Erdogan's recent electoral victory speech puts his true intentions regarding Turkey's foreign policy goals in perspective. He said that this victory is as important in Ankara as it is in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo, under Ottoman times, an important Ottoman city; that his party's victory was as important in a large Turkish city, Izmir, on the Western Anatolian coast, as it is in Damascus, and as important in Istanbul as it is in Jerusalem.
What does all this mean? At the very least, this victory speech signals a wish for Ottoman cultural colonialism and imperialism. The places Erdogan names were all part of by the Ottoman Empire; the territory of the modern Turkish Republic is what remained after World War I and Turkey's War of Independence from the occupying Allied forces. Turkey forms only the central part, and relatively small fraction, of what had been the Ottoman Empire, which at its height extended deep into southern Europe, and included most of today's Arab world and even beyond.
In saying that this victory is as important in all of these former Ottoman cities, Erdogan apparently sees himself as trying to reclaim Turkey's full Ottoman past. In religious terms, the entire reason for being of the Ottoman Empire was to spread the Sunni form of Islam prevalent there. Sunnis, who make up about 85% of the Muslim world, believe that when Mohammed died, the leadership of Islam was passed down through what amounted to the Meccan artistocracy, and not through Mohammed's family -- which is what the Shi'ites believe. The cities Erdogan mentioned are almost all Sunni, with a few non-Sunni ones thrown in.
The Ottomans had two major rivals: the non-Muslim Europeans to the northwest, and the Shi'ite Persian Empire to the east. Although the Ottomans saw each enemy as presenting a different set of problems, they saw their own role in traditional Sunni Muslim terms: Continuing the Jihad, namely the conquest of the non-Muslim world. This requires expanding Sunni rule wherever possible; it also requires forcing non-Muslims to surrender to Sunni Islamic rule. In adopting this policy, the Ottomans were merely following the instructions of virtually every classical Muslim jurist: unending political and military conflict until the entire world submits to Islamic rule.
Shi'ites, as opposed to non-Muslims, have always been seen by Sunnis as an existential threat to Sunnism. Shi'ites, who make up about 12-15% of the Muslim world, believe that the only true rulers of Islam are Mohammed's direct descendants, not merely local "aristocracy," as the Sunnis believe; these rulers they call Imams. For Sunnis, "Imam" is often used just to mean "a preacher at a mosque."
Most Shiites believe that the definitive ruler of Islam was a direct descendant of Mohammed; is known as "The Twelfth Imam," or "The Mahdi" who disappeared in 873 A.D. -- a Messianic figure, whom they believe will return one day to rule the Muslims, just as many Christians believe in the Second Coming of Jesus.
When the Ayatollah Khomeini began ruling Iran in 1979, many Iranians began calling him "Imam' – denoting both "Ruler of the Muslims," and also that they thought he was possibly "The Twelfth Imam," re-emerged, for whom they had been waiting. Khomeini never really addressed this issue, seemingly purposefully leaving unclear his status as the reincarnation of theTwelfth Imam.
Shi'ites are engaged in an unending battle -- very often violent -- to convert others to the "true form of Islam" – theirs. The rulers of the Persian Empire in the 1500s consequently converted to Shi'ism, becoming the mortal Islamic enemy of the Sunni Ottomans; their basic reason for existing was to convert others to the "true form of Islam" – theirs.
While choosing to become Shiites, the rulers of the Persian Empire knew that they had a natural ally within the Ottoman Empire: a group called Alevis, who then lived in Eastern Anatolia in what is now Turkey . The Alevi religion consists of a mixture of Central Asian and Turkish pre-Islamic customs; but most importantly to revere the First Imam of the Shiites, Ali, a central figure in Shiite Islam. The Alevis in Eastern Anatolia therefore came to be seen as a natural ally of the mortal enemies of the Ottomans, the Shiites; and as a "fifth column" in the Sunni Ottoman Empire. From that time on, until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Ottomans had to worry about the security of their eastern border area.
When the Persians converted to Shi'ism, the Ottomans evidently felt they had no alternative other than to send their military out to the east to fight them and address what they saw as a mortal threat to the existence of the Ottoman Empire, which was Sunni to its core.
The scars of this early 1500s battle between the Sunni Ottomans and the Persian Shiites has influenced the Turkish Sunni psyche so deeply that today's Turkish Sunnis -- and most importantly among them, Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan -- still recite age-old pejorative Turkish proverbs about both the Shiites and the Alevis. These proverbs include references to the Alevis and Shiites as untrustworthy brigands who also engage in indecent acts.
In spite of the historical animosity between Turkish Sunnis and the non-Sunni rulers of the neighboring countries –- such as the Shiites in Iran and Iraq, and the Alawis ruling Syria -- Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria tried to forge a loose political and economic alliance, which lasted until the beginning of what the Arabs called the "Arab Facebook Revolution," and which we in the West call "The Arab Spring." But Erdogan's Sunni inclinations seem to have overcome his political ambitions with his neighbors as the Sunni-non-Sunni basic differences re-emerged, as well as for political and economic reasons.
At the moment Erdogan is threatened by other problems that Iran is bringing to his doorstep. These include Iran's attempt to make itself the major energy transport country in the area, bypassing Turkey. Turkey's major geographic significance now is that it is a transporter of energy, bringing gas and oil from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and oil from northern Iraq to the world market. If Iran takes Turkey's place in the energy market, especially in transporting energy to India, China, and the region, Turkey will suffer an immense economic and strategic loss.
Further, Erdogan must be terrified of what he sees happening in Syria. Assad and his ruling clique are not Sunnis. They are Alawis -- not exactly the same as Turkey's Alevis, but similar in that they also revere Ali. But unlike the Shiites, the Alawis view Ali as a deity, much as the Christians revere Jesus. As a result of the continuing upheaval in Syria, the ruling party of Turkey might see itself as surrounded by various active religious threats from the east and from Syria, along Turkey's southern border.
Syria's tyrant, Bashar Assad, and his late father, Hafiz Assad, both Alawis, had come to an understanding with Syria's Sunni business elite, enabling these entrepreneurs to make money in exchange for acquiescing to Assad's Alawi rule. As long as these tacit agreements were in place, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan could feel comfortable dealing with Assad. Erdogan's and Assad's families even vacationed together, and Erdogan publicly called Assad his close friend -- an alliance all the more curious as the Syrian Sunnis view the Alawis with utter disdain, stemming from the Alawi worship of Ali as a deity, rather than as just the Twelfth Imam.
When the Syrian Sunnis started abandoning their ruler, Bashar Assad a few weeks ago, Erdogan took his cue from them and allowed Syrian Sunnis to host several Syrian opposition conferences in Turkey -- including one conference paid for by a wealthy Syrian Sunni businessman who until recently had been a supporter of Assad; and another conference, in Istanbul, of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Although both conferences had slightly different approaches to solving Syria's political problems, what united them was that at both, Syria's Sunnis -- Erdogan's natural allies -- were the dominant actors.
Erdogan may well now feel himself under threat from both Syria and Iran, until recently two of his allies. The policy of of "Zero problems with all neighbors" of Erdogan's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has proven to be an abject failure.
Despite Erdogan's attempts to paper over some of his differences with the other countries in his region, Erdogan -- a devote Sunni Muslim –- could not make more than a temporary alliance with the Iranian Shiites, the Sunnis' tradition enemy. To be sure, he could have entered into a temporary alliance with them, as he could with Israel or the United States, but only in order to accomplish other, temporary, expedient goals.
Erdogan undoubtedly sees that he now has an opportunity to advance his Ottoman-centric Sunni policy in Syria and beyond. If Assad's Alawi regime falls, and is replaced by a Sunni-dominated one, Syria -- approximately 70% Sunni -- would be a natural ally for Turkey. Syria's Sunni business- and upper classes have had centuries-old connections with their counterparts in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey. Many marriages have taken place between upper class Syrian Sunnis and Turkish Sunnis. Moreover, Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, close to the Turkish border, has had a strong Ottoman character, and could again become the major trading city it was until the Turkish-Syrian border was drawn after World War I.
In all, Erdogan's bottom line appears to be advancing a reconstitution of the Ottoman Empire, which he and his fellow Turkish Sunni fundamentalists now call " The Ottoman Region." In the long run, all non-Sunnis -- such as Iran, Israel, Syria (if it remains under Alawi rule after things eventually quiet down in Syria), and a Shiite-ruled Iraq -- remain outsiders. Erdogan might make temporary alliances with any of them, but, psychologically, that will be all he is prepared to do.
Turkey's attempted apparent rapprochement with Israel -- at least for the time being -- reflects his tactical thinking: Turkey does not want more trouble in its area right now. Erdogan is likely alarmed by the consequences of what might happen in Syria if Assad continues killing Syrians: those being killed are largely Sunni. Turkey's alliances with Iran, Iraq and Syria have all failed. It is hard to imagine why Turkey thought such alliances could succeed, based as they were on too many tenuous connections -- a Shi'ite Iran, an Alawi-ruled Syria and a Shiite-dominated Iraq. Not one of these is a natural ally for the Sunni Turks.
As for Erdogan and Davutoglu, in the depths of their souls, they are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims and see themselves as such. The Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian alliance, which Erdogan worked so hard to build, has failed. Erdogan's and Davutoglu's long-term, Sunni goals, and those of the non-Sunnis in the area, have been, and will always be, vastly different. Turkey might conclude temporary alliances with non-Sunnis as needed, to address immediate concerns, but we cannot expect much more than this. Given Iran's regional bid to replace Turkey as "energy-central," and the apparent attempt of the Shi'ite Iranian-Syrian-Alawi alliance to try to put down the Sunni-dominated Syrian insurrection, Turkey needs to make sure it does not have additional problems.
It is in this context that we should understand Turkey's renewed interest in the U.S. and Israel. As such, both the U.S. and Israel should be extremely wary of Erdogan and his associates. Erdogan's Turkey does not see long-term interests with either. Given economic developments in Iran, Alawite oppression in Syria, and Shiite-dominance in Iraq, Erdogan understands that he must take a temporary hiatus from his goal of reasserting what appears to be his real goal -- the Turkish Sunni domination of the entire Middle East.