After nearly a century of being relegated to a smaller regional power acting alongside the Israeli-Saudi nexus, Turkey’s new leadership stands prepared to significantly increase its political power and prestige. Taking advantage of various conflicts around their borders, Turkey has embarked on a bit to expand their influence not just in the Middle East, but also on the borders of an increasingly volatile European Union. These actions, along with consolidation domestically and an increased focus on militarization mean that Turkey’s profile stands a good chance of rising over the next decade.
I. Expansion In The Middle East
Turkey has taken an active role in Syrian territories which were historically part of the Ottoman Eyalet (Province) of Şam by deploying military assets which they claim are part of their efforts to help bring an end to the Syrian Civil War. However, Turkey’s intervention came only after they used their control of Syria’s northern border to fracture rebel groups who might have opposed them. Wikileaks’ Berat’s Box release has revealed that organizations tied to government officials such as Powertrans were directly implicated in the facilitation of ISIS oil imports. Leaked German government documents published by public broadcaster Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ARD) also show that Turkey supported a number of other jihadist groups in Syria in addition to Palestine’s Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. This strategy of supporting various jihadist groups in Syria created a rebel coalition that was prone to infighting, unable to effectively mount concerted resistance to ISIS and created a need for Turkish assistance which began when troops entered Syria in August 2016. Russian new source Sputnik reported that since intervening, Turkey had established military bases in the Aktarin district north of Aleppo and the city of al-Bab which was previously held by ISIS.
With a firm presence in northern Syria, Turkey has now begun a diplomatic dance of name calling and accusations with the United States over disagreements about support for Kurdish YPG rebel groups operating in Syria. Turkey opposes arming the Kurdish YPG due to their close relationship with the Turkey Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK), a Turkish communist political party and rebel group which maintains military assets in northern Iraq. On July 19th, 2017, the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency leaked the precise locations of a number of U.S. military bases in Syria in a move that understandably caused considerable anger to American officials. The revelation was likely in response to Turkish anger at President Donald Trump’s decision in May 2017 to arm the YPG. Erdogan has recently threatened to attack U.S. troop positions should they stand in the way of future operations against the YPG according to Turkish media.
Turkey has also sought out diplomatic confrontation with regional power Saudi Arabia in the Kingdom’s conflict with Qatar where it has deployed troops to the Gulf state. Disobedient Media has previously reported that the move is part of efforts by Turkey and Iran to position themselves as political opponents and replacements to Saudi Arabia, which has for many years acted as the Middle East’s dominant regional player alongside Israel in a power sharing dynamic referred to as the Israeli-Saudi nexus. With Saudi Arabia likely to experience an internal conflict between factions of the royal family, Turkey hopes to be able to marginalize the Kingdom and promote itself as a regional alternative.
II. Expansion In East/West Europe
Finally, Turkey has also sought confrontation with the European Union, using Greece as a flash point. Traditionally a territory of the Ottoman Empire, Greece has historically had a hostile relation with its Aegean neighbor. But relations have taken a particularly sour turn over the past year. In January 2017, Al Jazeera reported that Turkey had threatened to end its migration deal with Greece after a Greek court refused to return eight soldiers who had sought asylum in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup d’état. The escalation came after a year of competition in the fishing industry, where Greek fisherman claimed the Turkish government had created conditions which unfairly benefitted Turkish fishing enterprises. Tensions reached a new height after reports in July 2017 that the Greek Coast Guard had fired on a Turkish freighter in the Aegean Sea which authorities claimed was carrying narcotics. Turkey has also threatened retaliation against Greece for engaging in oil exploration in Cyprus, which has been partitioned between the two countries since a military invasion in 1974.
Arab American news source Al-Monitor has noted that the escalation in the Aegean is less about historical differences than it is Turkey’s relationship with the European Union. This confrontation has lead to a breakdown in military cooperation between Turkey and European powers such as Germany. Unchecked, these disagreements could lead to a devolution in cooperation ending with Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO and and end to it’s bid to join the EU.
While Greece represents a major financial liability to the European Union, it is an excellent opportunity for Turkey to make a power play and distract European states from other issues. Disobedient Media has previously outlined the EU’s campaign to consolidate control over Greece by imposing harsh austerity measures after collaborating with political and financial allies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Despite the political control it now enjoys, Europe is stuck attempting to run a country which consistently requires financial support and struggles to maintain adequate military deterrents in the face of Turkish military spending.
The focus on Greece distracts from other problems such as alarming threats by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to weaponize Turkish and Middle Eastern migrant populations against Europe. In March 2017, Erdoğan told European officials they would “pay the price” after the Netherlands and provinces in Germany blocked Turkish officials from engaging in political campaigns among Turkish migrants living abroad. The New York Times reported that Erdoğan alarmingly exhorted Turks to ethnically replace Europeans by outbreeding them. Sources estimate that there are between 5 to 10 million Turks living throughout the European Union, primarily in Germany. Politico has accused Erdoğan of using the European migrant crisis to further his own political agenda. In 2016, Erdoğan threatened to unleash millions of refugees and migrants into Europe after politicians moved to suspend talks to include Turkey in the European Union.
Voice of America has also noted that Turkey is currently engaged in a global drive to build 18 mosques internationally in locations such as Cuba, the United States, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Palestine, the United Kingdom and Albania. In 1998, Erdoğan was jailed for four months after penning a poem where he referred to mosques as “our barracks.”
III. Domestic Consolidation Of Power And Militarization
After weathering the July 2016 coup against the Turkish government, Erdoğan used the incident to not only purge political opponents, but to sell Turks propaganda promising a new geopolitical vision. In October, just a few months after the coup, Foreign Policy noted that maps displayed on Turkish TV showed the country with its borders extended into the Aegean as well as into Syria and Northern Iraq. The message has resonated with Turkish citizens, who in April 2017 voted in a sweeping constitutional referendum which strengthened the office of the president, weakened Turkey’s legislature and allowed for more political appointees in the judiciary branch.
Pro-peace organization PAX has detailed Turkey’s place as the sixth largest arms importer worldwide, seeking to be self sufficient by 2023. The Turkish military has evolved over the years as well, upgrading its existing stockpiles of equipment and integrating new types of platforms such as drones. Erdoğan also pledged in early July 2017 to commit towards the construction of Turkish aircraft carriers starting in 2021. Figures close to the Turkish leader have urged even more extreme defense measures. On March 16, 2017, The Express reported that a cleric close to Erdoğan’s AK Party urged Turkey to develop its own nuclear weapons. Both mainstream media sources and public figures have expressed concerns that other Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar may have already developed their own weapons of mass destruction.
With the dramatic shifts in the geopolitical balance of the Middle East and the European Union facing a number of issues stemming from unrest and terrorism stemming from the migrant crisis, ongoing conflict with Russia and growing disagreements with Eastern Europe, Turkey is well positioned to increase its stature in the region. Should Erdogan avoid further internal destabilization in the form of coups and unrest from neighboring countries, it is more than likely that Turkey will once again experience a glimmer of the prestige it once enjoyed under the Ottoman Empire.