Erdoğan twangs populist chords again

Erdoğan twangs populist chords again

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is not the only one who is careless with his remarks while addressing university students at a sensitive moment in the Middle East. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes that airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are actually driven by a desire to gain control over the region’s oil reserves.

“Do you think that those who are throwing bombs worth tens of millions of dollars are there for peace? They are doing this to gain control over oil wells,” he said during an address earlier this week to students at his alma mater, Marmara University.

Adding that “there were spies like Lawrence of Arabia in the past who worked to destroy the Ottoman Empire,” Erdoğan said such spies today were coming out of the region itself.

These are loaded remarks given that there are Arab countries who are participating in military operations against ISIL. The wisdom of bringing up such historic references when there are those in the region who are accusing Ankara of displaying neo-Ottoman tendencies is also questionable.

What Erdoğan said is not new, of course. His remarks are part of a litany of conspiracy theories relating to the Middle East that we see not just in the region but also in the West. Neither is it a total flight of fancy to suggest that the West has an important stake in the region’s oil reserves. Tomes have been written about this.

But for Erdoğan to blurt out such things at a time when eyes in the region and the West are on Turkey, trying to figure out just how it plans to contribute to the threat posed by ISIL, which it is also facing, is less than diplomatic, to put it mildly.

Erdoğan was not addressing the students of Marmara University as a professor or lecturer who is expounding on a personal thesis. He was addressing them as the president of the Republic of Turkey, whose every remark is registered and weighed at home and abroad at the moment.

Not surprisingly, his remark did not go down well in Washington, especially coming at a time when military leaders from 20 countries, including Turkey, were due to meet in the U.S. capital to discuss what more the U.S.-led coalition could do to stop advances by ISIL.

Asked to comment on Erdoğan’s remarks at her press briefing on Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said, “I think we’ve made the intention of our airstrikes clear, which is to take on the threat of ISIL, as is true of our other coalition partners.” Pressed on the matter she responded, one presumes somewhat icily, that she was going to leave it at that.

The Turkish public is more interested at the moment about the meaning of Washington’s recent declarations that Turkey will be contributing to the anti-ISIL effort, by training and equipping moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army, and by opening the İncirlik Airbase for use by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, than it is in such remarks by Erdoğan.

The government has not provided clarity on these issues other than saying that there is nothing new involved in Turkey’s position with regard to what is being said by Washington.

There is a widespread feeling among Turks that the regional policies of Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have increased the risks and threats for Turkey. No one claims that they created the crises in the region, but many believe these could have been managed much better by Ankara for the sake of Turkey’s interests.

This is why the public needs clarity today, rather than attempts at twanging populist chords by means of historic references aimed at disparaging countries that continue to be Turkey’s allies.

Besides, looking at one of the main reasons why Ankara and Baghdad have come to loggerheads in recent years, and why Ankara has also angered Washington – namely Turkey’s independent energy dealings with the Iraqi Kurds – it is clear that Turkey is also not innocent in terms of gambits that eye the region’s energy reserves.