Leadership: The Man Who Would Be Sultan


September 5, 2020: As of mid-2020: Turkey is still tolerating ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) within its borders where the Islamic terrorists conduct illegal banking activities as well as obtaining supplies from black market or legitimate sources. Turkey has long tolerated black market activities and since the 1980s this has included Islamic radicals doing business with these covert trading and supply operations. This tolerance comes with an obligation to refrain from carrying out attacks in Turkey. Between 2014 and 2016 there were some ISIL attacks in Turkey and the Turks responded with more and more pressure on ISIL. In 2017 there was a major ISIL attack Turkey that left 39 dead. Turkey responded by cracking down on ISIL supply and support activities in Turkey while also letting it be known (unofficially) that a truce deal could be had. Subsequently ten senior ISIL officials were released from prison and there were no more attacks in Turkey. ISIL was not left completely alone. The Turks monitored ISIL activity and occasionally took ISIL members off the streets for interrogations. Many ISIL members and leaders opposed easing up on the Turks. But most ISIL leaders realized that access to Turkey was too valuable to throw away on ideological grounds. The Turkish government, despite being fans of the Moslem Brotherhood (which ISIL hated) was willing to help ISIL in an unofficial non-aggression pact. The Turks continued to monitor ISIL and arrest members who were deemed a threat to Turkey. This worked for ISIL leadership, which did not have to discipline members who disobeyed ISIL orders and attacked Turkey or Turks. ISIL leadership made it clear to its followers that access to Turkey was only possible if the “non-aggression” deal was honored. In short, no killing people in Turkey meant ISIL personnel can travel through Turkey and access Turkey based suppliers. This deal with ISIL was unpopular with everyone else in the region, including Iran, Israel, NATO and the Arab states. Turkey didn’t care.

With policies like this Turkey was becoming more of a problem for its traditional friends and allies. The main force behind this Turkish hostility is the Turkish leader Recep Erdogan. He has been running things in Turkey since 2004, first as prime minister and then as president. Erdogan is hostile to Israel but has not cut trade ties or made any actual military moves towards Israel. Erdogan is all about the Israel-Palestinian conflict and he sides with the Palestinians. Yet Erdogan does not offer to replace the aid (over half a billion dollars a year) that the U.S. and Arab states have stopped providing because of continued Palestinian corruption, violence against Israel and refusal to make a peace deal. Erdogan’s support for the Palestinians is all theater and little in the way of substance. In that respect Erdogan is acting like many opportunistic Moslem politicians worldwide; blame all bad things on Israel while trading with Israel on the side because that is economically (or militarily) advantageous. Erdogan has also maintained Turkish NATO membership, which has value given the potential threat from Iran. Israel is making noise about how Turkish NATO membership is a threat to NATO as well as Israel.

A particularly alarming example of this is Turkey receiving F-35 stealth fighters. In 2002 Turkey agreed to buy over a hundred F-35s with assembly taking place in Turkey. That deal came apart in 2012 because of rising costs and the American refusal to provide Turkey (or any other foreign buyer) with access to the source code for F-35 software. That software is one of the key elements why the F-35 is so effective. There was also a problem with Erdogan, who was becoming ever more hostile to the United States, Israel and the West in general. Technically because of the software issue, Turkey reduced its F-35 order to two aircraft, which was just enough for evaluation. That could mean covertly sharing F-35 tech with Russia, China or whoever else could pay. That order was increased in 2015 when another six aircraft were ordered. This made Americans wonder what was going on. Israel pointed out that if Turkey got an F-35 nothing good would be going on. In 2019 Turkey was expelled from the F-35 program and never received the eight F-35s it had ordered. Refunds were made and in 2020 the U.S. Air Force agreed to purchase the eight Turkish F-35s, which had never left the United States.

These new Turkish attitudes were not a sudden development. In the 1990s the Turks, who had gone secular after their centuries old Ottoman Empire collapsed in the 1920s, decided to give Islam another chance as an elected ruler (Recep Erdogan) tries, with some success, to revive the Ottoman empire using a combination of Islam, technology and creative diplomacy to make Turkey great again. This comes into conflict (as it has in the past) with Iranian efforts to restore their imperial past. The new Turkish empire builder (called “Sultan Erdogan I” behind his back) is not that much interested in taking back lost real estate but is eager to regain the Turkish leadership of the Islamic world. That was lost a century ago when Turkish secular reformers renounced the title of caliph the Turkish Sultan (emperor) had long held. Sultan Erdogan has a lot of opposition at home and not much support in the region for an Ottoman revival. But Erdogan is a resourceful and ruthless politician. In early 2018 he won re-election as president, just barely and under dubious circumstances. This keeps him in power until 2023 as an elected official even though his political allies are doing much less well with the voters.

For the Arabs, there is a very real fear that the Turks are trying to rebuild the empire they had a century ago and lost because they were on the wrong side during World War I. The empire was not popular with most Turks, who were fed up with ruling the troublesome and often self-destructive Arabs. Recep Erdogan leads an Islamic party that got elected on promises to reduce corruption. It did that for a while before becoming quite corrupt itself. Now Erdogan is trying to regain his popularity by invading Syria to establish an area where he can move the millions of unpopular (with most Turks) Syrian refugees. The EU states are threatening sanctions and other economic retaliation over what the Turks are doing in Syria. The UN is now having a more difficult time justifying the Turkish military presence in Libya.

The Turks expected more of a welcome in Libya. They should have known better. The Turks first showed up there in the 1550s as the Ottoman Empire conquered the coastal towns and cities of what is now Libya. Eventually, the Turks advanced inland but there was no real incentive to stay because south of the coast it was mainly desert and, before oil was discovered and developed in the 1960s, there was little economic value down there. Empires have bills to pay and tend to keep their soldiers where the money is. From the 1550s to 1910 Libya was technically a province of the Ottoman Empire but was actually run by local strongmen who were often Turks who had gone native. In 1911 Italy took advantage of the weak control the Turks exercised and invaded.

By 1912 Italy controlled what is now Libya. The Italians sent in colonists and brought the industrial revolution to Libya. Italian rule ended in 1943 when Italy, an ally of Germany during World War II, surrendered to the allies. Occupied by Allied troops, Libya was given independence in 1951 as a constitutional monarchy. The royal family was led by a prominent local religious leader who became king. The parliament demonstrated the political divides between eastern and western coastal Libya, and the less populous tribal interior. The discovery and development of oil fields down south in the 1960s brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to Libya. It also brought a military takeover in 1969. This coup was led by Moamar Kaddafi who misruled Libya until 2011 when he was overthrown and killed.

The Turks had good relations with the Libyan monarchy but less stable and cordial relations with Kaddafi. Now the Turks have returned and are backing the Islamic militias. This is not popular with most Libyans, who have learned to fear the chaotic and unpredictable militias. Libya remains a thinly populated and divided (by tribal and local loyalties) place. When the kingdom was established in 1951 the population was about a million. The 1960s oil wealth triggered a population explosion (and lots of imported workers) that reached six million when the 2011 revolution occurred. Despite many Libyans fleeing the country the population is still about six million and a third of that is found in and around Tripoli. That’s why the city is so important to the UN backed GNA (Government of National Accord), and why the more popular LNA (Libyan National Army) went after Tripoli only after they had established themselves in the rest of Libya and gained control over all the oil facilities. LNA victory, unity and peace were imminent until the Turks showed up.

Technically the Turks are against Islamic terrorism but not the imposition of Islamic religious rule on countries. That effort is faltering in Turkey and exports to Syria and Libya are not going well. NATO members are aware of the fact that one of their own is, in fact, a major supporter of Islamic terror groups. Despite that no one is willing to take on the Turks and demand change. Not yet.




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