Turkey today is actively involved in a number of conflicts that bedevil the West Asian and Mediterranean landscape. It has deployed several thousand troops, backed by aircraft and heavy artillery, across north Syria, after having conducted four major invasions into Syria over the last two years. Turkish troops have penetrated up to 40 km in north Iraq, while its aircraft regularly pound positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose cadres have been located in the northern Iraqi mountains for a few decades.
Late last year, Turkey crossed the Mediterranean into Libya. In November, it entered into two agreements with the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli: one, to deploy its troops to back the GNA against attacks by the Tobruk-based rival political authority in the war-torn country, whose forces are led by self-styled field marshal Khalifa Haftar. Hafter, backed by Egypt, the UAE and Russia, was routed in June and retired from the fray, providing an opening for Turkey and Russia to work on a peace process with Egypt.
The second agreement divided the waters of the East Mediterranean into a Libya-Turkey exclusive economic zone that challenged the claims of the other littoral states – Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt – and set up a naval confrontation in the ocean.
In June 2017, as some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, backed by Egypt, enforced a land, sea and air blockade on Qatar and even threatened a military assault to effect regime change, Turkey swiftly moved its troops to the desert sheikhdom. It thus foiled any thought of an overthrow of the ruler and also stationed itself in a Gulf outpost, the first such Turkish deployment since the end of the Ottoman empire.
And, most recently, there is the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijan and Armenia, two breakaway republics from the Soviet Union are claiming the same territory – formally a part of Azerbaijan, but, with a large Armenian population, under Armenian control after a short war in 1991. Now, the situation is quite different: Turkey has pledged full support to Azerbaijan, moved in weaponry and advisers, and also provided about 1500 militants from the cadres it controls in north Syria.
Erdogan versus Kemalism
All of Turkey’s initiatives emanate from its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has defined national politics for nearly two decades. A Turkish commentator, Kaya Genc, has described him as “the most baffling politician” in Turkey’s 96-year history. By turn, patient and ill-tempered, affectionate and authoritarian, and always sharp and calculating and, when necessary, opportunistic and ruthless, Erdogan seeks to achieve a “new Turkey” that is economically self-reliant and successful, a regional power and a central player in all major regional issues. Here, he has “legacy” issues.
Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, having saved his nation from dismemberment by the victorious western powers in the First World War with his leadership in the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22), did away with all links with the country’s Ottoman past – banned public expression of faith through prayer and attire, did away with the Arabic script of the Turkish language, and enforced western garments upon his people – referred to collectively as “Kemalism”.
To shape his alternative vision, Erdogan has drawn on two of Turkey’s earlier, mutually-reinforcing traditions – Islam and the Ottomanism – that defined the national ethos for nearly a millennium and, in his view, are its more authentic traditions as against Kemalism which he sees as reflecting the continued domination of the West on Turkey. As the Turkish scholar, Gonul Tol, wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, for Erdogan and his supporters, Turkey “as heir to the Ottoman Empire, is Islam’s last fortress and a natural leader of a revival of Muslim civilisation”.
Thus, Erdogan’s vision unites Turkey’s leadership of the Muslim world through the “caliphate” and the glory and grandeur of the Ottoman Empire founded on military prowess and cultural achievement.
In the background of the depredations of extremist Islam associated with Wahabbiya, Erdogan seeks to project Turkish Islam as moderate and accommodative, founded on the country’s Hanafi school and its powerful Sufi traditions. Turkey has taken a lead role in the construction of mosques in Europe, the US and Latin America, imparting religious education, and developing Ottoman heritage sites.
The most dramatic expression of Erdogan’s Islamo-Ottoman vision has been the restoration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, after Kemal Ataturk had converted it into a museum in 1934.
It should be noted that all actions by leaders associated with Hagia Sophia have been attempts to impart to the edifice a value beyond it being a space for worship. For the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who constructed it in 537 AD, it represented the most important centre of Christianity and reflected his own standing as the head of the faith.
When the Ottoman ruler, Mehmet II took Constantinople in 1453 and made Hagia Sophia into a mosque, he was proclaiming Islam’s victory over Christianity. Later, when Kemal Ataturk re-took Istanbul, after defeating British and Greek forces, he made it into a museum to proclaim the secular character of the new republic and its affiliation with cultural values of the West.
By restoring the mosque at Hagia Sophia, Erdogan is recalling the victory of Islam over Christianity and of Ottoman forces over western powers. This message is being conveyed within the country, to the Muslim world and to the West. The proclamation of the mosque was conveyed in a variety of languages – Arabic, Turkish, Bengali, Bosnian and Swahili.
In a message for the home audience, the first official prayers took place on 24 July: this was the date on which the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923 by the western powers with the Turkish republic. This republic had been shaped by the military power of nationalist Turkish forces against a vast array of hostile powers that had sought to extinguish the Turkish nation through the Treaty of Sevres in 1920.
It is important to note that there is one area where there is continuity in perception from Kemalism to Erdogan: that the great powers are predatory and intent on harming Turkey internally and regionally. This is referred to as the “Sevres Syndrome”, recalling the treaty that had attempted to parcel out Turkish territories among the Greeks, Armenians and Kurds.
‘Neo-Ottomanism’ in action
The shaping of Turkish foreign policy through a combination of Islam and Ottoman glory is referred to by several writers today as “neo-Ottomanism” – the imperative of projecting Turkey’s soft power and, where required, hard power in regions that were once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey initially entered the civil conflict In Syria, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in 2011, to support regime change and place an Islamist government in Damascus. But, by 2015, Turkey saw with concern that the government forces in retreat had left Syria’s northern border with Turkey completely under the control of the Syrian Kurds, who are closely linked with the PKK in Turkey and provide PKK cadres with sanctuary and space for training.
In the face of this dire security challenge, Turkey gave up its ideological agenda, abandoned its Gulf allies, and moved militarily against the Kurds. Turkish forces now control large swathes of Syrian territory along the border in north and northeast Syria.
The Turkish agenda in Syria now has three parts: to ensure the Kurds do not aspire for an independent homeland; ensure a long-term Turkish military presence in northern Syria, and, where possible, obtain support from Islamic militants to keep the government forces and the Kurds at bay.
In Iraq, Turkey’s game-plan is entirely linked with neutralising the PKK elements in the north through regular air attacks and maintaining a long-term military presence in the region. To sustain its interests, Turkey has also built close ties with the Iraqi Kurds of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by the Barzani family, who, ironically share Turkey’s hostility for the PKK.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey is primarily motivated by its ethnic (Turkic) and linguistic affinity with Azerbaijan, that supersedes the sectarian divide – most Azeris are Shia, while the Turks are Sunni. Turkey also has a very complex history with the Armenians who accuse the Ottomans of perpetrating genocide on them during the First World War, a charge that Turkish leaders continue to deny to this day.
The “Blue Homeland” strategy
It is in Libya and the east Mediterranean that we see the full expression of Erdogan’s “neo-Ottomanism” that shapes Turkey’s contemporary strategic interests within the framework of Ottoman history. This is encapsulated in the “Blue Homeland” strategy that is motivating Erdogan and the armed forces today. “Blue Homeland”, or Mavi vatan in Turkish, is today Turkey’s naval doctrine, political agenda and popular aspiration.
It was first developed by Rear Admiral Cem Gurdeniz as a plan to highlight the importance of the Mediterranean for Turkey. The doctrine sets out Turkey’s exclusive claims to large areas of the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Ocean, including areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus, and the hydrocarbon deposits in the ocean. The doctrine rejects earlier Greek and Cypriot claims and seeks for Turkey all the oceanic areas beyond its coastline of 8333 km – the area so claimed is about 462,000 square kilometres.
This claim has been reinforced by the Libya-Turkey maritime agreement of November 2019, that encroaches on Greek and Cypriot exclusive zone claims. This has unified the participants in the regional gas pipeline projects – Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt – who have been negotiating joint cooperation projects to develop the gas deposits and transport them as LNG from Egypt to Europe, thus excluding Turkey from all regional arrangements.
But “Blue Homeland” goes beyond energy projects and asserts what a commentator, Ryan Gingeras, has called “the ascendancy of a more aggressive and antagonistic strain of thought within Turkish security circles”. Admiral Gurdeniz has asserted that Turkish control of the Mediterranean waters is crucial for the security of the republic; the Ottoman Empire was defeated, he says, because it failed to dominate the Mediterranean.
Gurdeniz and his supporters reflect a diversity of political postures in the country – secularists from the armed forces, ultra-nationalists and the ‘Eurasianists’. The latter, like Gurdeniz himself and many of his supporters, are hostile to western powers and espouse close ties with Russia and China. They are particularly hostile to Greece and its extravagant claims, asserted only because it enjoys the backing of the US and Europe.
Alliances and alienations
Turkey, a NATO member, is increasingly being viewed as a disruptive and unreliable partner by other NATO members; it has been drifting away from the western alliance into the Russian embrace. From the Turkish perspective, this perhaps results from a repeat of the “Sevres Syndrome” mentioned earlier.
Erdogan has two principal grievances: one, that from 2014 the US has been actively backing the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds for their “Rojava” or homeland, right across the Turkish border, despite the deep security concerns of its NATO partner who views them as terrorists. The other grievance relates to a domestic matter – the failed coup of June 2016 that Erdogan believes was engineered by Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive but influential cleric and mystic who lives in the US since 1997, with the knowledge of the Americans.
In the face of these challenges, Turkey has turned to Russia: after the failed coup, Putin was the first foreign leader to receive Erdogan in Moscow in August 2016. Besides building up bilateral ties in energy and defence areas, they quickly became partners in Syria – coordinating their approach (with Iran) through the Astana peace process, working together to control the Kurds in the north and northeast, and carefully managing their differences so that they do not get out of hand.
What has severely strained US-Turkey ties has been the purchase by the latter of four batteries of the Russian S-400 state-of-the-art missile system. Turkey opted for this purchase when the US refused to sell it the Patriot air defence system. The S-400 system was delivered in July 2019; in November, its communications systems were tested, while on 5 October Turkey announced that testing with missile firing would take place in Black Sea coastal city of Sinop on 13-16 October. With the delivery of this missile system, Turkey was removed from the development of NATO’s F-35 joint strike fighter programme.
Closer home, NATO’s European members are deeply unhappy with Turkey’s policies. They believe that Turkey has now embedded itself with the Russian defence systems, while coordinating closely with the Russians in Syria, at the expense of NATO interests. A Greek commentator has noted that the S-400 system will allow Turkey to assert its claims across the Mediterranean waters. The Europeans are particularly chagrined by the Blue Homeland doctrine that they view as supporting a unilateral redefinition of maritime zones, backed by military force.
Besides Turkey’s increasing proximity to Russia and alienation from its western allies, observers are watching with interest Turkey’s burgeoning ties with China. In 2018, their two-way trade was $ 23 billion, from just $ 1 billion in 2000. Recently, Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund obtained $ 5 billion from a Chinese credit company to fund Chinese projects in Turkey in energy, petrochemicals and mining. Again, Turkey has asked the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank for a $ 500-million credit line to meet liquidity constraints during the pandemic. China is building a power plant on the Mediterranean, and is slated to construct Turkey’s third nuclear power plant.
Unlike other western countries, the Chinese telecom giant, Huawei, has a 30 percent share of the Turkish market, while another company, ZTE, has bought 48 percent of the Turkish company, Netas that manufactures key telecom equipment.
Turkey is a major partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has robustly entered Turkey’s logistics space by investing in the country’s third-largest container terminal and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge across the Bosporus. Chinese freight trains regularly cross the Bosporus through the Maramaray railway tunnel towards Europe. Turkey has proposed that the BRI projects be integrated with its own “Middle Corridor” Initiative that envisages road and rail connectivity through the Caucasus and Central Asia to China.
Defence and security ties are at a nascent stage: Turkey has produced missiles based on Chinese models, and is expected to expand its presence in the areas of cyberwarfare and intelligence.
It is interesting to note that in 2009, Erdogan had referred to China’s treatment of its Uyghur community as a “genocide”. Later, as bilateral economic ties expanded, Turkey in 2017 concluded an extradition agreement with China under which hundreds of Uyghurs have been sent to deportation centres. There is now no criticism from Turkey relating to the Uyghurs.
Erdogan’s activist foreign policy enjoys considerable support across party lines and is also popular with the people at large, particularly the confrontation with Greece to expand Turkey’s exclusive economic zone.
Of course, there are severe critics of these policies at home. Metin Gurcan has described Erdogan’s foreign policy as “alarmingly militarised”, subject to “Inconsistency and confusion”, driven by “short-termism”, and largely intended to burnish Erdogan’s domestic image. It has left Turkey “increasingly isolated”, he points out, referring to the US and European nations.
Soli Ozel of Kadir Has University believes that Turkey has obtained reasonable achievements in Syria and Libya and, despite its hostile rhetoric, still maintains diplomatic ties with Israel. It will continue to retain an equidistance between NATO and Russia, he says, remaining within NATO but “seeking a high degree of autonomy”.
Many commentators wonder whether, with its economy floundering under pressure from the pandemic, Turkey will be able to maintain the tempo of its activist foreign policy: after reaching a peak of $ 951 billion in 2013, its GDP fell to $ 754 billion in 2019 in nominal terms, which is reflected in the fall in popular support for the ruling party – from 43 percent in 2018 to 33 percent in August 2020.
In 2013, Turkey had issued its “Vision -2023”, a ten-year blueprint for economic achievement to mark the centenary of the founding of the republic. It had included: emerging as a top-10 global economy, with a GDP target of about $ 2.6 trillion; obtaining per capita income of $ 25,000, and reducing unemployment from 11 percent to 5 percent. Though the country has made progress in the areas of automobile production, naval production, foreign trade volume and tourism, the pandemic has sent many targets awry.
Recognising the economic and political challenges the pandemic poses, Turkey’s finance minister, Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law, has published a New Economic Programme – 2021-2023. It notes that, during the pandemic, the government provided $ 63 billion in assistance to the indigent and $ 35 billion as loans to households and small businesses. The recent discovery of gas reserves in the Black Sea, which could meet 7 percent of the country’s needs annually, has also boosted business confidence in the country.
While in the short-term, Turkey will try to continue its brinkmanship between the US and Russia, there is actually very little tying it to the West, either ideologically or strategically. Erdogan’s vision of “neo-Ottomanism”, that has shaped most of his domestic policies and regional forays, has evoked no positive resonance in either the US or Europe – European countries have rushed to back Greece, affirming the continuing validity of the “Sevres Syndrome” where Turkey is concerned.
On 1 October, in a major speech, Erdogan attacked the west-led world order thus: “There is no chance left for this distorted order, in which the entire globe is encumbered by a handful of greedy people, to continue to exist the way it currently does.” Referring to western opposition to Turkey’s foray into the Mediterranean, he attacked “those who ignored our country in the region for years — and confronted us with maps and demands that would imprison us into our coasts — first tried the language of threat and blackmail after the steps we took."
As Erdogan consolidates his ties with Russia and China, what is likely to emerge after the pandemic is the re-shaping of “Eurasia” at the heart of a new order by the latter two powers; Turkey can be expected to be a founder-member of this new order.
(Views expressed are personal. The author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)