Ottoman style.

Erdogan of Arabia

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Every once in a while, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just blows your mind.

This morning, Turkish jets carried out airstrikes against bases of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, after days of rioting and attacks by Kurds infuriated by Turkey's abandonment of the Kurdish defenders in Kobani, Syria. The bombing probably means the end of Turkey's 18-month cease-fire and peace talks with the PKK, a huge decision by Erdogan and, in my view, a tragic if predictable mistake.

The surprise, however, lay in how Erdogan prepared Turks for restarting their 30-year war with the PKK, and what that says about his world view.

The problem, Erdogan told students at Marmara University in Istanbul on Monday, is that new "Lawrence of Arabias" are tearing up the Middle East. He was referring to the British army officer T.E. Lawrence, who helped to stir Arab tribes to rise against their German-allied Ottoman rulers during World War I, leading to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

So who are these modern day Western meddlers, and what are they trying to do? According to Erdogan, Lawrence was an "English spy disguised as an Arab." His recent incarnations "are new voluntary Lawrences, disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists," Erdogan said, adding that it is "our duty to explain to the world that there are modern Lawrences who were fooled by a terror organization."

No doubt this formulation was intended to cover the five foreign journalists arrested as they covered Kurdish protests over Turkey's blockade of Kobani. The religious man Erdogan has in mind is surely the U.S.-based preacher Fetullah Gulen, with whom he is at war politically. And the terrorists are the Kurds of the PKK, and of the People's Protection Units in Kobani. But Erdogan thinks bigger.

These Lawrences are "making Sykes-Picot agreements hiding behind freedom of press, a war of independence or jihad," said Erdogan. Sykes-Picot, of course, refers to the British and French diplomats who made a secret 1916 agreement to carve up Ottoman territories between the two colonial powers. The map they produced is not the same as today's, but it did define the current border between Syria and Iraq:

In the process, it tore up the old Ottoman vilayets, or provinces, which were somewhat more sensitive to religious divisions in the Middle East:

"Each conflict in this region has been designed a century ago," said Erdogan. "It is our duty to stop this." He went on to elaborate that Turkey is the only country able to provide peace in the Middle East, "not by changing borders, but by instilling hope and trust."

I take two messages from this. The first is that even though the PKK long ago gave up demands for carving off any Turkish territory into a new Kurdish state, Erdogan believes that remains their goal and that if they become useful allies for the U.S. in defeating Islamic State, they may succeed in getting it.

The second is that Erdogan truly believes in his grandiose plans for Turkey to become the organizing force of the Middle East. The Ottoman Sultans, after all, were the last Caliphs, ruling over the territory that Islamic State wants to rebuild into a grotesque parody of the old Caliphates. So unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which also backed Sunni rebels in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad but took the U.S. lead to fight Islamic State first, Turkey insists the coalition follow Turkey's policies and priorities. That means attacking Assad, the PKK and its affiliates in Syria.

Neither conclusion suggests Turkey will offer significant help to the coalition in its fight against Islamic State any time soon.

Erdogan is a master of using the shock of the extreme to change the political debate in his favor, energizing his base even as the rest of the world looks on in surprise and occasionally horror. Remember his staged anti-Israel theatrics in Davos in 2008? Or his accusation that foreign banks, journalists and others were part of an "interest rate lobby" trying to destroy Turkey's economy? Or to the "terrorist" students who dared protest against a development project in Gezi Park last year? Now it's the West, in the guise of Lawrence of Arabia, collaborating with Kurdish nationalists against Turkey, as Lawrence collaborated with Arab nationalists against the Ottomans.

The claims Erdogan makes don't need to make sense; they form part of a political narrative that resonates deeply among supporters and -- one suspects -- Erdogan's own core beliefs. However, the policies that result are divisive, destructive and gradually weakening the fabric of the country's society, institutions and alliances. They are less likely to bring peace to the Middle East than unrest to Turkey.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net