Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS)
These days Turkey is a frustrated post-imperial state. Occupying strategically vital geographical space between Europe and the Asian hinterland, a neo-Ottoman doctrine has taken hold of the government, with a revival of the “sultan” in the form of an all-powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who favours a Pharaonic Presidential Palace, rather than the republican modesty known in Turkey since 1924. Ankara’s current leaders believe Turkey is capable of playing, simultaneously and successfully, on several interconnected strategic power chessboards.
On examination, however, this conviction of the Turkish leadership is less convincing. In Syria, Erdogan is tangled in a dangerously confusing “peace operation” (read: stalemate) aiming to remove the threat from the Kurdish terrorists the West allied with against the Islamic State (ISIS); gobble up a long crescent of Syrian border territory to maintain a Turkish “security zone”; maintain a creaky “alliance” with Russia, despite Moscow’s directly contrary interests in Syria; and continue trying to warm relations with the nuclear-tinkering Iranian mullahs, who have shown little reciprocal will.
In Libya, Erdogan has got embroiled in what could well turn out to be a Vietnam-like quagmire. His siding with the “legitimate” government in Tripoli, and dispatching arms and Syrian mercenaries to shore up this administration headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, has not produced victory but gridlock. Sarraj’s challenger, General Khalifa Haftar, although forced to abandon much of the territory he had snatched from the Tripoli administration, refuses to negotiate and won’t be subdued any time soon. Erdogan, for all his fire-breathing rhetoric, has neither the economic nor the military resources to out-escalate Sarraj’s opponents, who enjoy the support of Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
Erdogan’s frantic power games have distracted Turkey’s government from recognizing, and building defenses against, two deadly enemies, one growing steadily over the last several years, the other arriving with a global deadly crash last March: a perilously weakening economy, with the Turkish lira taking a savage beating, and businesses, large and small, chaffing for cash; and the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. Both of these crises will add severely to Erdogan’s growing inability for credible “superpower” games. Already, Ankara has initiated playing defense by allegedly misreporting the pandemic’s real impact.
Despite all these near-calamities weighing down his country, Erdogan continues acting like the proverbial bull running rampant in the china shop.
In the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish expansionism is constant and threatening military confrontation every step of the way. Greece, the primary target of Turkish aggression, has gone on quiet wartime naval deployments to defend against the Turks pushing shiploads of undocumented Afro-Asiatic immigrants upon the Eastern Aegean large Greek islands. The latter, already pressured by an influx, have reached breaking point.
The European Union (EU) has not been merely unable to stop Erdogan’s games using migrants; it has caved to his pressure and incentivized further such games that could destabilize the continent.
Farther to the southeast, Erdogan has claimed a huge section of the Eastern Mediterranean as Turkey’s “Exclusive Economic Zone” in cahoots with his Tripoli puppet, Sarraj. This Turkish blatant imperial gambit, directed at the tripartite partnership of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, has been scandalously ratified by the United Nations, again, just as in the EU case, increasing the risk of conflict. Ankara found itself diplomatically isolated and falling behind in the contest for natural gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean—and appears to have decided on military “solutions” to change this balance, a perilous game.
One would justifiably expect that these palpable Turkish outrages would have long undermined Turkey’s status in the eyes of the Western alliance. Unfortunately, however, both Washington and key European capitals, instead of trying to pressure Turkey into better behavior, are involved in a dangerous effort at appeasement. This is an extremely dangerous, as “cool-headed diplomacy” is being interpreted by Erdogan as a virtual carte blanche to push for ever-more outlandish “Turkish rights” in the Mediterranean and elsewhere at the expense of Turkey’s immediate neighbors, and the peace of the area.
The West has generally calculated that Erdogan’s heated rhetoric is calculated hyperbole. The record suggests this is mistaken. Erdogan should be taken at his word. For example, it was long thought the Turkish government was bluffing about operations in Syria, and it has now launched three of them, plus a long-range intervention in Libya—an astonishingly anomalous action by the Turkish republic. The ideological components of Erdogan’s Islamist worldview should not be ignored either; he believes very deeply in various conspiracy theories, including antisemitism, which make negotiations with him very difficult. If the West has done badly by trying to understand Erdogan, it might do better by trying to make him understand them—and drawing meaningful lines on Turkey’s behavior that threatens the region around it.
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