November 10, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 240

The Second Coming Of 'Great Turan'

November 10, 2020 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Turkey, South Caucasus | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 240

1908 Greek lithograph celebrating Enver Pasha freeing Liberty from her chains

He was a vain and pompous man obsessed with reviving Turkey's ancient glory. At first, he seemed a reformer and even progressive, and was seen sympathetically by some in the West. Over time he became more aggressive and blustering. He was anti-Armenian. Supposedly an enemy of Russia, he later collaborated with the Russians, receiving help from them. Both Islamic expansionism and pan-Turkism (sometimes called Turanism, although the two terms are not identical) were attractive to him. He had big dreams, of reviving the Ottoman Empire or even creating a new Turkic one, from the Balkans to Central Asia.

This man was not Turkey's current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but actually Enver Pasha (1881-1922), the Ottoman Turkish nationalist leader, minister of war, and strongman during the First World War. Erdoğan and Enver Pasha are, of course, very different. One was a soldier and the other a civilian. Erdoğan, with all his many crimes, has yet to plumb the depths of the genocidal Enver.

But despite a century separating the two, there certainly is something of Enver Pasha in Erdoğan's dreams and plans today. Enver knew and despised Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Erdoğan is keen to unravel the remnants of Kemalism in Turkey. Enver dreamed big but, aside from the Armenian Genocide he unleashed, was something of a failure. He was repeatedly defeated on the battlefield and ended his life while trying to incite a grand Turkic revolt in Central Asia against the Bolsheviks.

Erdoğan today also dreams big and the world has noticed. Analysis of Erdoğan as a neo-Ottoman in terms of his foreign and security policies are often made and it is certainly true that the AKP regime embraces religious and nationalist themes in its propaganda with aplomb.[1]

Turkey's adversaries in Syria and Russia (Russia seems more a "frenemy" than an adversary) now warn that Erdoğan's goals are not so much the revival of an old empire but, like Enver Pasha, the creation of a new Great Turan dream. The idea is that, once Armenia and the Artsakh Armenians are liquidated by Turkey and Azerbaijan, a land corridor will connect Turkey to the Caspian Sea and to Turkic Central Asian states (and, of course, to Turkic people currently ruled by Russia, China and Iran).[2] But regimes like those in Moscow and Damascus are full of crazy talk and wild conspiracy theories.[3]

The more interesting dimension of this expansionist dream is not so much that Turkey's critics are making these charges, but rather that supporters of Erdoğan and his government are boasting and dreaming of the same thing. Russian propagandists may be exaggerating but are relying on statements from the Turks themselves.[4] October 2020, for example, saw a spate of articles in the pro-Erdoğan Turkish press calling for a "Turkic NATO" with an anti-West "Turan Army as the hope."[5] Notice the emphasis, this hypothetical pan-Turkic military force is to be, among other things, "anti-West." Strange language given that these Turkic lands are hemmed in by non-Western, anti-American, powers in Asia. Turkish expansion, particularly commercial and cultural, east into Turkic countries is nothing new since the fall of the Soviet Union. And multilateral political structures, like the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States have existed since 2009.[6]

Turkish media calling for a "Turan Army" of Turkic states

Some pro-Turkish experts such as Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute readily admit that Turkey is rising, and with it, a grander Turkic rising may also be coming. In this view, such a development is something the United States should not fear and should even embrace as advancing American interests (and hurting those of our adversaries). Azeris and other Turkic people make up almost 20% of Iran's population. China's oppressed Uyghurs are Turkic. Inside Russia, you have restive Turkic populations in places like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.[7]

But would such a development really advance U.S. interests? Certainly, a pro-Western Turkey, a member of NATO in good standing, could be an important American partner and would have been helpful to advance shared Western interests in the former Soviet-controlled Turkic states in the Caucasus and Central Asia. But that Turkey seems to be long gone. Today, under Erdoğan's seemingly never-ending tutelage, Turkey is becoming the centerpiece of a new Islamist International, the godfather, along with bankroller Qatar, of aggressive anti-Western (anti-Christian and antisemitic) Islamism.[8] In many ways, Turkey and Qatar – helped by junior partners Pakistan and Malaysia, with an occasional cameo appearance by Shi'a Iran, are filling the vacuum of patron of extremist ideology once held for decades by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have moved on and tried to change. Into this political vacuum have stepped Turkey and friends. A Turkey that expands into Turkic countries today and deepens existing ties there is no friend of the United States, but an open adversary enthusiastically spreading anti-Western poison.

We have already seen Turkey play this ideological and propaganda role of incitement against France in the manufactured crisis over those old Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.[9] Turkey and its Muslim Brotherhood allies are already active in the West among Muslim minority populations.[10] If this ideological component is important to use in the West, how much more will Turkey do the same among Muslim majority populations only a few decades removed from Soviet hegemony? This combination of Turkic identity and Islamism could be a powerful ideological weapon.

Turkey's growing economic problems, inflation, and liquidity crisis would, on the surface, seem to point to the possibility of limiting Turkey's aggressive ambitions. But so far there is little evidence that this is the case, if anything the opposite is true. Turkey's aggressive steps to aid Azerbaijan against the Artsakh Armenians and destabilizing measures in Cyprus are only the latest in a series of actions taken seemingly in every direction over the past years. Not satisfied with waging war in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, Erdoğan's Turkey threatens Greece, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, mocks France and even the United States. "Whatever your sanctions are, don't be late," he recently ridiculed the Trump administration, which has mostly been supine when confronted by Turkish actions.[11] The rhetoric from Ankara is running hotter and the aggressive initiatives ever more feverish in recent days. It is Qatari money, of course, that has given Erdoğan the breathing room to pursue this agenda rising from $3 billion to $15 billion in support for the Turkish lira in two years.[12]

Turkish expansionism would face two nuclear powers – Russia and China – and possibly a third nuclear adversary in Iran (which has, like Russia, both clashed and cooperated with Erdoğan's Turkey in the past few years). Local strongmen already in place in these Turkic states have their own priorities and love for power. Turanism would seem like a far-fetched political pipedream given political realities. But even revisionist powers with bad economies can do a lot of damage if driven by ideological fervor and political will. Look at the spectacle of near bankrupt Iran helping Venezuela (also an Erdoğan ally) a hemisphere away to spite the Americans. Turkey's vaulting regional ambitions – given the nature of the regime today – are nothing for the United States to coddle or excuse.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], April 3, 2020.

[6], accessed November 10, 2020.

[7], October 30, 2020.

[8], November 8, 2020.

[10], January 6, 2019.

[11], October 25, 2020.

[12], May 20, 2020.

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