From a comparative perspective, the fight against the Bashar Assad regime in Syria is seen as another rejection of the nation-state model in a formerly Ottoman territory. Syria's devastating civil war is a painful testament that the division of the Ottoman Empire into nation-states has been followed by failed governance, and it joins other cases of political catastrophes in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa.
Much of the violence has erupted amid efforts to make or break nation-states. For nation-states to be established in Ottoman territories, identity groups had to be created or co-opted and reimagined, organized or reorganized, turned against the Ottoman government and then guided to claim sovereignty on some piece of Ottoman land based on a narrative that convinced the groups to demand self-rule as nations. The use of the genocide label to describe the resulting violence is misleading because the conflicts in such instances were not caused by disharmony between identity groups as such, but by the way in which foreign power managed to politicize and mobilize identity groups within Ottoman society and since the Ottoman Empire's collapse.
Nationalism was antithetical to the Ottoman social fabric. The Ottoman Empire was eclipsed by the rise of nation-states, but recent developments in northern Syria indicate that the Ottoman spirit of letting governance be authentic and local still lives on among the people.
In the regions of Afrin, Kobani and Jazira, communities under the protection of an American-backed and Kurdish-led militia issued an American-styled constitution that claims representation of certain identity groups, which happen to be formerly Ottoman. Significantly, the constitution presents the three regions as confederational cantons. This expresses a political philosophy that does not base governance on the nationalization of group identity but on the bare characteristics of the immediate locality.
The desire to let unmediated local preferences replace the constructed dictations of nationalism reveals a momentum toward a hybrid that blends the merits of the Ottoman system with those of the modern federalist system. While the carefully worded constitution aims at organizing a direct democracy, the cultural inclination in northern Syria to connect multicultural municipal authorities with a supervisory center is a link to the Ottoman tradition. The Ottoman polity was a premodern and imperial version of municipal federalism.
Despite this, instead of being interpreted as a nod to neo-Ottomanism, the political activity under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria is ascribed to the influence of Abdullah Öcalan, who, as the imprisoned leader of the PKK, is associated with anti-Turkey sentiment.
The potential of neo-Ottomanism
Neo-Ottomanism is a term that denotes a contemporary interest in the revival of the Ottoman spirit, and its spread could construct a new political union that crosses nation-state boundaries. It goes beyond a nation-state's state of mind. The longing in Turkey for Ottoman unity is not a nation-state's quest for power as much as a reflection of Turkey's power to breathe life into anational connections between communities.
Neo-Ottomanism in a potential Turkish foreign policy would emphasizes Turkey's commitment to rectify Ottoman shortcomings and resurrect Ottoman commonalities. Such a policy has the potential to prepare the ground for a federal existence that would transcend the boundaries between nation-states. Its practical effect depends on Turkey's ability to replenish old Ottoman ties with a new political outfit.
Through neo-Ottomanism, governance in countries that share a cultural bond could become open to an Ottoman-linked union that features local and interstate pluralism. Such a union would take away internal pressure from nation-states and enhance socioeconomic cooperation between their populations.
Not only is neo-Ottomanism different from the old Ottoman imperialism, it is informed by the place of the Ottoman past in the evolution of governance. The study of the Ottoman decline yields three main instructions on efficient federal governance. One is that the constitution has to be based on the will of the people and its content has to articulate the autonomy of the municipal units and the terms of their cooperation within a political union. The second lesson is that the empowerment of local governance does not mean that the power center should neglect to invest in infrastructure for institutions and living conditions that inspire democratic habits. Another Ottoman lesson is that if political participation is not effectively encouraged and many people remain politically idle, then the political vacuum leaves an open avenue for foreign interferences in political identity towardantigovernment activities.
Foreign powers interfered with the peace in Ottoman society toward the establishment of nation-states, and these days it denies the element of neo-Ottomanism among Kurds in Syria by concealing the "Ottomanness" of their unease with the nation-state and relating their political innovation to the worship of Öcalan's image as a philosopher.
The new narrative on Öcalan
This new Öcalanism lacks credibility. Its flimsy premise is that a person who fanatically dedicated himself to sabotage as the leader of a terrorist group that injured and killed innocent civilians under Soviet sponsorship and in the name of a Marxist-inspired Kurdish nationalism transitioned during his time in prison into a book-consuming intellectual who inspires federalism in the region. Only the power to generate information and control its reception can explain how people have come to accept as credible that a person who was once quoted as saying "Every Kurd will become a living bomb" is now quoted as a political theorist who strives to construct pluralistic governance.
As strange as this story is, the effect has been that Syrian Kurds are directed to see the Turkish government as the enemy of the PYD efforts because Ankara has been seen as the enemy of the PKK. The depiction of Öcalan as a pillar of innovative democracy is frivolous, yet it gives the movement against the nation-state an effective appearance of grassroots support at the expense of Turkey, which is portrayed as the powerful nation-state that stands against political creativity and progress.
Upon closer inspection, the new Öcalanism, also known as Apoism, seems to be predesigned. Articles published by The New York Times and the Carnegie Middle East Center during the Syrian civil war have popularized the belief that Öcalan changed from a communist to a libertarian in prison, and Wikipedia has been a platform for spreading as common knowledge in several languages that Öcalan's changed worldview was influenced by the Murray Bookchin writings that he read in confinement, but a weak attempt by American power to rewrite Öcalan's ideology and redirect his effect on the Kurdish public already took place a few years before his incarceration.
A bizarre letter in The New York Times on May 24, 1995, from David A. Korn, who had served the United States government as a foreign policy planner, international conflict negotiator and ambassador, awkwardly promotes a denial that the PKK was ever Marxist or nationalist-separatist, and quotes Öcalan as saying: "We are dedicated to a philosophy that is based on democracy and pluralism, not on the power of the state. We favor a synthesis of capitalism and socialism, an economic structure in which individuals will freely develop to their fullest potential. … We want a Spanish or American type federalism."
How could it be that the PKK was said to be advocating a libertarian-socialist federalism long before Öcalan supposedly discovered Bookchin's philosophy and subscribed to it while in prison on İmralı Island? A reasonable answer is that the idea in the United States to use Öcalan's popularity as an opponent of Turkey for the sake of advancing progressive democratic thought among Kurds preceded the opportunity to nudge Öcalan into showing himself as Bookchin's disciple. Going by information on WorldCat, oddly, Turkish is the only language other than English in which Bookchin's "The Ecology of Freedom" has been published, and its first publication in Turkish was in 1994, just before Korn's – mysteriously premature – act of connecting Öcalan with federalism.
American power might be seeking to stimulate political progress through disseminating the notion that, especially for Kurds in Syria, Turkey is a symbol of the outdated nation-state in the region. However, Turkey is no longer a Kemalist state, and neo-Ottomanism may pave the way forward for a political union that could surpass the limitations of nation-states.
Turkey's Syrian dilemma
Therein is the essence of the Turkish dilemma about northern Syria. As a nation-state, Turkey is expected to handle the PYD, like the PKK, as a threat to its national identity and national security. But, as the heart of neo-Ottomanism, Turkey is expected to show that the wish among the people in former Ottoman territories to be unimpeded by nation-statehood is a neo-Ottoman trend.
Turkey can find its neo-Ottoman voice in developments in northern Syria, while continuing to function as a nation-state. It would involve engaging in an open debate about the meaning of neo-Ottomanism as a federal movement that is being overshadowed by a problematic representation of Öcalan, and initiating investment in infrastructure for local democratic institutions that would not condition locals to associate ideas of effective governance with terrorism. Syria's territorial integrity as a state can be maintained without negating the development of ideas about direct local government and their representation in a federal arrangement there and throughout other former Ottoman territories.
Furthermore, Turkey can demonstrate its support of municipal autonomies by taking the lead in the restoration of Aleppo and other peaceful places in Syria where neo-Ottomanism echoes, and guide the population toward a constitutional framework that corresponds with the one that has been set up in the Afrin, Kobani and Jazira cantons.
Thus, people in northern Syria would be able to see that neo-Ottomanism offers far greater promise than the new Öcalanism.