Turkey rakes up a new front with France, having already done so around most of its borders

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s positioning as the first responder to protect the Muslim at large is first and foremost about geo-politics and the Turkish State’s interests

In the days after the horrific beheading of 47-year-old Parisian schoolteacher Samuel Paty by 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov as fallout of free speech debates in France around the Charlie Hebdo cartoons issue, Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan took the opportunity to once again place himself as the premier protector of Islam in the world. A strategy some have cheekily labelled as ‘neo-Ottoman’ or ‘Ottoman 2.0’. Erdogan criticised French president Emmanuel Macron for making ‘anti-Islam’ statements and aired a clarion call for the Muslim world to boycott France, French products and economy (all this even as older photos surfaced online of his wife, First Lady Emine Erdogan, carrying a handbag made by French luxury giant Hermes).

Erdogan’s positioning as the first responder to protect the global ethos, image and power of Islam and by association the wider Muslim world is first and foremost about geo-politics and the Turkish state’s interests, with theology as always providing the springboard to garner support for the same. As Erdogan took to national TV to announce the boycott, the divide between not just Ankara and Paris expanded further but Turkey’s fractures with European states itself visibly expanded within hours, as other capitals, which now includes India, called out Erdogan’s tone and words against Macron.

The Turkey-France spat over Charlie Hebdo cartoons is a continuation of Ankara’s general confrontational tactics both regionally and internationally. For Erdogan, this terror attack in Paris offered an opportunity to bog down Macron using ‘sectarian’ tactics, that is to try and sow discord within French society, where conversations over success and failures of societal and cultural integration have been rife for a long period of time. Ultimately, the underlying crisis beyond Charlie Hebdo are, as in most cases, largely geopolitical in nature.

Turkey has managed to rake up strains around most of its geographic borders. In August, as tensions over oil and gas exploration with Ankara in the eastern Mediterranean reached a critical point with Greece, France deployed assets from its air force and navy to back up Athens, as both European Union members successfully worked in unison to ward off Ankara’s exploration ships, painted from start to finish in the colours of the Turkish flag, away from contested waters. To double down on Turkish threats, Paris has now sought to sell Greece new Dassault Rafale fighter jets as well.

The Mediterranean is of course only one of the few fronts at play here. While taking on European states, Turkey is also simultaneously, and arguably much more vociferously, involved in creating space for itself in the Middle East by undermining the power of the Saudi-UAE block. There is no better illustration of this development than the ongoing civil war in Libya, where the government structure in Tripoli is backed by Erdogan while the challenge to it, via General Khalifa Haftar, is backed by the UAE (along with Russia and till a certain point France) that has led to a cyclical civil war with no end in sight.

Here, Paris has developed close ties with the UAE. During the spat in the Mediterranean, Abu Dhabi sent a contingent of F-16s to the Greek island of Crete for exercises with the Hellenic forces. Both UAE and France had also held their 12th strategic dialogue in June, where defence cooperation has become be a driving component.

Within the Middle East, Erdogan took full advantage of the fractures within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with regard to Qatar. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE orchestrated (a still ongoing) economic blockade against Doha for ‘punching above its weight’ in the region, Turkey swiftly moved in and along with Iran helped the small Arab state by sending troops to the country, less than 80 kilometres from the UAE border. Beyond the immediate Gulf, Turkey has also expanded its military reach, with operations in Syria where it supported rebels (including factions priorly aligned with Al Qaeda), operations against the PKK in northern Iraq, military base in Somalia, troops in Afghanistan as part of its commitments to the NATO-led mission in the country and most recently sending private militias hired from the Syrian war along with air force assets to Azerbaijan, backing Baku in the its latest skirmish in the Nagorno-Karabkh crisis with Armenia.

Cumulatively, all of Turkey’s current military operations is the state’s largest global armed presence since the days of the Ottoman Empire which ended in 1923.

In this ‘neo-Ottoman’esque’ expansionism of hard power by Ankara, it has limited number of allies. In its quest to name and shame Macron, the only overt support Erdogan has received is from its long-term ally Pakistan, and Iran. The Turkey – Iran praxis is perhaps the finest ideation of Ankara’s interest and power led foreign policy, where Islam is used as a force multiplier, and Erdogan props his own image as the one going the distance to protect the faith, and the Muslim community, aiming to showcase the traditional religious power centres in Saudi Arabia as ones that are failing both the religion and its people.

Erdogan’s support of and from Iran stands at the very fissures of sectarian divides of the region. Iran, being the seat of power of Shia Islam, and Erdogan, looking to become a ‘Sunni Ayatollah’, have interests and geo-political aims in common but not much else. Uncharacteristically rallying behind Erdogan, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamanei, addressing “young French people” on Twitter (which is banned in Iran for all young Iranian people) asked them if “freedom of expression means insulting, especially a sacred personage?”. Iran also summoned the French ambassador in Tehran to formally lodge a complaint. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan wrote a letter to leaders of Muslim states to highlight growing Islamophobia in the West and the urgent need to address the same.

The one searing commonality in this influence block of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan is that not one of them directly take on China, which has placed Uighur Muslims in internment camps in Xinjiang for cultural cleansing. There is doubt that the Uighurs are facing the most destitute of scenarios today, as China not only targets them at home, but abroad as well.

Meanwhile, China and its placement of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in such camps is completely missing in Imran Khan’s letter to Muslim leaders. Erdogan has in fact sent Uighurs sought by Beijing back to China via third countries. Tehran meanwhile is preparing to sign a $400 billion, 25 year long strategic, economic and military agreement with Beijing. All these eventualities by Pakistan, Turkey and Iran are led by strategic considerations built upon strategic and tactical interests, and not theological and religious preconditions.

The hedging taking place here is, once again, interest led. While both Turkey and Iran are working to undermine the larger Saudi-UAE led Gulf power block, Islamabad is looking to join this grouping as it fails to rally the Gulf, and organisations such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) behind its narratives on Kashmir. Meanwhile, both Ayatollah Khamenei and Erdogan have criticised India over its moves in Kashmir, a much more palatable narrative for an India obsessed civilian and military leadership in Pakistan.

Roman philosopher from the stoicism school of thought, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (also known as Seneca The Younger), had pontificated; “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”. Erdogan’s overtures as placing himself as the “real” harbinger of Sunni Islam, and beyond that as representation for all Muslims and their faith in the world, is largely a translation in practice of Seneca’s philosophy.

Erdogan’s actual intentions are visible in Turkey’s hard power development and use of the same to expand its political and military role in West Asia and North Africa while undermining the Saudi – UAE block, and Western interests as whole. All other posturing visible today is a means to an end for Ankara’s aims of geo-political upmanship.

Views expressed are personal. 

The article was originally published on ORF Online and has been reproduced here

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