countries, and it's from this large proportion of the masses that Erdogan seeks to cull his international supporters.

The Muslim Brotherhood Alliance
Muslim Brotherhood member
© Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters
By and large, however, there are still many populists which have strong reservations about the nature of Turkish rule over the centuries and could easily stir up trouble which could undermine Ankara's ambitions, which is why it's so important for Turkey to differentiate between its ethno-nationalist identity as an 'exclusive' country of the Turks and its inclusive religious one as a fellow "brother" to all the Muslims in the world. Seen in this way, then Erdogan's decision to openly sympathize with and support the Muslim Brotherhood takes on a different meaning, since it can thus be understood as constituting part of his religious opening to MENA and demonstrating his common point of convergence with non-Turkish Muslims. This group isn't representative of the majority of Muslims in this transregional space, but it's nonetheless a powerful anti-government force to be reckoned with, and additionally gives Erdogan and Turkey added 'credence' among religious conservatives.

What's crucial to understand about the Muslim Brotherhood is that it aspires to overthrow both secular and Wahhabi governments in order to usher in its own form of Islamic governance. This technically makes it a 'revolutionary' organization, and it in many ways structurally functions as a 21st-century iteration of the communist party in the sense of wanting to replace the present political order in their country with a new transnational one unified by ideology. The "Arab Spring" Color Revolutions can thus be analyzed as an attempt to carry out a swift succession of coups designed to lay the political-ideological foundation for a network of satellite states which would be run by whichever power had the highest degree of influence over the Muslim Brotherhood. While this role was originally played by Qatar, the tiny monarchy's leadership capabilities are understandably limited and it has no history of ruling the region, whereas Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Turkey has centuries' worth of experience in managing the Ottoman Caliphate.

From the geopolitical perspective, the US sought to replace the existing order in the Mideast with a Turkish-controlled network of Muslim Brotherhood-run states, essentially recreating the Ottoman Caliphate in order to both organize a partial pan-Arab Sunni alliance against Shiite Iran and exert pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Kingdoms, considering of course how deathly afraid the latter category are that the organization could one day violently come to power there too.

This strand of thinking correlates with the integrational tendencies observed elsewhere in the world, be it the EU, the Eurasian Union, SCO, or ASEAN, except furthered in a much more disruptive, violent, and sudden manner.

It also was preconditioned on having Turkey behave as the US' "Lead From Behind" partner in controlling this region as Washington's proxy, relying on Erdogan's comparatively more 'authentic' Muslim credentials compared to the American President's in order to earn him added 'legitimacy' among these populations in justifying his envisaged transnational leadership role as this ideology's most influential state patron. For as ideal as this strategy sounded on paper, however, it didn't deliver as expected in practice and for reasons which will be touched upon later on in the text. Nevertheless, Turkey remains tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and utilizes it as its Neo-Ottoman vehicle for advancing Ankara's influence all across MENA, even if it never has the opportunity to do so on as grand of a basis as it was poised to immediately after the 'success' of the "Arab Spring" Color Revolutions and by the time of Erdogan's late-2011 'victory tour' of North Africa.

Standing Apart From The Saudis
Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud
© AP Photo/ Yoan Valat, Pool
For as impressive of an historical legacy as it has, and given the relative effectiveness of its Muslim Brotherhood foot soldiers, Turkey still doesn't hold the same amount of sway over MENA and the rest of the global Ummah as Saudi Arabia does. The Saudi King is recognized as the caretaker of the Two Holy Mosques, and this alone imbues him with enormous respect all across the Muslim world. The Kingdom's support of Wahhabism has also earned it many influential adherents among the Ummah, despite this strand of Islam being largely recognized by many Muslims as being ultra-conservative and even radical. In fact, an under-reported gathering in Chechnya last year saw Sunni religious leaders from a host of countries all but 'excommunicating' (to use a Catholic comparison) the Wahhabis from their fold, further highlighting the general unattractiveness of this 'brand'. Be that as it may, it's hard to argue with the assertion that Saudi Arabia's global influence is predicated on the dual pedestals of its caretaker role over the Two Holy Mosques and the ideology of Wahhabism, the latter of which has been given a surreal soft power boost due to the hundreds of billions of petrodollars that stand behind it decades-long proselytization campaigns.

The value-added differentiator that sets Turkey apart from Saudi Arabia is its historical legacy of administrative-political leadership over a broad part of the Ummah and its embrace of the relatively (key word) more moderate Islamic governance as advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Although there are in practice very little differences between these two, the perception of course is that the Muslim Brotherhood is slightly less radical than the Wahhabis, which theoretically gives Turkey a soft power boost over the Saudis.

Additionally, the reason why Saudi Arabia has listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization - other than its objectively identified use of terrorism in pursuit of its goals - is that the group wants to replace the King as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Extrapolating from this and going forward with the scenario, the organization's most powerful foreign patron would thus become the true caretaker of these religious sites, and should this continue to be Erdogan and the Turkish state, then it would dramatically elevate them to becoming the symbolic leaders of many of the Ummah's Muslims.

There's no evidence that Turkey is conspiring against Saudi Arabia and directly working with the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the King, but in the event that this group does indeed succeed with its 'revolutionary' goal, then it would instantly propel Erdogan to becoming a 21st-century Caliph ruling over a post-modern/post-Western Neo-Ottoman Empire at the crossroads of Afro-Eurasia, thereby granting him unprecedented geopolitical influence over global affairs. Though it's extremely doubtful that this will ever happen, let alone anytime soon, this idea can be said to serve as an inspiration which works towards Turkey's ultimate soft power favor in recruiting more Arab MENA Muslims to its Neo-Ottoman cause. More than likely, any advancement of this scenario wouldn't necessarily be due to Turkish cunning, but rather the Muslim Brotherhood's typical exploitation of chaotic situations, such as in the event that domestic destabilization arises within the crumbling Kingdom and is first exacerbated by Iranian (political, diplomatic, or perhaps even other) support for its Shia co-confessionals in the oil-rich Eastern Province, which then provides space for the Muslim Brotherhood to rise elsewhere in the country and try to pull off an Egyptian-like coup against the government.

Administrative-Political Tweaking
The soft power underpinnings of Neo-Ottomanism might sound attractive to a broad base of MENA Muslims, which could naturally give Turkey an enormous amount of geopolitical sway, but they're incapable by themselves of ensuring that Ankara's influence remains enduring and ever-lasting in the manner that Erdogan expects it to be. It's conceivable that Turkey could one day influence Muslim Brotherhood-governed countries all across this transregional space along the lines of the abovementioned "Lead From Behind" strategy, but this is crucially dependent on the stability of the Turkish state itself and its immediate borderlands. Turkey and its two southern neighbors have been greatly destabilized owing to Erdogan's front-row participation in the US' War on Syria, which has revealed itself as being a 21st-century iteration of the Yinon Plan in respect to dividing the Muslims all along "Israel's" periphery. Even though that's how it's turned out, it was thought at the time by Erdogan that this was his perfect opportunity to establish a Muslim Brotherhood client state next to his borders and therefore give him a prime position to project more ideological influence into the Arab World. It would also, of course, enable the construction of the Qatar-Turkey pipeline which President Assad had earlier rejected, the significance of which will be elaborated on later.

While the War on Syria is proving itself to be a failed enterprise for all of its culprits, especially Turkey, it also saw the eventual administrative-political tweaking of Neo-Ottomanism. Turkish scholar Dr. Can Erimtan warned in late-2013 that "the government's long-term goal (as arguably expressed in the AKP's policy statement Hedef 2023) is to transform the nation state Turkey into an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly linked to a revived caliphate. In this way, Turkey's future (as a nation state) would arguably become subject to Anatolia's past as a home to many different Muslims of divergent ethnic background." What this basically means is that the devolution of the unitary Turkish state to a federation would give Ankara the flexibility to incorporate/annex territories under its wing which are populated by people of a separate ethno-nationalist identity in order to build the post-modern/post-Western 21st-century Neo-Ottoman Caliphate. In practice, this could allow for all or part of Syria become part of a reformatted Turkey, as well as Syrian and Iraqi "Kurdistan", and the geographically large Sunni areas of Iraq. In fact, the "federalization" of both Syria and Iraq would amount to an internal partition in both cases and the emergence of a transnational sub-state "Sunnistan" which could, under Dr. Erimtan's analyzed template of the future Turkish state, come under Ankara's eventual control.

Turkey is still a unitary republic, but it's on the verge of transforming into a centralized one if the forthcoming constitutional amendments are approved in April's referendum. Erdogan would in that case be empowered to reverse Ataturk's legacy by removing secularity from the country's constitution, or at the very least overriding it for all intents and purposes. The devolution into a federalized republic could also be sold to the country's citizens as a compromise with the Kurds, though in reality it would be a sly maneuver for one day formalizing the inclusion of Syrian-Iraqi "Kurdistan" and "Sunnistan" into the Neo-Ottoman Caliphate. If an expanded Turkey (or whatever it might be called by that point) can directly connect to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, then it would establish itself as a major global power capable of both cooperating and competing with its southern neighbors. Either way, it would earn a lot of "respect" among its supporters in the Ummah, particularly those which used to be a part of the original Ottoman Empire. For this to happen, though, like it was earlier written, Turkey needs to devolve from a unitary state to a federalized one, whether or not it still maintains (even in a superficial sense) its republican identity, as this would enable it to more easily absorb more Muslim Brotherhood-controlled territories and supporters.