The Republic of Turkey is the successor of the Ottoman Empire. Its first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led a process of secularization and modernization of the country, which historically has an Islamic culture, with 99% Muslims, mostly Sunni.
Since the founding of the republic, the Armed Forces have assumed the mission of guaranteeing secular principles and ensuring the strategic country’s security. Both missions have meant a marked influence of the military in all spheres of Turkish society. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Marshal Ataturk’s project was to rebuild Turkey as an advanced, pro-Western state.
With 784,000 km² and 82 million inhabitants, the nation is located in Asia Minor, as a peninsula pointing towards Europe. Abundant water and arable land have favored population growth, and today, it is one of the three giants of the Near East, along with Iran and Egypt.
The current president, Recep Erdogan, intends to replace Ataturk’s project, redirecting the country towards Empire. Since 2014, he has taken significant steps in that direction. Three key examples were the 2017 constitutional reform, which brutally strengthened presidential power, the education reform, and the transformation of the historic Hagia Sophia Basilica into a mosque. His policies’ hallmarks are imperialist nationalism and the expansion of Sunni Islamism. Specifically, it has veered from Kemalism to Ottomanism.
In theory, Turkey is a parliamentary democracy. The Constitution establishes a democratic, secular state that respects human rights. A president heads the Executive for five years with possible re-election. The legislative branch is composed of the 600-seat Grand National Assembly.
Recep Erdogan used the failed coup in 2016 to execute purges within the Army, a traditionally secular bastion, and in public administration, Justice, media, and universities. With the three government-controlled branches, the Turkish system drifted towards an autocratic and Islamic model. A state of emergency was declared. The incident resulted in more than 6,000 arrests, some 300 killed and more than 2,000 injured.
In addition, 2,750 judges were dismissed. On July 19, 2018, President Erdogan lifted the state of emergency extended seven times by a vote of the dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Parliament. That same year, he was re-elected for the 2018-2023 term.
Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy
Erdogan opted for confrontation against Persian Gulf monarchies. He wants the world’s Sunnis to stop seeing Saudi Arabia as their main defender, replacing it with -needless to say- Turkey, thus seeking the religious leadership. In Syria and Iraq, Ankara continues its expansionist strategy under the pretext of preventing a power vacuum that may lead to the creation of a Kurdish state. It already has a military presence in the north of both nations.
The external shift is more evident in the face of Iran. Turkey has strengthened friendly ties with the Persian nation, despite the fact that it is subject to international sanctions. The Ayatollahs’ confrontation with Sunni Arabia weighed more heavily than the Shiite regime with its support for terrorism, and its nuclear and missile program. Turkey’s arm has also reached as far as Libya. It has sent “volunteers” to prevent Marshal Khalifa Haftar – secular, pro-Washington and pro-Egypt – from coming to power. So far, he has succeeded.
Let us look to Russia, for centuries, at odds with the Ottoman Empire. Here Erdogan has introduced another twist. Ankara has bought from Vladimir Putin its S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which is not compatible with the NATO system, to which Turkey belongs. Moscow’s weapons have been seen on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict battleground.
Turkey supported the Muslim side, and Azerbaijan won. The Christian Armenians had to give up their just aspirations and were geographically reduced. Russia has let things go, prioritizing its relationship with Turkey over the defense of Armenia. Consequently, the United States has excluded Erdogan from the list of allies who will receive advanced F-35 fighter and Erdogan was shocked.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed an agreement mediated by Russia to end the war. The creation of a land corridor linking the autonomous region of Nakhichevan with Azerbaijani territory was approved. The truce was seen as a victory for Azerbaijan and a bad move for Armenia, whose armed forces have withdrawn from several areas based on the agreement.
As a shameful aspect of Turkish policy, let us point out its permanent refusal to recognize the genocide committed against the Armenians more than a century ago, with one and a half million victims.
In the 1970s Turkey invaded Turkish Cypriot-majority northern Cyprus. The incursion led to the displacement of 150,000 Greek Cypriots, who fled to the south of the island, where Greeks are in the majority. Since then, Cyprus has been split in two. Turkey is the only country in the world to have recognized (1983) the legitimacy of the so-called Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.
Since then, the United Nations resolutions try to make the whole island a single state. Erdogan supports two fully independent states – in reality, the north is a satellite of Ankara, which has caused unanimous international rejection. Also, Turkey has been drilling for hydrocarbons on the Greek and Cypriot seabed, where it has no sovereignty whatsoever. Tensions between Ankara and Nicosia are enormous.
More than interests
For most experts, a key fact in international relations is that “there are neither friends nor enemies, only interests.” It is never too much to deny this categorical statement, which falls into what Vaz Ferreira defined as false opposition. Interests undoubtedly exist and weigh, but ideals and human feelings also play a role.
Turkey has a major problem in the East, the large Kurdish presence. It constitutes the majority of the population in this area of the country. Kurds are different from Turks, they live in the mountains and have more children, an average of four children compared to two for a Turkish family. The consequence is that the Kurdish majority in the East will increase and perhaps spread to other areas.
While the Kurds are not trying to secede from the country, but to improve their situation in Turkey, their strength in numbers will give them a larger percentage of the population which could change their attitude. With less human development, they seek greater cultural and administrative autonomy, as well as economic support from the central government.
If an independent Kurdistan were to be established in northern Iraq and Syria, this would encourage the Kurds in Turkey to try to join it. The possibility of a separate state is a real threat to Ankara. Such a nation, unifying the Kurdish people from three countries would occupy important strategic territory. The Kurdish threat is the only coherent fear in the Turkish policy for Syria.
For now, Israel is the only regional power supporting an independent Kurdistan, as it would gain an ally in the midst of weakened but hostile countries, to which it adds its current alliance with seven Arab countries, soon to be joined by Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Turkey may shape a new status for itself on the international scene. Instead of being part of the Western alliance, it could be a more independent force in Eurasia, theoretically capable of extending a zone of influence in Europe. Because Turkey’s real challenges are few -impeding Kurdish independence and securing its energy source- the possibility is concrete.
If diplomacy and not aggression are used, the latter leads to inevitable defeat. Ankara is not operating in a vacuum, and its expansionism led it into conflicts with forces it cannot defeat, such as Russia, France, Israel, Italy, and Greece. Turkey has become more independent, but not as a regional power, but as an isolated nation.
If the Turks have already sunk into the mud in Syria in the Mediterranean basin they are on the same path. The discovery of gas has increased the region’s importance. For coastal countries (Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt), the discovery of gas means security and exports, which will increase their importance and enrich their budget. Together they have decided to team up and develop offshore resources, excluding Ankara.
Turkey has become an imperialist, aggressive, and ruthless force in recent years. But it lacks the political stability and power to create a solid empire. The “sultan” marches across the region, but erratically and without a coherent plan. Like its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire – called the sick man of Europe – if it does not control its ambition, its collapse will be inevitable. And positive.
Eduardo Zalovich is a historian who lives in Israel.