“Turkey’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria is another success story. Having adopted an open-door policy towards Syrian refugees in 2011, we now host nearly 3 million Syrian nationals from diverse ethnic, religious and sectarian backgrounds. In the past five years, Turkey has allocated $10bn to provide Syrian refugees with free healthcare, education and housing. At a time when the international community failed the Syrian people – 600,000 of whom have lost their lives in the civil war, with 13 million forced from their homes – Turkey, along with the rest of Syria’s neighbours, was left to deal with the conflict’s consequences. As the Syrian civil war enters its sixth year, we are calling on the world to create a fair mechanism for sharing the burden.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in calling upon the international community to take on a greater share of the load with respect to the Syrian crisis, was keen to highlight Turkey’s leadership in providing humanitarian aid and asylum to those affected. His May 2016 op-ed piece for The Guardian, written on the eve of a major humanitarian conference focusing on Syria, was ostensibly correct in in its statistical account. With the exception of Israel whose desire or ability to take Syrian refugees on a permanent basis was understandably impaired by geopolitical considerations, Turkey was the sole secular democracy bordering Syria and the only one prepared to accept Syrian refugees in any number. Erdogan’s appeal for more concerted international assistance was based, in his view, on Turkey’s solid record in providing safe haven for those affected by regional conflicts, with the global impact of the conflict necessitating greater assistance from the international community. In a similar position to other ‘receiving’ countries such as Kenya, Thailand, or Pakistan that have dealt with large refugee inflows, the Erdogan government would not have been alone in advocating what it perceived as a more generous international response, both in funding and refugee placements, for the immense humanitarian issue it has dealt with on its southern border since early 2014.
One likely source of Turkish concern for the welfare of its immediate southern neighbour, not often profiled in the mainstream media, is its historic connection, through the Ottoman Empire, as ruler of what is now Syria and northern Iraq. In the initial years of the Turkish Republic under Ataturk, Turkey was keen to shed any pan-Islamic, Arab or Persian connections – a policy extending most notably to the Turkish language reforms of the late 1920s – and interaction with the post-Ottoman French mandate of Syria was focused chiefly on restoring Turkish sovereignty over the short-lived Republic of Hatay. This was ultimately achieved in 1939. With Turkey not generally regarded to have adopted a Middle Eastern or Islamic orientation in foreign or domestic policy until the government of Turgut Ozal in the late-1980s (and even then without any apparent domestic change to its secular republican character), it is doubtful that historical notions of suzerainty or ‘overlordship’ would have entered the minds of Turkish leaders or policy-makers during this time. However, with the adoption of a more Islamic orientation at both a domestic and international level since 2006, such pan-Islamist notions, to the extent they are manifested by a sense of responsibility over its former Ottoman territories, have increased in importance.
In asserting that ‘neo-Ottomanist’ concerns have assumed a key role in Turkish foreign policy towards its immediate neighbours, this is not to discount the role of realpolitik in determining Turkey’s interactions with its neighbours, as well as a multitude of political developments non-existent at the time of the Ottoman Empire’s demise. Such developments include the trans-national Kurdish issue which affected Turkey-Syria relations most heavily during the Hafez al-Assad years, as well as disputes over water rights from the Ataturk Dam on the Turkish border. Despite the change in de facto administration of northern Syria since 2013, these issues remain unchanged and it is likely they will continue to present issues given the near-total political instability afflicting Syria, regardless of which faction rules over any particular area, which itself would be likely to change.
This article focuses primarily on Syria’s Raqqa Province and its historical relationship with the Ottoman administration from its effective conquest in the early 1530s through to the end of that empire, and the extent to which such historical considerations have impacted upon modern Turkish policy to the region. It does not attempt to provide empirical evidence for Turkish responses or policy toward all areas of conflict within the former Ottoman Empire, nor place this historic relationship ahead of any short-term domestic political exigencies within Turkey. Rather, it attempts to provide some linkage between the historical Ottoman approach to Raqqa and the political-military responses to the issue of Islamic State (IS) rule in Raqqa by the Erdogan administration.
Historical issues influencing the Turkish approach the Syria: Raqqa under Ottoman rule
S. H. Winter, writing in 2009 some years before the rise of IS, gave a detailed description of the Ottoman-era administration of Raqqa. Beginning first as a sancak of the Diyarbakir military district in what is now eastern Turkey proper in 1535 and later upgraded to the level of eyalet (effectively a province and the predecessor to the Ottoman vilayet), Winter wrote of a region that had been apparently ‘all but forsaken’ as an isolated military outpost of the edge of the Ottoman Empire, far from the centre of power in Istanbul or even larger cities of Syria such as Aleppo or Damascus. In addition, Raqqa also served as a place of exile for political undesirables and was effectively treated as a ‘hardship’ post for officials stationed there. It also served a centre for the Ottoman river trade, where harraqa barges would trade goods. However, Winter wrote of the intense interest that Raqqa developed in the collective minds of Ottoman political and military leaders, in spite or perhaps because of this isolation. In what was perhaps an early indication of the current and much more serious confronting the province, local residents in the late 1500s complained to Ottoman authorities of depredations committed by local Arab Bedouin tribes. The Ottoman government’s response to these, among other things, was to send a çavuş (sergeant) to pacify the area. The increasing tax revenues extracted from Raqqa may have been a factor influencing the central government response; however, this may have been just as equally a reflection of the perception of Raqqa’s growing importance as a military outpost. In the late 1500s, Winter wrote, colonisation of Raqqa and populating it with troops became a key issue to Ottoman authorities in the ‘reconquest’ of the region. In addition to dealing with the depredations of Bedouin tribes, in the late 1580s the sancak-beg of Diyarbakir was engaged in dealing with seditious Yazidi tribes, in moves arguably reflective of Turkey’s current conflict with Kurdish separatists. Basing his assessment of Raqqa to the Ottoman administration in terms of the frequency with which it was mentioned in imperial chancery records, Winter determined that the province became less strategically important to central authorities as they became preoccupied with the Celali insurgency of central Anatolia and with ultimately unsuccessful efforts in shoring up the north-western edge of the empire against the Habsburgs.
Raqqa as a nexus of instability: late 1600s
However, in 1683, Raqqa once again returned to centre focus in Ottoman policy making as the subject of the ‘Raqqa Sedentarization Project’ or iskan. Implementing what Winter termed a ‘discipline-and-punish scheme’, Ottoman authorities sought to force a degree of domestication on local tribes, as well as providing a means of settlement for demobilised levent (mercenary) gangs in Anatolia during the Köprülü vezirate, following the Ottoman Empire’s 1683 loss in Vienna and of several Balkan territories. Here, Raqqa once again became relevant to Turkish domestic political economy, as a means of expanding its southern border as well as quieting domestic unrest caused by an influx of newly-unemployed trained soldiers. The project involved settling large numbers of Anatolians in and around Raqqa as farmers, both to contribute to state revenues and stem the northward flow of Arab Bedouin tribes into Anatolia proper. Its efficacy in achieving either objective has not so far been fully understood, particularly in light of the Ottoman Empire’s increasing inability, from 1683 onwards, to maintain its territory. Significantly though, Winter referred to Ottoman sources at the time as a change in leadership in the main Bedouin tribes as being a catalyst for the new policy, namely the recognition by the Sublime Porte of the then leaders of the Mawali Bedouin confederation. In a sense, developments in the predominately Arab lands to the south of Turkey drove its border policies in Ottoman times as they do currently.
In a modern sense, the Ottoman-era consolidation of Anatolian settlement in and around Raqqa is broadly analogous to the Erdogan Administration’s anti-IS drive as announced in February 2017. In an Al-Jazeera report dated 13 February, Erdogan indicated his intent to create a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria, firstly around the IS stronghold of al-Bab and then extending to Manbij and Raqqa. Couched in the contemporary modern discourse of human security and ‘responsibility to protect’, there are nonetheless parallels between Turkey’s military drive for secure space on its southern border in 2017, and that of its Ottoman predecessor in the 17th and 18th centuries. While assertions of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ or irredentism may be premature and without firm basis, Turkish policy regarding the area now ruled by IS and the Syrian anti-Assad groups has retained the same essential guiding characteristic: maintaining peace and security.
 Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ‘When the world failed Syria, Turkey stepped in. Now others must help.’, 23 May 2016, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/23/world-failed-syria-turkey-refugee-crisis.
 ‘Dams power Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds’, 23 June 2016, Stratfor.com, https://www.stratfor.com/sample/analysis/dams-power-turkeys-conflict-kurds.
 S. H. Winter, ‘The Province of Raqqa under Ottoman Rule, 1535–1800: A Preliminary Study’’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 68, No. 4 (October 2009): 253-268.
 Winter (2009): 254.
 Winter (2009): 264
 Dionisius A. Agius, Classical Ships of Islam: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean (2008), Brill, Leiden: 299
 Winter (2009): 256
 Winter (2009): 257
 Winter (2009): 258-259
 Winter (2009): 260
 ‘Erdogan: Turkish Army will press on to ISIL-held Raqqa’, Al-Jazeera English (Aljazeera.com), 13 February 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/erdogan-turkish-troops-isil-bastion-al-bab-170212115151375.html