by Daniele Santoro
This article appears on Limes n. 7/2023, «Il Gran Turco», at this link.
Semantic evolutions are fraught with geopolitical implications. They reflect perceptions, inclinations, and states of mind. They have strategic substance. The transition from ‘neo-Ottomanism’ to the ‘century of Türkiye’ has in this sense a revolutionary character. The narrative centred on Ottoman glory was imbued with nostalgia, melancholy, frustration. It was aimed at a glorious past impossible to resurrect. It was unrealistic and geopolitically counterproductive, as the Syrian disaster plastically demonstrates. It originated from Erdoǧan’s anachronistic desire to enter Damascus like his illustrious predecessor Yavuz Sultan Selim, to ‘pray in the Umayyad Mosque’. It was an ambition that risked costing the Turkish president oblivion, making his fate similar to that of the Karakhanids who from nomadic camps in the Central Asian steppe proclaimed themselves sovereigns of China, or the Mengugekids who from the redoubt of Erzincan evoked their sovereignty over the world.
Re-educated by the State of which he is the head, the Turkish President has finally introduced the most crucial Kemalist lesson, the geopolitical sense of the revolution of which the ‘Ghazi’ was the interpreter. The profound nature of Kemalism lies in the inculcation in the Turkish collective imagination of a sense of the limit – geographical and mental. Kemal’s critique of the Seljuk-Ottoman and broader imperial past was not ideological but strategic in nature. Atatürk became the eternal leader because he wanted to found an eternal state, thus putting an end to the fickle transitory character of the empires forged by the heirs of Mete Han, fatally destined to succumb because they were structurally devoted to unlimited territorial expansion. They were incapable of separating – first and foremost in logical terms – military victory from the extension of imperial territory. This forced them to conceive success in war as a geopolitical achievement, as a means of obtaining tactical benefits to be turned into strategic advantages through the gradual increase of state power. But state power is a function of territorial extension only up to a certain limit. Already in 1906, at the age of 25, Mustafa Kemal confided in the future revolutionary leader Ali Fuat Cebesoy the need to found a “nation-state with defensible borders”. For a Turk, this was a truly brilliant insight, with no precedent in two thousand years of history.
This was a revolutionary conception of which Erdoǧan – as a revolutionary – finally understood the profound meaning, as clearly demonstrated by the dynamics triggered by the second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The cooperation developed by Turkey and Azerbaijan after Baku’s victory over Yerevan was unique. Never before did two Turkish entities perceive themselves as allies – Turkish history is first and foremost a succession of internecine feuds. Turks have always perceived other Turks as enemies. No Turkish ruler could ever conceive the existence of another Turkish ruler as legitimate. The Seljuk and Ottoman empires themselves were first and foremost the product of the victory of one Turkish tribe over another. Seljuk’s descendants imposed their rule over the Iranian plateau by defeating Masood’s Ghaznavids at the famous Battle of Dandanaqan. Osman and his successors created the empire by annihilating the Anatolian beyliks, without even imagining the prospect of making them satellites, a privilege the Turks only granted to non-Turks. This is the reason why the military – and other – support Turkey offered Azerbaijan has a revolutionary character. It is a sign of Erdoǧan’s attempt to revolutionise the Turks’ geopolitical approach as Kemal had revolutionised their mentality, to imprint his indelible mark on Turkish history. This is a necessary – though obviously not sufficient – prerequisite for Turkish modernity.
It is at this point that the importance of the transition from Neo-Ottomanism to the century of Turkey emerges sharply. Not ‘Turkish century’, as in Turgut Özal’s narrative, but ‘of Turkey’. The geopolitical ambition rises from the foundations of the atheistic State, an indispensable strategic premise for a sustainable imperial project. Atheism too is a strategic premise, as a logical consequence of a correct interpretation of the spirit of the times, a manifestation of which is the imaginative project of the United States of Turkey, a conglomerate of (semi-)independent entities kept in orbit by the gravitational force of the Anatolian Sun – an idea fuelled by a nationalist sentiment no longer addressed only to the citizens of the Republic of Turkey but to the Turkish universe. Better still, to Turkish citizens. Despite some rhetorical deviations, Ankara does not aspire to annex Iranian Azerbaijan or East Turkestan. The targets of the imperial project are the independent Turkish Republics – Turkish States – to be voluntarily integrated into a broader imperial construction, not through territorial extension and forced annexation, but through the force of attraction generated by the power of Turkey. This would be the first time in history a Turkish tribe put its military resources at the disposal of other Turkish tribes instead of trying to subjugate them by violence. The objective is to draw them into an imperial confederation of which the Organisation of Turkish States is the archetype. The confederation would naturally not be based on ethnicity, but on sentimental drive, as demonstrated by Hungary’s enthusiastic accession to the former Turkish Council. It is highly unlikely that Ankara will be able to complete this ambitious project during Erdoǧan’s term in office – which could even be another decade. But the dynamics triggered by Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan in the second Nagorno-Karabakh War – especially the progressive integration between the armies of the two States and the gradual political unification that is likely to follow – could be enough to make the Turkish President go down in history as the unifier of the Turks. Or, rather, as the aggregator of the Turks and as the originator of a revolutionary geopolitical approach that will allow his successors to increase the demographic, economic, and energy resources of Turkey (understood as the eternal state), without expanding its territory at the expense of the subjugated subjects. On the contrary, it helps to avenge affronts and injustices, using its military superiority and the resulting successes in a properly strategic manner. The objective is to generate the critical mass necessary to repeat the technological miracle of the combat drones, without burdening itself with the human and territorial burdens that determined the structural transience of the sixteen empires that preceded the Republic. Attaining this objective would allow the Turks of Turkey to accumulate the geopolitical clout necessary to impose their own vision of modernity, first to themselves, then to their satellites, and finally to the rest of humanity. The Turks of 2123 will be able retrospectively to christen ‘Turkey’s century’ as ‘Erdoǧan’s century’. Provided that, however, as it directs its prow towards Turan, the Anatolian ‘ship-territory’ does not sink into the ‘Sea of Islands’.
The Turks have always been an exclusively terrestrial nation, morbidly bound to the earth, to the solid element, understood as the substratum protecting the ‘martyrs buried without a shroud’. The ancestral hostility towards water is plastically revealed by the semantic choice of adopting a single lemma to indicate the liquid element in its various manifestations: Derya, loosely translatable as ‘mass of water’. The nomadic Turks christened Amuderya and Siriderya the rivers that encircled the core of the empires of the Middle Ages. Once (partially) sedentarised, they bestowed the naval commander – ideally destined to impose Ottoman rule over seas and oceans – with the title Kapudan-ı Derya. The march in pursuit of the heart of contemporary civilisation unfolded slavishly along the Eurasian land routes, from the edge of the Central Plain to the Central Asian steppe, and from there to the Iranian plateau and the ‘land of Rome’ (İklim-ı Rûm). And it was in Anatolia – in the East of the Greco-Roman tradition – that the descendants of Mete Han discovered the sea, an event celebrated in one of the touching scenes of the successful TV series Diriliş Ertuǧrul, which immortalises the emotion of Osman’s father and his companions at the sight of the Black Sea.
The predecessors of the tribe that was to found the Ottoman Empire, the Seljuk dynasty of Rome (Selcûkiyân-i Rûm in the Persian diction prevalent at their time), had partially grasped the geopolitical importance of the seas, imprinting their grand strategy on the extension of territorial dominion from the Anatolian core of the State to the Black Sea and Mediterranean-oriented port cities. A revolution that is commemorated today in the coat of arms of the Republic of Turkey’s navy, which dates back to 1081, the year in which the Seljuk naval forces were founded. However, they did not trigger a true anthropological transformation, as they failed to fully immerse themselves in the liquid element. Indeed, their Ottoman successors continued to watch the sea from the land, failing in the historical task of evolving into a maritime power. The ephemeral Ottoman supremacy over the Mediterranean was an almost fortuitous consequence of the land march that led Sultan Selim from Istanbul to Cairo between the spring of 1516 and the winter of 1517, a military hegira that allowed the Great State to not only girdle the eastern section of the Mare Nostrum, but also to do so in a more than symbolic manner.
The aquatic dimension of Ottoman geopolitics has always had a predominantly fluvial, rather than maritime, declination. The tricontinental supremacy of Osman’s heirs was based on their control of the great Afro-Eurasian waterways, from the Nile to the Dnepr, from the Danube to the Euphrates and the Tigris. The same hegemony over the Black Sea – the Mare Ottomanum par excellence – derived from their dominion over the mouths of the rivers that flow into it, a dominion that had a terrestrial character. At the height of the Neo-Ottoman period, the then leading Turkish English-language newspaper Hürriyet Daily News published news about the Republic’s imperial space, grouping it into five areas represented by as many rivers: Danube, Volga, Euphrates, Kura-Aras, Amu Darya. The lack of interest in the seas emerges symbolically from the fate of the two great admirals of Turkish history: Çaka Bey, who was beheaded by the Seljuk Kılıç Arslan despite his decisive successes in the Aegean against the Byzantines, and Piri Reis, condemned to death by the Ottoman Suleiman despite his genius in cartography and his visionary projection towards the oceans – a tradition to which Erdoǧan intended to make his modest contribution by beheading the top brass of the Republic of Turkey’s navy just over a decade ago.
It was precisely this overpowering terrestrial dimension of Ottoman geopolitics that caused the end of the Great State. While the Porte dispersed its resources to vainly extend its imperial axis from Vienna to Tabriz, the Europeans erected great maritime empires in the oceanic waters, progressively strangling Osman’s heirs. They realised with extreme and culpable delay – when all was (almost) lost – that an exclusively terrestrial power could not exercise global supremacy for long, that dominion over the ‘seven climates’ could not be separated from control of the waters, the sea routes, and the bottlenecks that strangle them.
Together with the concept of limits, this was the imperishable lesson that Mustafa Kemal imparted to his children. The Ghazi touched upon the potentially deadly consequences of Big State’s failure to conceptualise maritime power, in Tobruk, in Çanakkale, on the Sakarya River. It was the total absence of Ottoman naval power in the Mediterranean – the (not only) geographic heart of the empire – that allowed the Italians to land undisturbed in Libya, the British to approach the Dardanelles unopposed, the Greeks to pour onto the Aegean coast and march towards the Anatolian depths. As it put the very survival of an independent and sovereign Turkish nation at risk, on 26 August 1922, from Koca Tepe hill, the Ghazi ordered not only his soldiers but the entire nation to march on the Mediterranean, triggering an anthropological transformation that a century later took on the geopolitical guise of the Blue Homeland doctrine.
The character of this doctrine is revolutionary. It implies the conceptualisation of the sea as territory and hence as homeland, distorting the Turks’ morbid relationship with the land and inducing them to embrace the aquatic element and mix their blood with saline waters to make them their ethereal living space. The sea becomes the dimension in which the Turk is destined to vent his instinct for territorial expansion, the environment in which to achieve the military victory that changes the nation’s destiny on the ocean steppe, and along with it that of the rest of humanity. In this sense, the confrontation with Greece from Samothrace to Cyprus takes on eschatological significance. In the waters of baptism of Rome’s Empire – mankind’s imperial standard of reference – the ‘century of Turkey’ will arise.
The decisive battle will be fought in Cyprus. Or, at any rate, it will have Cyprus as the highest stakes. The Republic’s strategists – from Atatürk to Davutoǧlu – have always considered Aphrodite’s island as a geopolitical theatre of truly global scope, a junction from where to guard the waterways that link the Turkish Straits to the Suez Canal and to project influence in the main Eurasian maritime theatres, from the Persian/Arabian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, from the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Hormuz. It is here that the game of the century (not just Turkey’s) will be played. It will be the (eventual) military victory in Cyprus that will trigger the irreversible transmutation of the wolf into a sea dog, to generate the prestige necessary to allow the Eternal State to aggregate the Turkish oecumene around its power. This will allow Erdoǧan to leave his indelible mark on the epic that originated two thousand years ago in the inhospitable Siberian taiga. Above all, it will allow him to accumulate sufficient human and material capital to imprint the Turkish mark on modernity, completing Atatürk’s work. So that when Allah calls him to take his place in the funeral dwelling ideally arranged in the majestic Istanbul mosque of Çamlıca, he will be able to stand tall in the presence of Ghazi Mustafa Kemal. And inherit his eternal glory.
Translated by Dr Mark A. Sammut Sassi