Erdogan’s Caliph Dreams Died in Idlib and Were Buried in Moscow

Erdogan's ambition to pose as the unofficial leader of the Muslim world has been shattered by the Syrian and Russian militiaries

Back to being just another leader of the Republic of Turkey and no more than that

It would be a mistake to count Erdogan out. Domestically he looks weaker than at any time before but he doesn’t face an election until 2023 and you don’t run a nominal electoral democracy for over 15 years without knowing a thing or two about politics. It’s entirely possible we’ll keep seeing him for many more years to come. That said his ambition to pose as the caliph is dead and buried.

At home Erdogan sold his latest military foray into Syria as a campaign to stop the flow of refugees into Turkey. That is absurd. How is expanding the scope of the war going to help with the refugee situation? If anything it would convince more refugees it’s not yet the time to go back.

In reality, Erdogan didn’t launch the military campaign against the Syrian army in Idlib for the sake of his domestic audience, but for the sake of his global one. For 15 years Erdogan has been making go for the mantle of the unofficial caliph of the Muslim world but that’s all over now.

The Muslim world is fragmented politically and diverse culturally but there is some sense of pan-Muslim solidarity with there being a constituency among the more religiously inclined in nearly every Muslim country for greater solidarity between their polities and perhaps even the emergence of a full-blown Muslim bloc to rival Russia, China and the West. This pan-Muslim constituency understands something like that is still far away but would settle for the emergence of a strong Muslim leader to champion the Muslim cause and get the process rolling.

Erdogan keeps getting described as “neo-Ottoman” and accused of trying to annex small pieces of Syria to Turkey. That is a misunderstanding of his ambition. He has run Turkey over 15 years now, if he was so bent on adding tiny pieces of land to it he would have done it by now. His ambition is “neo-Ottoman” but it’s not Turkey’s territorial expansion he seeks, but his own personal aggrandizement as the informal leader of the Muslim world as was once the formal claim of Sultans in Constantinople.

Without an obvious Muslim power that towers above all others (in the way that US towers over all other Western countries), the field is open for several to compete for leadership if they are so inclined. Algeria and Egypt could make the play but they are militantly secular and as such have zero time for what they view as a lot of misguided Islamist-leaning sentimentality (albeit Egypt under Nasser made a play for a more realistic leadership role in the Arab world on the basis of Arab nationalism). Pakistan has been frequently Islamist-run but it’s just too tied up in its struggle with India and its own internal instability to have much energies and resources left to pose as a Muslim Piedmont.

This has historically left Iran and Saudi Arabia as the only two powers interested in staking out a claim to Muslim leadership. The Iranian-Saudi animosity is usually explained as an outgrowth of Sunni-Shia sectarianism but that is a misunderstanding. Sure sectarianism plays a part in the sense that to Wahabis, as Saudis are, Shia are apostates and the penalty for apostasy in Islam is death. However, it is also true that Saudis got along perfectly fine with the Iranian Shah and heavily backed the conservative Shia Zaidis of Yemen (the very same ones they’re now fighting) in their war against Nasser-backed Socialists.

In reality, the true root of Saudi-Iranian animosity lies in that both of them offer themselves as a model for the Muslim world to borrow from and both seek, if possible, to lead it. It is in this contest that Saudi Arabia uses sectarianism as a weapon to try and neutralize competing Iranian influence in the Muslim world, but it is not truly the source of its hatred. The Saudi-Iranian cold war, after all, did not kick off until Iran was swept by Khomeini’s Islamic revolution and started actively promoting itself as a model for Muslim revolutionaries to follow and join forces with, which threatened the Saudi royals at home, as well as their influence abroad. Understand that the theocratic Shia regime in Tehran has always tried to bridge and downplay the Sunni-Shia divide and has always been a willing backer of Sunni Muslims (Bosnian Muslims, Palestinians) where they are in conflict with non-Muslims and sometimes of Sunni Islamist political movements against secular regimes. Also, just as Saudis and competing Sunni revolutionaries have sought to portray Shia Iran as an outsider in the Muslim world, so Iran has — with less success, but with no less justification — tried to point out that Saudi Wahabis aren’t Sunni either, and that takfirism of the bin Ladenites is a grave offense in Islam.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi visiting Iran’s Ahmedinejad in 2012. The Sunni-Shia divide is easily overblown. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood regime got along with Shia Iran far better than they did with the supposedly “Sunni” Saudi Arabia. In reality, the political split is not between Sunni and Shia but between Khomeinism promoted by Iran, Salafism fueled by Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood model backed by Erdogan and Qatar

Of course, for a variety of reasons, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia are actually very well positioned to secure much of the sought leadership in the Muslim world. Unlike the vast majority of the Muslims in the world, neither of them is mainstream Sunni so that’s one complication right there. On top of that, they’re locked into an exhausting cold war. Additionally, sanctioned Iran isn’t very economically advanced and minus the oil neither is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s call for an independent Muslim bloc is also seen as lacking sincerity seeing how the royals most of the time act as subcontractors for the Empire (think Israel-Palestine), while Iran’s proposition of joining the sanctioned, the besieged and the damned isn’t an appealing one either.

Enter Turkey. For the longest time, Turkey was staunchly secular and as such pan-Muslim sentimentality was the last thing on its mind. The election of the Muslim-Brotherhood Erdogan changed that. And why not? If there was going to be a Muslim champion then Turkey was much better positioned than either Iran or the Saudis. The most developed Muslim economy of the non-oil countries, mainstream Sunni, a serious military power, populous, with a modern, democratic internal order, not locked into an exhausting cold war with any of the regional powers, and not the target of relentless Imperial hostility. That until as recently as 1924 the Caliphate was formally kept alive in Istanbul didn’t hurt either. With that at Erdogan’s disposal, he — with a lot of sympathy and encouragement from a segment of his voters — embarked on a quest to make himself the unofficial caliph.

A big no-no for a pan-Muslim are Muslim-on-Muslim wars. The first thing Erdogan did was expand Kurdish linguistic rights and secure the peace at home. Next, the would-be leader of the Muslim world must champion the Muslim cause so Erdogan, at least rhetorically, took up the cause of fellow Muslims from Gaza to Chechnya to Kashmir to Burma. Truly, in telling stories of Muslims victimization neither Samantha Power nor Osama bin Laden could hold a candle to Recep Tayyip. Finally, any leader pursuing closer ties between Muslim polities (especially under his own tutelage) must undermine regimes who have no interest in such an arrangement so Erdogan backed the Arab Spring and particularly his own Muslim Brotherhood.

This last part is where things became complicated for Erdogan. Rather than ending up with an Islamist-run Libya, Egypt and Syria all looking to him for leadership and advice, he has ended up with the extreme animosity of Cairo, where his Muslim Brotherhood brethren were ultimately thrown, and bogged down in two losing wars in Syria and Libya, propping up not vibrant Islamic mass movements he hoped for, but either nearly useless mercenaries or fanatics who would sooner seek advice from Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Even worse for him, he has gone from someone who benefited from being able to stay aloof from the Saudi-Iranian cold war, and cooperate with the Iranians while enjoying the support of the Saudis, to someone who is now himself bogged down in a cold war with the Saudis politically and ideologically and with the Iranians ideologically and in sentiment.

Erdogan’s foray into Syria was not to stem the tide of refugees. It was to preserve the last bit of the Islamist revolution he once put so much hope into. It was to prevent the Russians and the Iranians from reversing every last bit of his gains and showing him up as a bumbler and a fool. Except that by entering the field of battle and then losing, he didn’t succeed in preventing that but has instead done himself and his prestige further damage on top.

His bombing of the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the Pakistani Shia volunteers isn’t going to go without consequences. Aside from earning him the eternal enmity and possible revenge of the Iranian-led bloc there are plenty of pan-Muslims to whom he is now just another of the sectarians deepening the intra-Muslim conflict. The narrow Middle East is perhaps sufficiently infected by Saudi-fueled sectarianism that Hezbollah and Shia Islamists can be dismissed as the apostate enablers of the “Muslim-imposter”* Assad, but there are many more Muslims on the periphery of the Muslim world, eg in Bosnia, Northern Africa, South-East Asia where there are no Shia and where the Sunni-Shia divide is not understood but it is deeply mourned. Erdogan bombing not just the Muslim-manned Syrian army, but the actually Islamist Hezbollah make it very hard for pan-Muslims to separate him from the Saudis or the Iranians and to see in him the second coming of Saladin and not just another cynical and sectarian two-bit player who mostly spends time killing other Muslims.

That he didn’t even win makes it that much worse. At least a victory may have opened a route to a tactical reconciliation with the Saudis along anti-Iranian lines but nobody has a need for a loser. It’s not widely appreciated in the West but Erdogan, more so than any other Muslim leader, does in fact have a significant “global” following. He can visit places as far from Turkey as Bosnia and Pakistan and be greeted by a passionate minority of the populace who love him more than they do their own leaders. He is their Saladin that they so desperately desire but are so far from getting. He may retain those fans (they’re a self-deluded bunch) but he won’t be winning any new ones. Bombing Hezbollah and the Iranians on the same day Israel was doing so, then walking to Moscow to admit battlefield defeat to “Muslim-imposter”* Assad took care of that.

* To Islamists and religious Muslims it is highly distasteful to see Muslims ruled by non-Muslims. Also they do not consider Alawites to be Muslim (which they really aren’t). Thus for all the protestations of the Assads that they’re also Muslim, Alawites supposedly being an ancient variation of the Shia (they’re not), to religious Muslims Bashar al-Assad is a Muslim-imposter and an illegitimate non-Muslim ruler ruling over Muslims.

I leave you with the video of Erdogan meekly asking the Russians in Moscow “if they have talked with Assad”. Meaning if they’re really sure Assad is on board with what they just signed:


  1. Jihadi Colin says

    Marko, I would like to add something that you may or may not find relevant. The Saudis aren’t actually in control of Wahhabism, it’s (in Hitler’s words, while talking about why he didn’t withdraw forces from Russia and try to broker a peace in the east) “a wolf that (they) have by the ears and dare not let him go.”

    The history of Wahhabism dates from 1744 when the mullah Ibn Wahb was thrown out of his clan and found shelter with the al Saud clan. Ibn Wahb made the al Saud chief an offer he would be stupid to refuse: Ibn Wahb would give him the religious cover he needed to become the paramount Arabic Peninsula chief, in return for Ibn Wahb’s descendants being given the charge of the religious affairs of the al Saud state. Among other things said cover included religious sanction for jihad against fellow Muslims, in wars of aggression and not self defence. The Saudi-Wahhabi alliance was then born and temporarily very successful, invading and sacking Basra and killing many Shia, but was crushed by the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottomans were collapsing in the 1910s the Saudis raised their heads again with British help, and after their alliance with the American Empire in the 1930s began swimming in oil money. Even before that the Wahhabis had raised their heads again and become powerful enough for the Saudis to have to keep them occupied somehow. The corruption and sleaze of the obscenely decadent Saudi royals also infuriated the Wahhabis, and it culminated in the Wahhabi attack on the Mecca Grand Mosque in 1979, which, of course, illiterate westerners reflexively blame to this day on Iran. The Saudis were in real trouble then and the CIA jihad against the USSR in Afghanistan was an Allahsend. They packed off the Wahhabis to fight there and afterwards in Chechnya and Kashmir and Bosnia as well. Meanwhile they bought off the Wahhabis further by aggressive spread of Wahhabism elsewhere, from Indonesia to Morocco, by financing mosques and mullahs. Unfortunately, the effort to buy off the Wahhabis has finally reached a dead end. There are no more places to spread the poison and the jihadis, having been fought to a standstill everywhere from Algeria to Iraq, are turning on their erstwhile masters. Erdogan might be trying to take advantage of that by imposing himself as the new Saud to the Wahhabis, but unless he wants to turn the Ottoman state into another Saudi Barbaria, I don’t see him even beginning to get anywhere with that.

    1. Marko Marjanović says

      Yeah it’s a complex relationship, the royals know they’re religious hypocrites and oscilate between support and repression.

  2. JustPassingThrough says

    Going to be a lot more dreams dying now that RU has dropped out of OPEC+
    The s**t is going to hit the fan on this one.
    the sowdees are already purging their princes and military.
    the sowdees need 85$/b to keep the great unwashed happy.
    40$/b and under is going to make for interesting times for these barbarians.

    the u.s shale industry is going the way of the F35.
    D.T.’s re-election is not a given any more.
    get out the popcorn.

  3. cechas vodobenikov says

    nonsense—pan Arab efforts w Nasser and Quaddafi went nowhere—the Muslim and Arab societies r too diverse socially, linguistically, politically and religiously to unite….the case of Bangladesh and pakist an is one example. turkey does not enjoy good relations w any neighbors, nor w Arab nations, excepting Qatar…close relations w Azerbijian inform a similar language and mutual antagonism to Armenia….Morroco, Algeria, Tunisia have no interest in pan-arab ambitions—all have significant Berber populations…the Shia/Sunni divide has worsened since the amerikan invasion of Iraq…the largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, is distinct linguistically, geographically, politically, culturally—the turks r linguistically distinct from Persians and Arabs

    1. Marko Marjanović says

      Which part of this contradicts what I wrote?

      1. Canosin says

        isn’t that Assad never claimed to become the Muslim leader in the middle east? before the civil war started in Syria, there was at least the consent of sharing same rights among all religious faction…except the muslim brotherhood…..which aimed at full power for themselves irrespective of the various religious currents in Syria….Assad, the father of Bashar, an Alawit and minority in Syria kept this balance with extreme brutality against the brotherhood…..trying the socialist version of a multi religious population with the Baath movement..same as with Iraq under Saddam……but is Bashar Assad an imposter?? don’t think so …..

      2. cechas vodobenikov says

        I do not intend to disagree w your assessment—largely I am annoyed by the incessant attacks on Erdogan’s ambitions (frequently expressed in comments here and elsewhere), whom I do not particularly admire…he appears conflicted, sometimes ultra nationalistic, sometimes duplicitous, sometimes appealing to religious fundamentalism, sometimes obsessed w the PKK, but not HTS….I am les interested in psychologizing him, more of my effort involves attempting to understand many of the inconsistent policies, behavior of the Turkish state during the past 15 years

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