Turkey’s War against Syria: Neo-Ottoman Islamism or Euro-Atlanticist Drang nach Osten?



The AKP regime in Turkey has been heavily involved in promoting the war against the Syrian Ba’athist regime. Together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey is the main regional sponsor of the anti-Ba’athist forces. Is Turkey, a long-standing NATO member and currently in negotiations for full EU membership, acting as a Euro-Atlanticist asset? Or is the AKP regime engaging in neo-Ottoman statecraft?

On March 21st, thousands of Islamist fighters from the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front and the Saudi/Qatari backed Salafi Islamic Front seized the historic village of Kasaab. A Christian village, populated almost entirely by Armenians, Kasaab is in the Syrian province of Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast by the Turkish border.

Almost all of Kasaab’s 2000 residents fled 35 miles southwards to Latakia city, aided by units of the Syrian army. Despite denials by the Turkish regime, it is clear that the attack was launched from Turkey. Local villagers, as well as the Syrian army, reported mortar shells and gunfire coming from the Turkish border. On the Turkish side, locals reported seeing thousands of fighters crossing the border at multiple points.

Two days later, a Syrian reconnaissance plane flying a support mission over Kassab to assist Syrian ground forces was shot down by Turkish fighter jets. Turkey claimed that the Syrian plane had violated Turkish airspace.


These are just the latest incidents in a relentless Turkish-backed campaign against the Assad regime. From within Turkish borders, rebels and foreign fighters from Europe and Central Asia launch attacks and the CIA runs weapons and ammunitions trafficking.

In a report published on April 6th, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh even claimed that Turkey was behind the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in August 2013. This was the ‘humanitarian crisis’ event that the Euro-Atlanticist war party hoped to convert into a full blown military campaign against Syria.


Why does the Turkish regime appear to be doing everything in its power to help the war against the Ba’athist regime? Turkish-Syrian relations in the last century were strained by a number of local and regional issues. These included the Turkish annexation of Hatay from the French mandate of Syria in 1938, Turkish dam building projects in South Eastern Turkey, and Syrian protection for PKK militants. On the Syrian side, there was also distrust of Turkey’s Kemalist politics – support for the USA, NATO membership and co-existence with Israel.

However, none of this explains Turkey’s deep collaboration with the anti-Assad forces, especially as under the AKP regime there appeared to have been a rapprochement between the neighbouring states. Turkey seemed to be re-balancing away from the traditional Kemalist agenda towards a more independent neo-Ottoman engagement with its neighbours.

At the same time Syria was beginning to adopt neo-liberal and democratic reforms. The two nations appeared to be moving closer together, with a free trade agreement concluded in 2004 and joint military manoeuvres conducted in 2009. The latter were even followed by discussions of possible future defence co-operation.

Then, in 2011, with the outbreak of the Syrian war, everything changed.

There were numerous immediate precursors to the Syrian rebellion. Since 2005, the Syrian regime has been committed to a Chinese style ‘Socialist Market Economy’. Deregulation of the agricultural economy has created numerous problems, including drought from over-use of land, unemployment levels of up to 20-25%, and massive drops in real wages. This is one of the main reasons the rebellion has been stronger in rural areas.


The secular, socialist and anti-imperialist Ba’athist regime is strongly associated with the Alawite and Christian minorities – the Assads are prominent Alawites. The Syrian rebellion includes a significant sectarian Sunni element – especially amongst the many thousands of foreign fighters who constitute an ‘international brigade’ of Sunni extremism. The war has to be understood in the context of the generalised sectarian conflict that is tearing Syria, Lebanon and Iraq apart.

The key promoters of this sectarian conflict have been Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the Euro-Atlanticist bloc and the world’s greatest exporter of religious extremism and sectarianism – and the Euro-Atlanticist bloc itself, whose imperial machinations, from the Pakistan ISI-CIA promoted Afghan revolt in 1979 to the Iraq war in 2003, together with unswerving support for Israel, has played a major part in fanning the flames of Salafi extremism throughout the Middle East.

Furthermore, the regime has a poor human rights record, with mass detention, imprisonment without trial, and torture of dissidents.

But these precursors of the rebellion do not in and of themselves reveal the ultimate geopolitical significance of the Syrian conflict, nor do they fully explain the goals and motivations of the major proxies and sponsors involved in the war.

The popular view of the war, sustained by the mainstream media, is based on a template narrative that was also used to justify aggression against Libya in 2011. According to this template narrative, ‘legitimate protests’ are brutally suppressed leading to the outbreak of civil unrest which escalates into civil war. The target regime is implicated in one or more highly publicised ‘human rights outrages’, leading to military intervention by some configuration of the Euro-Atlantic axis with support from client and/or local states.

The template is purely for public consumption. Even when the narrative has a basis in fact, it does not truthfully account for the real aims and motivations for the military action. It is a functional myth, designed to secure popular consent for military action.

In fact, Euro-Atlanticist strategic policy has long favoured the elimination of the Assad regime as a pre-requisite for the pacification of the Mediterranean, the final resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a manner acceptable to US and Israeli public opinion, and the incorporation of the Levant into the EU/NATO space. The war against Syria is strategically connected to the wars against Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011), and a precursor to the end-game confrontation with Iran

In the realm of ‘hard-power’, as General Wesley Clark famously recounted in his 2003 book, ‘Winning Modern Wars’, within weeks of 9/11, US military analysts were hatching a five year plan to attack Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, last but emphatically not least, Iran. The order of business and the timeline were defective, but it’s clearly a work in progress.



Well before 9/11, in 1996, a study group prepared a report for Benjamin Netanyahu titled ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’. The authors, something of a neo-conservative ‘Who’s Who’, included Richard Perle, who served under Reagan and Bush Jr, Douglas Feith, who served under Bush Jr, and David Wurmser, who worked for Dick Cheney and John Bolton.

The document proposes that rather than seeking a general peace, Israel should work jointly with Jordan and Turkey to contain, destabilize and roll-back entities that are a threat to all three. The document targets Iraq, Iran and Syria. The neo-conservative movement, a massively influential element in the formulation of Washington ‘Deep State’ foreign policy strategy, adapted a policy initially designed for Israel to the post 9/11 USA situation.

The state of play at the moment is that Iraq has already been neutralised and is now in a permanent state of sectarian civil war. Eliminating the Assad regime would remove a major state sponsor of Hezbollah, strengthening the Israeli position and stabilising Lebanon. It would also remove a key ally of the Iranian regime, which is viewed by the Euro-Atlanticist elite and its Gulf allies as the key long-term threat.

NATO is currently building a trans-national Ballistic Missile Defence System – agreed at the NATO Lisbon Conference in 2010 – for the express purpose of containing Iran (and, one suspects, Russia). Neo-conservatives in Washington are constantly pushing for a hawkish approach on the Iranian nuclear program.

With regard to ‘soft-power’, the Euro-Atlanticist Drang nach Osten has adopted a multi-layered approach since the collapse of the socialist bloc. The EU and NATO both run co-option and co-operation programs that implement a phased approach for extending hegemony into the East Mediterranean and Levant. It follows naturally from this process that non-aligned nations pursuing a different social, political and economic model will eventually be isolated and contained.

EU/NATO expansion will extend the capitalist social, political and economic model, expand the space for industrial and capital accumulation, deepen the NATO global policing function, and isolate states that oppose Euro-Atlanticist regional hegemony and/or are aligned to geopolital opponents
As part of this strategic expansion, since 1995 the EU has been running what is currently called the Union for the Mediterranean, a multi-lateral partnership with 15 partner countries from the Middle East and Balkans, including Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Libya is currently an observer state. Syria suspended membership in December 2011 in response to EU sanctions.

The intention is to politically and economically integrate the Middle East into the EU space by privatising and de-regulating the flow of capital and labour, implementing infrastructure projects to underpin economic and energy integration, and creating region-wide governance protocols imposing western political culture. The Union includes an institutional architecture, with a secretariat and a set of permanent committees.

On a parallel track, NATO has been running the Mediterranean Dialogue program since 1994. Partners include Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Israel. In 2012, Libya was invited to join. Under the terms of this dialogue, NATO now has Individual Cooperation Programmes(ICP) with Israel, Egypt and Jordan. The Israeli ICP will see it contributing to the NATO naval patrol in the Eastern Mediterranean – Operation Active Endeavour.

In this context, it is no coincidence that since the collapse of the socialist bloc the regimes in the Middle East that have been eliminated by the ‘international community’ were anti-imperialist regimes that restricted access to international capital, maintained national and social control of energy resources, and opposed Euro-Atlanticist military and political hegemony.

Only Syria and Iran now remain as unambiguous antagonists of the project. The 2011 rising against Assad provided the opportunity for the Euro-Atlanticist bloc to sponsor and promote an attack on the Syrian regime for strategic and geopolitical reasons.

But what is Turkey’s role in this? The AKP regime has not enjoyed a particularly close relationship with NATO or even the EU, despite imminent accession.

Certainly, Turkey’s importance to NATO has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, it was critical as the southern flank of the NATO encirclement of the Eastern Bloc. This is why Turkey was able to be remain a NATO member despite the on-going war with Kurdish separatism and the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

With the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, Turkey’s role has diminished. It is now just one of three NATO members on the Black Sea. The other two, Bulgaria and Romania, host the US Joint Task Force East program, which includes a permanent US military presence and on-going joint training exercises. Turkey opposed both this venture as well as a plan to expand Operation Active Endeavour into the Black Sea.

The AKP has also been at pains to point out that Turkish participation in NATO operations in Iraq and Afghanistan does not include combat troops. Added to all this, relations between Turkey and Israel are currently at an all-time low. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise the State of Israel, but under the AKP regime events such as the 2009/9 Gaza war, the 2010 Gaza Flotilla raid, and alleged Turkish involvement in the exposure of Israeli agents in Iran in 2013, have significantly soured relations.

Alongside this there is greater Turkish openness to Russia – a significant geopolitical opponent of the Euro-Atlanticist bloc. Turkey is a Dialogue Partner of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and has signed numerous economic and visa-free travel agreements with Russia.

Turkey’s major trading partner is now the EU, but at the same time that the Turkish regime is seeking full EU membership it is also carving out an increasingly independent role in regional and global affairs, with a particular interest in the nations of the former Ottoman empire. This has led analysts to describe AKP policy as a form of neo-Ottomanism. It should also be noted that the AKP have strong links to the Islamist strand in Turkish politics. Recep Erdogan was himself a member of the Islamist National Salvation Party and the Islamist Welfare Party.

In 1999 he served 4 months in prison for reciting an Islamist poem in public. The AKP/Erdogan regime is commonly associated with the Islamic Brotherhood, and enjoyed good relations with the Morsi regime in Egypt. Whilst the label is not entirely accurate, there are Sunni Islamist elements in the AKP that are broadly aligned with the Islamic Brotherhood.

In light of this, should Turkey’s war against the Syrian regime be seen as part of the Euro-Atlanticist geopolitical project for the Middle East, or should it be seen as part of a neo-Ottoman policy of reviving Turkey’s role as a regional power while furthering the Islamist cause?

The answer seems to be – both. Turkey is pursuing a regional neo-Ottoman Islamist agenda and at the same time serving Euro-Atlanticist geopolitical interests.

The AKP regime has a direct, national interest in the outcome of a civil war played out on its southern border. The regime is a major sponsor of the rebellion, and is not making any noticeable efforts to focus its support exclusively on the ‘liberal’ factions, such as the Syrian National Council, based in Istanbul. Turkey is directly sponsoring, aiding and abetting the radical Islamist elements that have come increasingly to the fore in the war and that, on the ground, dominate the opposition to the Syrian regime.

The AKP regime as a whole is clearly working for the overthrow of the Assad regime and the institution of a regime that is more amenable to Turkish interests. Islamist elements in the AKP, with roots in the banned Welfare Party, also have an ideological commitment to eliminating the last bastion of post-colonial secular socialism in the Arab world and furthering the Islamist cause.

However, whilst pursuing its own national and ideological interests, the AKP regime is also serving the geopolitical interests of the Euro-Atlanticist bloc, which require that the Assad regime be eliminated as an obstacle to Euro-Atlanticist hegemony in the Middle East. Furthermore, by eliminating the Assad regime, a significant state supporter of Hezbollah and the Iranian regime would be removed, stabilising Lebanon, strengthening Israel, and preparing the ground for the end-game confrontation with Iran.



Mr. Lionel Reynolds who is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media runs his own website, called Dispatchs from the Empire: http://dispatchesfromempire.com/.

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