By: LTC Marco Pranzo, ITA Army, CSAG CCJ5
16 July 2021
From the Middle East to North Africa via the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is trying to assert its influence in a region undergoing profound reorganization, and which is still highly unstable. Driven both by the ambition to become a regional power, and by specific geopolitical and energy interests, Ankara has pushed to be a player in the big game. While it is not easy to say whether there is a “grand strategy” behind Turkey’s moves and ambitions, there is no denying that Turkey is one of the most active and assertive players on the Middle East chessboard and its robust policy, from Syria to Libya to its controversial energy explorations off Cyprus, has raised many questions and fears in western powers and other countries in the region.
Turkey’s identity is not just as the Turkish Republic. The present-day Turkish state is the successor of the polyethnic, multireligious, and centuries-old Ottoman Empire (1299-1923). The psychological impact of loss of its empire remains, and has rationalized both its perception of existential threats and strategies.
Turkey’s security apparatuses are enabled to suppress revolts, especially those with a separatist tone. The Kurds are their preferred target. Even the plots of apparatuses belonging to external powers, the infamous Gulenists, apparently vanquished after the failed coup of 2016. Gülen defines himself as an authoritative Muslim, Turkish scholar, thinker, author, poet, opinion leader, and educational activist who advocates interreligious and intercultural dialogue, science, democracy, and spirituality, and opposes violence and the use of religion as a political ideology.
It is naive to attribute so much security emphasis to the overwhelming hegemony of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Of the previous Turkish prime ministers, Bülent Ecevit, established Turkey’s special geopolitical conditions necessitate a special kind of democracy. Today, Erdogan is represented in the West as the almighty sultan of an aspiring caliph. He is a controversial iconographer for us, and fascinating for others, especially Sunni Muslims. In his mental map of the Turkish world, Erdoğan advocates the political union of all Islamic peoples in a single state institution evoking his triple face: leader of the Turks wherever they are, heir to the Sultan of Constantinople, then Ottoman caliph.
- Turkey is one of the most active players on the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean chessboard. From Syria to Libya, Ankara plays a leading role in the main conflicts and crisis contexts.
- Erdogan’s Turkey uses the Kurdish organization to take root in upper Mesopotamia.
- Turkey’s role in the Syrian crisis.
- A new Gaza: Turkey’s border policy in northern Syria.
- Turkey’s policy of power projection in Syria would not have been possible without a prior agreement with both Russia and Iran, an unstable agreement subject to continuous negotiations and redefinitions.
- Nostalgia to restore Ankara’s influence in the ancient regions of the Ottoman Empire.
- Turkey’s expansionist policy in the region, with economic and dominant interests which led to the progressive isolation of Ankara from the countries of the Muslim brotherhood.
- The role of Turkey within NATO: a disturbing ally. Will Turkey still be allowed to use Erdogan’s strategy of swinging between East and West in the future?
The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of a number of international officers within the Combined Strategic Analysis Group (CSAG) and do not necessarily reflect the views of United States Central Command, not of the nations represented within the CSAG or any other governmental agency.