New Turkey’s old politics

An attendee wears a badge depicting Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, left, during the opening ceremony to mark the first day of prayers at the Hagia Sophia mosque, in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Turkey, on Friday, July 24, 2020. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding the first Islamic prayer at the iconic Hagia Sophia in nearly a century, a calculated move to boost the embattled Turkish presidents popularity at home and in the Muslim world. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg via Getty Images
As a result of President Erdogan's embrace of two interlinked geopolitical concepts, 'Strategic Depth' and 'Blue Homeland', Turkey faces international isolation.
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In July, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decreed that the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul would be converted back into a mosque. Built as a Byzantine church in 537, it was turned into a mosque in 1453 under the rule of the Ottomans. But in 1934 Kemal Ataturk – the first President of the secular Turkish Republic and the man who turned Turkey towards the West – saw the soft power benefits for the Republic in making it a museum, in celebration of a shared history. It was a message to the West: ‘The door is open to all’.

Erdogan’s Turkish and English language Twitter accounts were a paean to inclusivity – the mosque would be ‘wide open to all… Hagia Sophia, the shared heritage of humanity, will continue to embrace all’. However, the Arabic language version of the website of the Office of the Presidency carried a different tone – the move ‘heralds the liberation of the Al Aqsa Mosque’ which sits above the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The President’s decision was ‘the best response to the loathsome attacks on our values and symbols in every Islamic region… With the help of Allah the Almighty, we will continue traveling on this blessed path, without stopping, without weariness or fatigue, with determination, sacrifice and persistence, until we reach our hoped-for destination.’

In a speech to mark the occasion, Erdogan namechecked key battles in Ottoman and Turkish history: ‘The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia represents our memory full of heydays in our history from Badr to Manzikert, from Nicopolis to Gallipoli.’

Erdogan was elected as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994, representing the Islamist Welfare Party. In 1998, he served four months in jail for reciting a poem which included the lines: ‘The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our solders…’ On release, he helped create the Justice and Development Party (AKP) out of the remnants of the Welfare Party and quickly rose to power. Erdogan’s worldview is set squarely against the secular legacy of Ataturk. His party’s vision is rooted in political Islam – a kind of Turkish brand of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its ideologues are lukewarm about NATO and frustrated about their lack of influence in the dominions of the former Ottoman Empire. 

In geopolitical terms, Erdogan’s ‘New Turkey’, as it is sometimes called, is underpinned by two related concepts: ‘Blue Homeland’ and ‘Strategic Depth’. Both of these seek to right the perceived wrongs of the past. In the multipolar post-Cold War world, Erdogan sees a jungle full of competitors in which Turkey is a lion seeking to re-establish itself as king.

Turkey’s unique Strategic Depth

A guide to Erdogan’s thinking can be found in the career and words of the former leader of the AKP, Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, who served as his Foreign Minister from 2009 to 2014 and then as Prime Minister from 2014 to 2016. His 2001 book Strategic Depth is the structure upon which the foreign policy of Erdogan’s ‘New Turkey’ is built. His proposals for expanding Turkey’s strategic depth are based on a ‘dynamic interpretation of geography’ to give Turkey a more active foreign policy.

Davutoglu argues that Turkey possesses a unique psychological and physical ‘strategic depth’ due to its history and geographic position. It commands the Bosphorus Strait and the Dardanelles, and thus controls access into the Mediterranean from the Black Sea and vice versa. The core of the country is at its western extremity, around the Sea of Marmara, which means the core has almost a thousand miles of territory guarding it from potential threats to the east. Protecting the core from the west, north, and south requires pushing as far up the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara as possible, and having a strong navy in the Black Sea and Aegean.  

Turkey has land borders with eight countries – Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria – and as the land bridge between Europe and Asia it is the centre of a geopolitical crossroads. Therefore, argues Davutoglu, it must exercise its power in 360 degrees to shape the world around it, while drawing on its historical memory of the glorious past of the Ottomans. This vision represented quite a break from being a mere outpost of the NATO alliance, which throughout the early 2000s chimed with a public narrative that Turkey desired ‘zero problems with neighbours’.

Faced with an increasingly aggressive US after 9/11, Ankara maintained cordial relations with the White House for the first decade of the century, whilst simultaneously increasing its influence in the Balkans and the Middle East using trade and diplomacy. It made attempts to help reconcile Bosnia and Serbia, brokered Israeli/Syrian talks, and even reached out to traditionally hostile Armenia.

However, in almost all cases it made little concrete progress. By the second decade, though, the Americans had been burned by their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Middle East had been seriously destabilised. 

In this context, the ideologues of the AKP understood that growing geopolitical turmoil in Turkey’s sphere of influence made the status quo of a passive neighbourhood policy increasingly less compatible with a deep ‘neo-Ottoman’ conviction that Turkey’s destiny is to emerge as a global superpower just as the West goes into decline. 

Turkey went on the front foot. It developed into NATO’s second most powerful military. Turkey has become self-sufficient in weapons and has enjoyed success in building a defence industry capable of selling arms on the world market. Its big-ticket project is the TF-X, intended as a state-of-the-art fighter jet to replace the F-16 by 2030. It might have got off the ground earlier but Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia was met with pushback from the Americans. The Trump administration persuaded Rolls Royce and BAE not to co-operate on the construction of the aircraft’s engines. Nonetheless, Turkey does now build its own tanks, armoured vehicles, infantry landing craft, drones, frigates, and this year launched a light aircraft carrier capable of carrying helicopter gunships and armed drones.

In diplomatic terms, Turkey’s shift to a more active neighbourhood policy has alienated many of the Middle East’s important actors. Its relations with Israel soured after twenty years of co-operation. The Islamists and nationalists (Davutoglu among them) argued that close relations with Israel were alienating the state from its people and their Islamic heritage. The two countries had till then enjoyed a partnership based on concerns about the Arab states and Iran. But the AKP’s political base doesn’t include many favourable to Israel. Following 2008, Israel-Gaza relations began to cool.

Turkey viewed the Arab Uprisings from 2010-11 as an opportunity to extend influence back into the former Ottoman Empire, but consistently backed the wrong horse. President Erdogan has always had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Islamist movement which, at least in principle, seeks to create a Sharia-led global caliphate. As such it is loathed by most of the Arab governments as they know they are in its sights. When the Brotherhood won the 2012 Egyptian elections, following the overthrow of Mubarak, Erdogan was delighted. He hoped to build a strategic relationship with new Islamist governments in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia – with Turkey as senior partner.

However, the following year the Brotherhood government fell to a military coup led by Egypt’s current President, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. This was roundly condemned by Erdogan, setting him against the new Egyptian leader, who views Turkey as a regional threat supportive of Islamist terrorism. Egypt, which has traditionally seen itself as the leading Arab power, is uninterested in ‘neo-Ottomans’ gaining influence. Erdogan and Sisi are nationalists with romantic views of their country’s roles, which, because they are similar, are resolutely opposed.

This dynamic was apparent in Syria too as Turkey saw opportunities to expand eastwards. After Islamist organisations hijacked much of the mostly Sunni uprising against President Assad, Ankara was quick to offer support in a bid to oust him. Cairo on the other hand began to normalise relations with Assad almost as soon as Sisi took power. When Turkish forces invaded northern Syria the moves played into the Egyptian narrative that the Arabs faced a threat from ‘neo-Ottomans’. Ankara also ran up against Russian interests as Moscow backed Assad in order to keep its Syrian port on the Mediterranean and blocked Turkish aspirations.

So Turkey was on the front foot, but it kept getting knocked back. Even a ceasefire with the Kurdish PKK broke down resulting in renewed fighting in Anatolia. By 2020, for a variety of reasons, it had fallen out with Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Israel, Iran, Russia, Armenia, Greece, Cyprus, France, the EU and NATO. The EU, which had kept Ankara on a string with its teasing offer of EU membership, accuses it of using the refugee crisis as a foreign policy tool. 

Erdogan appears to have decided that his country must go it alone. The 2016 failed coup attempt against him by small groups of the military only reinforced this view. Despite a lack of evidence Erdogan hinted at what many of his supporters openly said – that the coup was a vast conspiracy backed by a foreign power, the Americans.

Returning to the Blue Homeland

Davutoglu’s strategic recommendations influenced Turkey’s incursions into Syria, but they have had mixed success and he was side-lined by Erdogan and retired to academia (for now). But a new ideologue has emerged with serious influence on strategic thinking. Former Rear Admiral Cem Gurdeniz has popularized the concept of ‘Mavi Vatan’ – the Blue Homeland, and made public a more aggressive stance now prevalent in Turkish military circles. Gurdeniz helped come up with the term in 2006 and, once he left the navy, a series of TV appearances and articles pushed the idea onto the publics’ radar.

It overlaps with Davutoglu’s conviction that in order for Turkey to survive in a world seeking to crush the country, it must push outwards. As a naval man Gurdeniz concentrates on the waterways insisting that Turkey must dominate the three seas around it – the Black Sea, the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. Behind this appears to be a long-term strategy to tear up the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) in which the Ottoman Empire lost territory. Supporters of ‘Mari Vatan’ are also sceptical of their country’s membership of NATO and believe it to be an American plot (helped by Greece) to prevent Turkey from rising to its rightful place in the world. 

There are broader aspects to Blue Homeland covering naval policy as far afield as the Indian Ocean, but in popular parlance it has come to mean Ankara’s policy in the eastern Mediterranean specifically viz-a-viz Greece. The discovery of underwater gas fields has exacerbated long running tensions and Gurdeniz has seized upon these natural resources to push the Blue Homeland concept. At a minimum, he argues, the eastern coast of Crete should be Turkish, and the Aegean should not be allowed to be a ‘Greek lake’. His influence can be found in the title of the Turkish Naval War College’s journal – ‘Mavi Vatan’ and a huge military exercise undertaken last year – also ‘Mavi Vatan’.

Among numerous provocative statements, this is one of the most telling: ‘In the absence of military strength Greece instead relies upon the United States and Europe to act on its behalf… They should know their place.’ Erdogan is only slightly less measured. He too has criticised the Lausanne treaty for leaving Turkey too small in territory and has stated that ‘Turkey cannot disregard its kinsmen in Western Thrace (Greece) Cyprus, Crimea, and anywhere else’.

When it comes to Crimea, formerly an Ottoman territory, Ankara is not in a position to do very much. It has only a modest fleet in the Black Sea whereas Russia has spent the years since it annexed Crimea in 2014 building up a major force. It is Greece which is most anxious about the ‘Blue Homeland’ idea and President Erdogan’s rhetoric fuels those fears. State TV likes to show maps depicting ‘Turkey’s National Pact’, a 1920 document identifying which parts of the defeated Ottoman Empire the new Turkish Republic would fight for. They include many of the Greek Aegean islands and part of the Greek mainland. Erdogan has appeared in an official photograph of a 2019 visit to Istanbul’s National Defence University standing in front of a map showing half of the Aegean belonging to Turkey. 

The huge reserves of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean have complicated what was already a potential source of conflict between Greece and Turkey. Cyprus, of which Greece sees itself as a protector, sits in the middle of a geostrategic highway – the main sea lanes of the eastern Mediterranean, and the discovered gas fields. 

As a sovereign state Cyprus has drilling rights around its coastline under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Turkey is not a signatory to UNCLOS but does recognise the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ which it set up after invading Cyprus in 1974.  It is the only country in the world to do so, but on that basis, and because it claims the waters around the northern coast are on Turkey’s continental shelf, Ankara says it has the legal right to operate there.

In 2019 its drilling ships showed up, escorted by a warship. Cyprus appealed to the EU which said Turkey’s actions were ‘illegal’. In the summer of 2020 a Turkish research ship arrived off the coast of Crete along with three navy ships prompting Athens to state it was ‘ready to respond’ if drilling took place. The French quickly sent ships and fighter jets to conduct ‘joint exercises’ with the Greek military and with deliberate timing the UAE announced Greece had allowed it to base four fighter jets in Crete. It was becoming crowded down there. 

The potential for escalation has been illustrated several times, and has sometimes emerged in surprising quarters. In February when Turkish frigates sailed close to the Cypriot gas fields France despatched its aircraft carrier, the ‘Charles De Gaulle’, to shadow the naval forces of its NATO ally. In June the French alleged that during a confrontation with the Turkish navy off Libya the Turks locked their weapons systems onto a French frigate. 

Turkey came to an astonishing agreement with Libya late last year, which ‘created’ an Exclusive Economic Zone stretching in a corridor across the Mediterranean, from Turkey’s coast, down to the northern tip of Libya cutting through part of the Greek EEZ. The agreement was made with the Libyan government which is why Turkey has intervened militarily in Libya’s civil war – if the Tripoli government falls, so does the agreement. 

Turkey is increasingly more isolated, and less trusted. It believes it has a trump card as the main guardian of NATO’s southern flank. It is indeed a strong card, but NATO has others, even if it would prefer not to play them. Building up NATO facilities in Greece and Romania would partially offset the loss of Turkey. Ankara knows its neighbourhood is a tough one, in the past decade there have been conflicts in four of the countries it borders – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Syria while Iran remains a competitor as does Russia.

Twenty years of being aggressive have not resulted in significant Turkish gains. Erdogan can double down and keep playing the Islamist nationalist card as he enters difficult domestic political waters, but he needs some victories, or, he needs to bring Turkey in from the cold. Achieving either will be a struggle. If he plays nice, he risks his support base seeing him as weak, especially after recent comments in which he said of Greece ‘They’re either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or in the field with painful experiences.’ In a tough neighbourhood you need friends – and the twin strategies of Strategic Depth and Blue Homeland have left him with none.

Tim Marshall

Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster, and author. Amongst other titles, he is the author of the bestseller Prisoners of Geography (2015).

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