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Turkey would do well to remember its history 8 octobre 2012

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Times (UK) October 8, 2012, p. 20

Norman Stone *

The shelling of Syria and talk of war are the actions of an overconfident Government. Anyone familiar with Turkey will have seen the ubiquitous statues of the country’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. Sometimes they are inscribed with quotations from the great man (one, on the way to Cappadocia, reads « the Turkish driver is a person of the most exquisite sensitivity »). The best-known says: « Peace at home, peace in the world. » This meant that Turkey would not try to take over the old Ottoman Empire. The frontiers of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 would be respected.

One exception to this came in 1939, when Antioch (today’s Hatay) was given back to Turkey. This was contested by Syria, as many of its people were Arabs, not Turks, and relations with Turkey became tense. Syria let the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist movement have a base in the Bekaa valley, from where it could strike into southeastern Turkey. This history has ramifications for the present stand-off between the two neighbours.

Mostly, Turkey has done well out of the Atatürk formula. True, in 1973 it invaded Cyprus to protect the Turkish minority, but otherwise, it has moved abroad only in international company, for example on UN peace-keeping missions. In a region of notorious turbulence, it is an island of stability and prosperity. Istanbul has more in common with Barcelona than Cairo. The present Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was a hugely successful mayor of that city and is now the hugely successful leader of a political party that keeps being re-elected, the AKP.

Turkey won respect after the First World War, but then its status declined. Intelligent Muslims were only too aware that, in the words of a 19th-century poet, Christians lived in palaces and Muslims in slums. Now, a new sense of mission inspires Mr Erdogan. He wants to show that the Turks are back, and that Islam is quite compatible with capitalism and modern education.

His achievements at home are considerable. But in foreign policy, Mr Erdogan has picked an unresolved quarrel with Israel, and his Foreign Minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, has said that he looks forward to Friday prayers in the Dome on the Rock, once Jerusalem is capital of Palestine. Such sentiments are loudly cheered.

Now Turkey is in a near-war with Syria, and a vicious stand-off has emerged on the border, with artillery exchanges. There are 100,000 refugees in camps (although several thousand went back when they discovered the camps thanked you for not smoking).

Mr Erdogan has rushed a law through parliament permitting war, if necessary. « We are not interested in war, but we’re not far from it either, » he has said. « This nation has come to where it is today having gone through intercontinental wars. »

This is a revolution in Turkish affairs. True, there has been a revival of interest in the Ottoman Empire in the past decade — there is even a TV soap opera about the 16th-century Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent — and this is all to the good after an era when Turkish children were taught that the Ottomans were the Old Corruption and that the very language should be purged of Arabic words. But the idea of neo-Ottomanism that has arisen in some circles, saying that Turkey should take responsibility for former Ottoman territories, is pure romanticism. Nor are relations with Syria ever easy. The last Ottoman governor, Cemal Pasha, kept a lid on the place only through hanging, exiling and flogging.

For Turkey to get involved in this has been a mistake, whatever the momentary thrills of charging into former Ottoman lands on a white horse. No one is enthusiastic, even the most loyal followers of the Prime Minister. Turkey is so firmly directed towards the West that it is difficult even to find Arabic-speaking experts for the media.

It is true that Arab money is fuelling a property bubble in Istanbul, which no doubt in turn contributes to a flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels. But this is turning out badly for Turkey as the Syrians take revenge by sponsoring terrorist acts in Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey and, perhaps soon, elsewhere.

The Americans are no help: they have put their telephone on hold, because of the presidential election. Whatever Barack Obama does could turn out badly and he is well advised to do nothing. So suggestions from Mr Davutoglu of a no-fly zone over northern Syria are politely refused. Turkey could well end up quite alone when it comes to common action.

The dangers, meanwhile, are all too apparent. First there is the opening of another Kurdish front. As the Turks have helped the Syrian rebels, so the Syrians will help the PKK. The terrorist bombs have started and that will not help tourism, which is still a substantial earner. Nor will it help Kurdish-Turkish relations, which are still far better than might be expected.

But the atmosphere is tense, and there is a battle within the Kurdish region between enlightened Muslim reformers, unenlightened conservatives, and PKK terrorists. Then again, the population of Hatay is not just largely Arab, but Alevite, from a branch of Islam that orthodox Sunnis regard as heretical. There are riots and demonstrations against the refugees. Meanwhile, Aleppo, a splendid Ottoman city is bombed and Syria’s archaeological sites are looted.

Turkey is not responsible for this, but the sudden burst of self-confidence inspired by this Government’s considerable successes has gone to its head, and the prudence and hesitancy that met the original Iraq imbroglio have gone. They must return.

Kemal Atatürk was right.

Norman Stone’s latest book is Turkey: A Short History (Thames and Hudson)

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