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The rise of the new Ottomans

Erdogan is not only proud of his country’s past, but he also tries to attach his name as a sequel to the Ottoman civilisation

September 2, 2016 at 10:52 am

The recent Turkish military operation codenamed “Euphrates Shield” took place on the same day of the historic Battle of Marj Dabiq. On the 24 August 1516, in compliance with the orders of the Caliph Yavuz Sultan Selim, Ottoman troops took the town of Dabiq, 44 km north of Aleppo in Syria.

In the history of the Ottoman Empire, the Battle of Marj Dabiq was one of the most decisive military interventions. It ended in an Ottoman victory and the subjugation of the Mamluk Sultanate, a medieval realm spanning Egypt, the Levant and the Hejaz; the armies of Yavuz Sultan Selim had control of the whole Levant region and opened the door to the conquest of Egypt.

In another coincidence, the new Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge over the Bosphorus was opened to traffic on 26 August. Two days after the battle’s anniversary; work started on the crossing on 29 May 2013, the same day and month that the Ottoman’s intervention expedition set out for Marj Dabiq.

The bridge is the second-tallest in the world and one of the world’s widest suspension bridges. It was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself who, as prime minister, chose its name, which was announced by his presidential predecessor, Abdullah Gul, at the ground-breaking ceremony. The name chosen led to protests by the Shia Alawites in Turkey, because of the alleged role of Yavuz Sultan Selim in the persecution of the group after the 1511 Şahkulu Rebellion in Anatolia.

On the day that the bridge opened, the spiritual leader of the Turkish Alawite community, Selahattin Özgündüz, advised all of his followers to boycott it and use other means to cross the Bosphorus.

Were the bridge’s name and the date of its opening a coincidence or were they chosen deliberately? We can say with confidence that as far as Erdogan is concerned, the word “coincidence” isn’t in his lexicon. It’s no secret that Erdogan believes that he is the political descendent of distinguished ancestors who ruled an exceptional civilisation for more than five hundred years.

The idea of an Islamic empire is intertwined deeply with Erdogan’s mentality and political discourse. His ancestors claimed the Islamic caliphate from the 14th century to the early 20th century and the Turkish president has a vision to revive the dormant giant who ruled in righteousness and justice.

Immediately after the opening of the presidential palace in Ankara, Erdogan formally received his international guests and political figures. On the staircase behind him stood 16 warriors dressed in historical armour, with spears, shields and swords; each represented one of the historical Turkish empires.

Erdogan is not only proud of his country’s past, but he also tries to attach his name as a sequel to the Ottoman civilisation. He often addresses crowds by saying, “We are the grandsons of those who moved ships in deserts, and we will move vessels under the sea.” Erdogan’s Turkey has brought to life a 150-year-old dream of the Ottoman sultans with the opening of the Marmaray Project, an undersea rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus linking the continents of Europe and Asia.

The president is proud that he is the metaphorical grandson of both Sultan Abdul Majid who originated the idea for a tunnel under the Bosphorus about 150 years ago and Sultan Abdul Hamid, who hired architects and engineers to embark on the unfinished project. Erdogan doesn’t get tired of repeating that Turkey is a great country with a glorious and magnificent past civilisation, and he has realised the dreams of his predecessors. Economically, Turkey is moving forward steadily with giant projects and clear plans for developments in health, education, technology, industry, tourism, real estate, infrastructure and agriculture. President Erdogan will not stop until his country achieves its ambition by 2023 and becomes a world superpower.

Regionally, Turkey strives to balance relations with friends and foes in the Middle East. The turmoil of the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution has affected Turkey’s relations with regimes across the region, casting dark shadows on its foreign relations with international powers like the EU and Russia.

After the botched coup attempt there is an ongoing purge of the armed forces and public services, especially of members of the Gülen movement whose founder, Fethullah Gülen, is accused of being behind the putsch. As a result, Turkey is expected to be more able to take self-determining, balanced and strategic choices without the negative influence of the so-called “parallel state”.

Furthermore, the recent radical changes in the trajectory of Turkey’s relations with Russia and Iran have boosted its chances of finding alternative common ground away from Washington’s indecision in Syria. A US-backed no-fly zone, for example, would have protected civilians and saved many innocent lives, but Obama has been reluctant to impose one.

When, on 24 August, Turkey’s military entered Syria, the rebel factions cleansed both Kurdish and Daesh radicals. The Syrian people were calling desperately for an Islamic power to intervene and end their misery.

The regime in Damascus is estimated to have killed more than 350,000 people, uprooted two-thirds of the population and left the country devastated since 2011. Districts controlled by rebel factions have either been besieged by the regime or invaded by the extremists of Daesh. The militants have committed human rights violations and crimes against humanity on a large scale.

Non-Kurds in other provinces have faced brutal repression at the hands of the pro-Kurd Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The latter two are designated as terrorists by the government in Ankara.

The international community has stood by and watched all of this and blamed Turkey for supporting extremists or cooperating with rebel factions to fuel the war or even to facilitate the partition of Syria. On the other hand, the so-called international coalition against Daesh has been working for years with little to show for it. Interestingly, Daesh has been expanding not in Assad-held territories but in rebel-controlled regions and it has now embarked on attacks within Turkey.

On 22 August, for example, a Daesh-affiliated suicide bomber killed 54 innocent people at a wedding celebration in Turkey’s south-eastern frontier province of Gaziantep. Pro-Kurdish troops, meanwhile, crossed the red line set by Turkey and moved west of the Euphrates, leaving Ankara no choice but to send its troops across the border. In doing so Erdogan has sent a strong message to all parties that Turkey’s sovereignty and national security are inviolable, and a new Ottoman era has been ushered in.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.