Turkey: Neo-Ottoman designs and the war in the Caucasus

By Payam Solhtalab

In recent years, there has been an alarming and increasingly fierce assertion of Turkey’s supposed interests on the international stage by the autocratic administration of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This aggressive manoeuvring, while evident throughout Erdoğan’s tenure at the top, has seemingly moved up a gear since the failed coup d’état attempted by sections of the country’s armed forces in July 2016. This event gave added impetus to the Erdoğan administration’s “2023 vision”, a list of purported goals and objectives to be achieved by the time of the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic – also coinciding with the country’s next scheduled general election.

The international dimension of this vision entails a resurrection of Turkey’s stature as the power in the region and reclamation of the mantle it lost upon the defeat and demise of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

On 29 August 2018, in a message marking the 96th anniversary of Turkey’s “Victory Day”, Erdoğan stated, “Turkey reaching its goals for 2023 will shape the future of our entire region along with that of ours.”

As part of this neo-Ottoman outlook, Erdoğan’s Turkey is looking eastwards and to a reassertion of its perceived “natural” position and role in the Turkic-populated lands of the former Soviet Union, towards the western frontiers of China – and, of course, immediately so to the Caucasus region.

Thus, the Armenian people have once more found themselves bearing the brunt of Ankara’s malevolent designs and intent – with Turkey looking to cement its influence and prestige in the Caucasus at the expense of a Russian Federation perhaps perceived as more vulnerable and pre-occupied with the situations elsewhere in the former Soviet Union (Belarus and Ukraine), not to mention its continuing engagements in the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya.

This was made abundantly clear by Turkey’s pivotal role in the recent renewed offensive by the Republic of Azerbaijan on the territories in and around the ethnic Armenian populated and administered enclave of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Under the oft-repeated slogan of  “Two States, One Nation”, Erdoğan encouraged and facilitated a move by President Ilham Aliyev in Baku to break what was essentially a stalemate over the issue and its resolution, by means of force.

Indeed, all major outbreaks of fighting (April 2016, July 2020, and September 2020) since the 1994 ceasefire that brought an end to the first conflict over the area following the collapse of the Soviet Union were provoked by offensives from the Azerbaijani side of the line of contact, with overt backing from Turkey.

Following the cessation of fighting in summer 2020, Turkey conducted joint military exercises with the Azerbaijani armed forces. It is now known that a significant swathe of the military personnel involved in these exercises remained behind in Azerbaijan to oversee the planning and execution of the autumn offensive – including a tactical battalion, high-ranking officers, and instructors. Air cover was to be provided by Turkish warplanes and attack helicopters. A large amount of high-grade military hardware was also built up during this time, including of “Bayraktar TB-2” and “Hermes 900” military drones – supplied by Turkey and Israel respectively – which were deployed to devastating effect.

Islamist fighters

Turkey also recruited upwards of 2000 Islamist fighters from Idlib in Syria, with a smaller contingent from Libya, for deployment in Azerbaijan as forward units in the offensive. Captured Syrian fighters have confirmed their brief was to “cut the throats  of the kafirs [non-Muslims]”. Their deployment, particularly around the southeastern flank of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) meant the presence of roving bands of Sunni Arab jihadis within just a few miles of Iran’s north-western border, further destabilising an already volatile area.

Turkey has previous form here, having helped to assemble a murderous umbrella force – comprising of Grey Wolves ultra-nationalist paramilitaries, Chechen militia, and Afghan mujahedin – to act in a similar capacity during the war in the 1990s.

Also fanned by Turkey, the fiery rhetoric that accompanied this conflict served to incite ethnosectarian sentiment unsettling a small but vocal part of Iran’s huge Azeri ethnic minority population leading to several demonstrations in the country in support of Azerbaijan’s offensive.

While, tellingly, the Aliyev regime has refused to be drawn on the number of its military casualties, it is clear that the Armenian forces and Artsakh Defence Army were unprepared to sustain a similar level. Since then, the Armenian government has continued to publicly reveal numerous instances of atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Azerbaijani forces as they advanced.

The spectacle of Aliyev gloatingly mocking Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in a televised address following the ceasefire should leave no one in any doubt as to the nature of this supposed victory and what it represents.

Russia may have moved to bring a halt to the war and re-establish itself as the de-facto power broker on the ground in the South Caucasus, yet this episode has served to underline Turkey’s mal-intent and bolster its influence in the region. And, the menace of a revived toxic pan-Turkism does not portend well for anyone.

*Payam Solhtalab is a campaigner for peace and détente in the Middle East

Right: US and Turkish troops meet in northern Syria

Wikimedia Commons/ US government image

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