During the years of Recep Erdoğan’s rule, Turkey has pursued a more active policy aimed at imperial revanchism and entering the “club of world leaders”. In particular:
– demonstratively declare a diplomacy independent from the influence of its main allies in the West (primarily the US);
– build more independent and productive economic relations with other world centres (especially China and Russia) in addition to the Western countries;
– position itself as a leader of the Islamic and Turkic world;
– generate a new geopolitical strategy – a synthesis of the doctrines of neo-osmanism and neopanturanism.
It should be recognized that the restart of the next wave of Turkish revanchism was given after the collapse of the USSR with the complicity of the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon world (USA and Great Britain), possibly as a means of resuming London’s Great Game in post-Soviet Asia in order to displace Russia from the regions of its traditional historical presence and to prevent the revival of the Third Russian Empire.
Thus, since September 1994, after the signing of the first oil and gas “contracts of the century” in Baku, Turkey has been considered by the West as a territory for the formation of new cross-border energy and transport communications for the export of strategic raw material resources of the Caspian basin and the Turkic economic region of the post-Soviet space, bypassing the Russian Federation to Europe.
In October 1999, the OSCE Istanbul Summit, with the key participation of US President B. Clinton, identified Turkey as the main alternative to Russia as a transit territory for Baku oil and gas supplies to European and other (e.g. Israeli) markets.
Since 2006, this energy strategy of the US and Britain, with the participation of Turkey, Israel, Italy, Georgia and Azerbaijan, has materialized into a system of new oil and gas pipelines, and further into road and railway communications. Over time, this policy led to the creation of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline Energy System to transport Azerbaijan’s oil and gas through Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia, thereby increasing Ankara’s role in pressurizing the EU’s energy security, to which the Turks have been shut out for 60 years.
Russia, having failed to stop such a breakthrough of Western companies and capital to the post-Soviet south (particularly Azerbaijan) and having lost control over Georgia, has itself built two gas pipelines in Turkey (Blue Stream and Turkish Stream), the first nuclear power plant in Turkish history, Akkuyu, and expanded its diverse (including military-technical cooperation) ties with Ankara. The latter not only increased Turkey’s economic attractiveness and competitiveness, but also significantly increased the Turkish state’s energy dependence on Russia.
The new directions of transit partnership with Britain and the United States in the post-Soviet period allowed Turkey to achieve considerable success in economic, political and military development, as well as to focus on an ambitious strategy of revanchism. Turkish President Turgut Özal in the early 1990s programmed a new slogan for the country’s development under the formula “the 21st century will be the golden age of Turkey and Turks”. Recall that in Turkey there is no concept of “Turk”, but only the understanding of “türk”, hence the message of “one nation”). Turgut Özal’s successors from Süleyman Demirel to Recep Erdoğan developed this strategy and brought Turkey to the new realities of an ambitious country claiming to move from the status of a regional state subordinate to the West to the role of a regional power and a candidate for the “club of world powers” (at least, with a reliance on leadership in the Turkic pole).
This policy depends not so much on the desire of the ruling regime as on the level of objective power of the state. However, it is the political will and purposefulness of the leader that can eventually lead the state to the cherished dream. Strengthening economic sovereignty without a strong army, and thus without an effective national military-industrial complex and modern weapons, in no way allows the authorities to realise more ambitious geopolitical objectives.
That is why Erdoğan started to develop the Turkish military-industrial complex and strengthen the army. He managed to use Turkey’s technological cooperation with its NATO allies and alliance friend Israel to modernize its defence industry, which allowed it to produce a new range of modern weapons (e.g. unmanned combat and reconnaissance aircraft) and to test their advantage on the battlefield, engaging in new hotbeds of local conflicts in the Balkans (Kosovo), North Africa (Libya), the Middle East (Iraq and Syria) and the South Caucasus (Nagorno-Karabakh). The new tactics of combat operations using Bayraktar TB2 UAVs helped NATO’s Turkey to occupy its niche in the global arms trade market and start exporting them, primarily to its allied member states of the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and relatively to Turkmenistan).
Turkey’s military successes against Field Marshal Haftar in Libya, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and the Armenians in Karabakh, with the silent observation of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, naturally gave Erdoğan some “hope” for Turkish leadership (whose opinion should be reckoned with by the rest of the world). The Palestinian-Israeli military conflict in the Middle East, which began on 7 October this year with an unexpected massive missile attack by Hamas subdivisions on southern Israel, became a new platform for Turkey’s diplomatic and geopolitical activity.
We have witnessed that Turkey’s official position on this conflict changed from an emphatically neutral one with a stake on a mediation mission and preserving the possibility of negotiations with all conflicting parties for exactly 20 days in favour of unambiguous support for Hamas, declared by Erdoğan not as a terrorist but as a liberation organisation (i.e. from 7 October – the day the war started – to 27 October – the day of the first attempts of the Israel Defence Forces to launch a brutal ground operation with mass destruction of civilians).
Why did Ankara’s position undergo a striking transformation – flexible diplomacy with the ability to stay above the fray and continue “uninterrupted telephone talks” with the proposal to convene a broad international conference on the Palestinian issue, the initiative to restore a lasting regional peace through the establishment of an independent state of Palestine within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital gave way to the “steely anti-Israeli voice” of R. Erdoğan accusing Tel Aviv of “war crimes”, and the US and the EU of “massacre”?
Turkey, being a part of the Islamic world and a Middle Eastern state, cannot remain indifferent to the tragedy of the Muslim Arabs of the Gaza Strip. Moreover, even earlier Recep Erdoğan allowed himself publicly unflattering accusations of Israel in terms of discrimination against Palestinians (it is enough to recall the episode of clarification of relations between Erdoğan and Peres in Davos in January 2009).
This time too, the Turkish president rightly accused Israel of carrying out a “massacre” of the Arab population of the Gaza Strip and committing “war crimes”. But how does Erdoğan intend to bring such accusations against Israel? Some Turkish experts believe that Turkey is gathering evidence of Israel’s crimes in the Gaza Strip for subsequent transfer to the UN International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, apparently through the mediation of certain international structures, since Turkey itself is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and cannot be admitted to the ICC procedural procedure.
Israeli expert Yaakov Kedmi and Russian orientalist Karine Gevorgyan believe that Recep Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by him are political allies of the radical Islamist organisation Muslim Brotherhood, which supports Hamas together with Qatar. Accordingly, Turkey and Qatar have been actively involved in training and funding Hamas.
It is known that at the end of May 2010, the Israeli Navy’s special forces carried out Operation Sea Breeze to prevent humanitarian aid unauthorized by Tel Aviv from entering the Peace Flotilla in the Gaza Strip. As a result of this operation 9 Turks were killed on board the Turkish ship “Mavi Marmara”, which led to the cooling of Turkish-Israeli relations until 2022. However, then Ankara did not take public response to Tel Aviv, limiting itself to anti-Israeli rhetoric and withdrawal of its diplomats. Although Turkey did not cut trade and economic ties with the Jewish state, but knowing the vindictive nature of the Turks and Erdoğan in particular, one could assume that the heirs of the Ottoman Empire would not leave unanswered the brazen prank of the Israelis.
In these days of the ongoing Arab-Israeli war, the media has reported that Hamas combat swimmers made a daring sortie against an Israeli military base. The question arises – where did Hamas get its marine special forces, what external force, which has considerable experience in sea combat, provided appropriate assistance in training of the Palestinian combat unit?
K.A. Gevorgyan connects this external special military assistance with Turkey or Great Britain, which possess modern qualified special sub-units and navy. At the same time, Ankara’s position is motivated by the ideology of Islamic leadership and response for past debts, while London’s approach boils down to Britain’s policy of imperial revanchism to replace the weakening US.
But how realistic is it that Turkey is ready and able to challenge Israel and the Western countries, led by the United States, that are covering it? Especially in the conditions of acute financial and economic crisis, another increase in Central Bank interest rates of more than 38% and new anti-record devaluation of the Turkish lira against the American dollar?
Meanwhile, Turkishologist Yashar Niyazbayev names three reasons that forced Turkish President Recep Erdoğan to take an unambiguously pro-Palestinian position in the conflict with Israel: 1) ambitions for geopolitical leadership; 2) domestic policy interests; 3) Islamist ideology and humanitarian considerations.
One cannot but agree with the opinion about the imperial ambitions of President Erdoğan, who wants to enter Turkish history on a par with the personality of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and the first president Kemal Atatürk by increasing Turkey’s authority and influence in the system of international relations in the 21st century.
On 18 October, against the backdrop of the strike on Al-Ahli hospital in the Gaza Strip, Erdoğan criticised the current imperfect international order and noted the ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council. In principle, even before the events in the Gaza Strip, inspired by Turkey’s victories in Libya and Karabakh, he was in favour of reforming the UN Security Council to increase the number of permanent members, which cannot depend on the opinion of five states (i.e. the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China). Following his leader’s lead, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan has begun to recognize the importance of the UN Security Council’s reforms.
In this connection, the press secretary for Russian president Dmitry Peskov rightly responded to the Turkish initiative on the need to reach a similar consensus to that which took place when the UN Security Council was established. While maintaining a responsible approach to international relations and acknowledging the criticism of Turkish colleagues regarding the ineffectiveness of the UN system on many important issues on the world agenda, Russia nevertheless considers it to be the only and non-alternative international mechanism. The fact is that even at the end of the Second World War, the UN was created through complex negotiations and agreements of international consensus, seemingly still allies in the anti-Hitler coalition. A similar consensus is needed in the modern period between the world’s leading actors.
However, the Turkish candidacy for permanent membership of the UN Security Council today would obviously be supported by all members and candidates to the OSC (possibly Russia as well), but not by the majority of UN members (including the countries of the Arab East and Iran). This view is motivated by an analysis of Turkey’s own controversial policies. Accordingly, Erdoğan’s idea to include Turkey in the “club of world powers” is not yet compatible with the views of the powers themselves. The U.S. is also not satisfied with the current state of the UN, contrary to the opinion of which Washington has repeatedly carried out dubious and unlawful actions in various parts of the world.
On what principle should the UN Security Council be expanded: a) by civilization and religion, but then the world is populated not only by Christians, Taoists and Muslims, but also by representatives of other faiths (the same Hinduism and Judaism); b) by possession of nuclear weapons, but then the world will start a race of spreading weapons of mass destruction; c) by achieving the economy of the “golden billion”, but in this case what about the interests of backward and poor countries?…
Moreover, Turkey’s initiatives on ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, establishment of an independent state of Palestine within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as Ankara’s readiness to become a guarantor of Palestine’s security, as we can see, have not found wide support neither in Israel, nor in the USA, nor in Europe, nor in the countries of the Arab East and Iran. Consequently, it is premature to talk about Turkish leadership today.
As for the internal reasons, i.e. ensuring a broad Turkish coalition in the pro-Palestinian field with the expectation that AKP supporters will win the upcoming municipal elections in March 2024 and regain party control over the main cities of Ankara and Istanbul, this thesis can be accepted only partially. The point is that the Islamist regime in Turkey has, of course, strengthened pro-Islamic sentiments among the Turkish population over the past two decades. But Erdoğan has already defeated the pro-Western opposition in the difficult parliamentary and presidential elections of 2023. President Erdoğan’s support for Hamas was not understood and was criticised only by representatives of the People’s Republican Party (Özgür Özel) and the “Good Party” (Meral Akşener), which hardly does them any good in the context of a massive increase in anti-Israeli rhetoric in society.
As for the religious ideology of the AKP and Turkey’s ambitions to become the leader of the Islamic world, it should be noted that it is unlikely that the countries of the Arab East and Iran will agree with the opportunistic opinion of some experts (e.g. Peter Akopov), who present the era of the Ottoman Caliphate as the “golden age” of Islamic consolidation, let alone its resuscitation and the granting of the status of caliph to the new Turkish leader Erdoğan.
As is known, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian held talks with the leadership of Qatar and Turkey in late October and early November of this year, where the Iranian side noted the responsibility of the U.S. and Israel for the continuation of fire in the Gaza Strip and stressed the importance of expanding the geography of the front of resistance to the Zionist regime. In other words, the Persians are telling their Arab and Turkish neighbours that the time for “verbal exercises” and “diplomatic flexibility” is rapidly melting away, and that true Muslims should consolidate not in words but in the real work of a pro-Palestinian military-political coalition. And what is Turkey’s response?
American military bases continue their combat duty on the territory of NATO member Turkey, their bombers refuelling in Turkish air and carrying more bombs of death to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Bolivia severed diplomatic relations with Israel on 1 November, and Muslim Jordan, along with Christian Chile and Colombia, recalls only its ambassador from Israel. Yemen has effectively declared war on Israel, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE have refused to allow the Houthis to pass through their territory into Palestine (than, according to Muhammad al-Bukhaiti, a member of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council, are complicit in Zionist aggression against the Gaza Strip).
Erdoğan’s tough anti-Israeli statements without military participation in the Islamic coalition may soon be perceived in the Islamic world as political populism rather than as a defender of the entire Muslim world.
Statistics on Turkey’s trade with Western countries (the US and Europe) show that Ankara’s top four trading partners for January-July 2023 include Germany ($12.5bn), the US ($8.48bn), Italy ($7.26bn) and the UK ($6.95bn). In addition, Israel rounds out Turkey’s top 10 partners with a trade turnover of $3.3bn.
Obviously, Turkey’s sharp anti-Israeli statements are not evidence of Ankara’s readiness to break relations with the West and NATO. Especially in the current situation of acute financial and economic crisis in Turkey itself. It is possible that Erdoğan hopes for the imminent completion of Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip, the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the arrival of a new team with which Ankara will eventually establish productive relations. Apparently, that is why the official representative of the US State Department Matthew Miller confidently calls Turkey an important and useful ally in the NATO bloc, with which the US has various contradictions and disagreements (which they note), but this is not a reason to break off relations. Turkey’s attractiveness to NATO is determined primarily by its geography.
Well, a roughly similar situation is now developing in the CSTO between Russia and Armenia, given the apolitical rhetoric of the Pashinyan administration, which, however, has no effect on Yerevan’s withdrawal from the pro-Russian military-political organisation. In the same way, Turkey initiates active diplomacy under unfavourable conditions in the hope of rapid regional and global changes.
Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».