WASHINGTON – A Turkish government decision earlier this month to turn back Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque after more than 80 years as a museum has renewed debate over the direction of the Muslim country, with some experts saying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, through his expansionist policies at home and abroad, is attempting to revive a new Ottoman Empire.
Built in 567, the third and current Hagia Sophia was a major Christian church until a 15th-century sultan converted it into a mosque. In 1935, the secular founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the Byzantine edifice into a museum for all to visit.
Despite global condemnation, Hagia Sophia held its first prayer service Friday. Wearing a religious head covering, Erdogan participated in the service by reciting verses from the Quran. He later called converting the site into a mosque his great achievement and “the rebirth of our nation.”
“Erdogan sees himself as the caliph of the Muslim world,” David Phillips, director of the Peace-Building and Rights Program at Columbia University, told VOA.
Outside Turkey, the Islamist-leaning leader is pursuing an expansionist policy, Phillips said.
“Under the pretense of fighting terrorism, he has aggressed against Kurds in Syria and Iraq, and used his military to expand Turkey’s influence in Libya,” he said.
From ravaged Syria to the landlocked Kurdish region in northern Iraq, from oil-rich Qatar to the impoverished nations of east and west Africa, from the Balkans to a practically balkanized Libya, observers have noticed a rise in Turkish military interventions unlike anything seen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago. Many of them wonder if Erdogan is trying to make good on his openly stated ambition to expand his country’s global military footprint.
“I would say Erdogan has a ‘mini’ empire,” Soner Cagaptay, author of the recently published book, Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East, told VOA.
“It’s not the empire he thought he would have because it’s definitely not a Middle Eastern empire, nor is it an empire that has the backing of the West,” Cagaptay said.
In most cases, Turkish troops are welcomed guests of governments facing serious domestic or foreign threats. But in some instances, the Turks have gone in to pursue their own objectives regardless of host governments’ objections, according to analysts.
The military expansion, often followed by investment opportunities for Turkish firms, have irritated U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world alike even as Washington appears as a more neutral observer, analysts said.
Syria and Iraq
Rights groups accuse Turkey and its proxies of gross human rights violations in both Syria and Iraq.
Turkey, however, denies allegations that its forces have carried out crimes against civilians. It says its ongoing military operations inside both Iraq and Syria are acts of self-defense against the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syria-based People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“There is the PKK/YPG terror which we’ve also been suffering from,” Gulnur Aybet, a senior adviser to Erdogan, told VOA at an Atlantic Council webinar last week.
While Washington has urged Ankara not to attack the YPG, an effective U.S. partner against the Islamic State terror group, it has been sympathetic to the Turkish war against the PKK, which has been designated a terror group by Turkey, the U.S. and EU.
Both Iraqi and Syrian governments have condemned the Turkish interventions, viewing them as violations of their sovereignty. Regardless of the objection, Turkey says it has no plans to withdraw its troops from Iraq and Syria anytime soon.
Addressing the Turkish presence in Syria last week, Erdogan said, “We will continue to stay in this country until our thousand-year neighbor and brother, the Syrian people, reach freedom, peace and security.”
In northern Iraq, Turkish companies are massively invested in oil, banking and construction sectors.
Open to Africa
In Africa, Erdogan initiated the current Open to Africa Policy in 2005, when Turkey began strengthening military and economic ties with many countries on the continent.
In 2017, when Somalia was being attacked by terror group al-Shabab, an al-Qaida offshoot, Turkey established its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu, where it started training Somali soldiers.
Turkish involvement in Africa goes beyond the armed sector. Turkey has opened dozens of embassies in Africa. It now has 42 embassies, a significant increase since 2003, when it had 12.
In 2018, Turkish trade volume with the continent reached more than $23 billion, up from nearly $5 billion in 2003.
By extending influence to Africa, however, Turkey appears to have triggered the Arab world’s long-held suspicions.
“A century of Arab nationalist rhetoric has depicted the Ottoman Empire as an oppressive imperial power,” Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey coordinator at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told VOA.
“Today, when Erdogan constantly invokes Ottoman history while pursuing policies that threaten the interests of Arab leaders, it makes sense that they would appeal to this memory,” Tahiroglu said.
In 2015, Turkey established a military base in Qatar, the first such base in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The move came a year after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar.
In 2017, when the Persian Gulf diplomatic spat deepened into an outright economic blockade by Saudi Arabia and several of its allies against Qatar, Turkey sent more troops to Qatar to discourage any possible military attack on its ally.
Nothing, however, appears to have drawn the ire of Arab nations more than Turkey’s recent move to send troops to oil-rich Libya.
Turkish troops in recent months have turned the tide of the Libyan war in favor of the Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of warlord Khalifa Haftar, who are supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
Egypt’s parliament last week authorized the deployment of troops to Libya against GNA, prompting the U.N. to warn of a “huge risk” of regional war.
“In Libya, there are multiple objectives for Turkey,” Cagaptay, the Turkish author, said.
“Turkey is trying to make sure that the Ankara-friendly government is not ousted in Tripoli, the capital, because Turkey is after collecting [former Libyan President Moammar] Gadhafi-era debts that total billions of dollars, and Turkey also wants to be part of Libya’s reconstruction,” he told VOA.
The growing animosity between Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also has to do with ideological differences, Cagaptay said.
“Erdogan is the political Islamist who locked up secularist generals. Sissi is the secularist general who locked up political Islamists,” he said, citing the conflict between the two leaders over the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the wider Arab region.
VOA’s Ezel Sahinkaya contributed to this report from Washington.