The London-based scholar, Marc David Baer, has just published a major work on Ottoman history, titled: The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs, in which he has noted that the Sultans referred to themselves as “Lord of the Two Seas and Two Continents” and “Masters of the Seven Climes”. Now, a century after the fall of that empire, we are witnessing the first efforts emanating from Ankara to shape a new Turkish presence in different parts of Eurasia and the Mediterranean that is redolent of these ruler’s territorial spread and influence.
Turkish troops are today deep inside Syria and Iraq and are major players in Libya. Its navy is asserting Turkish claims in the Mediterranean, as their forefathers had done, and are up against Greece and France in this competition. But Turkey has balanced this alliance with close ties with Spain, even as it plays a military role in the South Caucasus and reinvigorates its traditional ties with “Turkic” peoples of Central Asia.
And, as in the past, it has complex relations of competition and cooperation with Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, even though, as a NATO member, it seeks to balance its ties with the region’s major powers – the US and Russia. A government official said in June 2020: “The Turkish geopolitical power axis is now felt from the Arabian Gulf to North Africa and the Red Sea, from the Balkans to the Caucasus and Central Asia.”
Following the footsteps of the Ottomans at their peak is an ambition animating the present-day “Sultan” in Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The country’s larger-than-life and increasingly authoritarian head of state heads an Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and has framed his national vision on the basis of the Ottomans’ two attributes at the peak of their power – their military successes and their leadership of the Islamic world as caliph.
Wellsprings of Turkish foreign policy
Erdogan seeks to place Turkey at the centre of international affairs, where its voice is respected, its influence is felt, and its interests are safeguarded. But, in pursuing his country’s interests, Erdogan refuses to allow its options to be straitjacketed by formal membership of coalitions or alliances or even by ideological commitments – he instead insists on freedom to decide approaches in securing national interest, and also the freedom to pursue new approaches when situations change and demand policy reviews.
Two domestic considerations have been major influences in shaping Erdogan’s foreign policy approaches. The first is the attempted coup by sections of the armed forces in July 2016 which, he believed, had been engineered by the US-based cleric and former friend and supporter, Fethullah Gulen. Here he found that, despite Turkey’s NATO membership, support from the US and western allies was at best lukewarm. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, called him on the same day to extend his backing and then invited him to Moscow, laying the basis for fresh political, military and economic ties.
The second influential factor relates to the Kurds and their perceived aspirations for an independent state that encompasses peoples from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The US is seen as backing these grandiose aspirations: its military interventions in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 cemented Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and even led to a referendum for independence in September 2017.
Erdogan sees a similar situation emerging in Syria: the Americans worked closely with the Syrian Kurds to fight the Islamic State, mobilising them into a fighting force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Even after the Islamic State has been defeated, the US supported Kurdish control over their Rojava (‘Western Homeland’) along the Turkey-Syria border by retaining a small detachment of US soldiers in northeast Syria to ensure the security and autonomy of these Kurds. This is despite the latter having close ties with the dissident Kurds in Turkey, represented by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK, in its Kurdish acronym), which has been declared a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the European Union (EU).
In a public speech in October 2016, Erdogan announced a major change in Turkey’s security approach when he said: “We will no longer wait until the threats are at our borders. We will no longer wait for the terrorist organisations to attack us; we will beat them to death wherever they mobilise.” The president described this war as Turkey’s second Independence war, after the first War of Independence on 1919-1923 that saved Turkish territories and shaped the modern republic against the machinations of the western imperialist powers.
In the following sections we will look at Turkey’s political and military forays in the region.
The Middle East cauldron
The Middle East has been the arena of considerable Turkish military activism; however, it is not Ottoman glory, but concerns relating to the Kurds that have impelled Turkey’s interventions. Seeing the Syrian Kurds consolidate themselves along the border, Turkey feared that these spaces would become sanctuaries for PKK fighters since they are closely aligned with their brethren in Syria.
Between 2016-19, Turkey launched three military attacks into Syria and occupied territories in the northeast and northwest of the country, thus disrupting the contiguity of the Rojava. Again, as PKK militants have taken refuge in the mountains across the border with Iraq, Turkey has established its military presence across northern Iraq, while regularly pounding Kurdish positions with bombs and drones.
In Syria, Turkish soldiers are well-established around Idlib, with the town itself dominated by militants from the Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the erstwhile al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra. Turkey has also taken control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and, with an infusion of other rebel forces, shaped it as the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA) to rival the US-backed SDF.
Though committed to fighting extremist forces in the country, Turkey has held back from attacking the HTS – it would like the latter to join the SLA, thus providing Turkey with a formidable military force in the region to check and, finally, defeat the Kurdish SDF. Only the presence of the small detachment American troops in the area has prevented the annihilation of the Kurds and their Rojava. As of now, Turkey is preparing for the long-term presence of its troops in both Iraq and Syria.
In Libya, Erdogan’s Islamist credentials are in play. Here he supports the administration in Tripoli that has Brotherhood affiliations, which has put him in competition with the Tobruk-based administration supported by Egypt, the UAE and Russia. Its armed strength comes from self-styled Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by mercenaries from Chad and Sudan and militia from the private Russian company, Wagner.
In November 2019, Turkey signed an agreement with the Tripoli administration to provide it with Turkish military advisers and militants from its cadres in Syria and, in return, obtained a maritime agreement that defined Libyan-Turkish claims to energy resources in the East Mediterranean which encroached on the claims of Cyprus and Greece. As Turkish survey ships, backed by naval vessels, began to prospect the Mediterranean waters, they came up against ships from the Greek navy, thus risking a potential military confrontation between the two NATO members.
Erdogan’s military forays in the Middle East had the tacit support of the Trump administration. Biden has not, however, displayed the same camaraderie towards the Turkish leader that his predecessor had done. This has forced Erdogan to review his approach to the region’s major players. He has made diplomatic overtures to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, and is preparing for greater accommodativeness in bilateral relations.
This has already borne fruit. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, visited Ankara on 24 November, the first interaction between the UAE and Turkish leaders since 2012. During the visit, several important agreements were signed to boost economic cooperation, particularly in the areas of energy, infrastructure, logistics, health, food and agriculture, providing a much-needed investment of $ 10 billion for Turkey’s ailing economy. The UAE has also indicated its willingness to back efforts to mend ties between Turkey and Syria, as also between Turkey and Egypt.
Following the détente with the UAE, Erdogan has signalled that he will pursue improved relations with Egypt and Israel as well, commencing with the early appointment of ambassadors. He spoke with the Israeli president and prime minister in mid-November after Turkey released an Israeli couple who had been detained for spying and pledged to maintain regular interactions to minimize differences.
As Libya prepares for presidential elections on 24 December, Turkey and its regional rivals are supporting their own candidates for the presidency. Turkey is backing the Tripoli-based candidates who are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood; they are confronting Khalifa Haftar, though his candidacy (and that of former president Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam) has been severely criticised by the Tripoli-based candidates and the militia supporting them. As a goodwill gesture towards Egypt, Turkey has withdrawn some its Syria militants from Libya and muted attacks from Brotherhood exiles in Istanbul.
Despite important changes in Erdogan’s approach in many parts of the region over the last few months, this is not apparent in Syria. In fact, Turkey spent much of October and early November fine-tuning and publicising a possible military attack on the Kurds after the national assembly extended the government’s military campaign in the country for another two years. The details provided to the media indicate the deployment of 35,000 troops that could enter Syria on two fronts.
Since no military action on this scale is possible without US and Russian green signals, it is likely that these preparations, and the extensive publicity given to them, are largely for domestic consumption – to project Turkey’s military might and appeal to the people’s nationalism at a time when the country’s parlous economic situation has painted a negative image of the president.
Turkey in the South Caucasus and Central Asia
Late last year, a forty-four-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia made Turkey a significant player in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. Turkey backed Azerbaijan in the conflict with military equipment, particularly drones that played a crucial role in ensuring victory for Azerbaijan. The war ended with a ceasefire arranged by Russia in November.
Following the war, Azerbaijan got back much of the territory it had lost to Armenia in the earlier conflict in 1993. This war, as Russian commentator Dmitri Trenin noted, has “changed the political and military balance in the South Caucasus, facilitated the further rise of Turkey as a regional power, and marked out the … limits of Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus”.
Azerbaijan has now obtained full control over its enclave, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, that has an estimated population of about 460,000. It is separated from the rest of the country by a sliver of Armenian territory, that is, the provinces of Syunik and Gegharkunick. In some places, Azerbaijan is just 40 km from the enclave. Turkey also has a short border with Nakhchivan and has crucial economic ties with this hitherto isolated territory.
The ceasefire agreement of November 2020 requires that all economic and transport connections in the region be “unblocked”. It then calls on Armenia to “guarantee the security of transport connections” between Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan province in order to ensure “unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions”. The clause also provides for “new transport links” to be built to link Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan province. 
This clause has become a source of regional tensions. For the last thirty years, the Nakhchivan province had been economically isolated and cut-off from the rest of Azerbaijan. Baku has now proposed a new 43-km transport route to this province – the Zangezur Corridor – which would pass through Armenia’s southern district of Meghri.
In presenting this proposal, Azerbaijan has insisted that this corridor should have no border checkposts, which Armenia sees as challenging its sovereignty over its southern territory. The Azeri president, Ilham Aliyev, has stated publicly that if Armenia opposes the project, he will impose it by force, and also recalled Azerbaijan’s historical claim on the Zangezur Corridor.
Turkey has welcomed this proposal since it will obtain a direct route to Azerbaijan, without any border restrictions. Iran, on the other hand, opposes the idea since the corridor will block its own north-south transit routes through Armenia. Iran has also pointed out that Azerbaijan could deploy Israeli missiles directed at its assets and could even position Israeli troops at the border.
These contentions have placed Russia in a quandary: the ceasefire agreement provides that Russian troops “will exercise control over the transportation connections”, though it not clear what degree of authority these troops will exercise in managing the free movement of traffic. A larger concern will be the prospect of a burgeoning competition with Turkey in the region, where Russia has traditionally had the principal influence, and the impact this would have on other aspects of their bilateral relationship.
In his article referred to above, Trenin has noted that Turkey is increasingly focusing “its ambitions and influence beyond countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire to regions including Central Asia, the North Caucasus, Crimea, and Abkhazia”. This is being manifested in two ways. One, Turkey has proposed a six-party regional grouping to pursue road, rail and energy connectivity projects – the members envisaged, besides Turkey, are: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iran and Russia.
This ambitious vision calls for a thorough reworking of the divisions within the region -- Turkey and Azerbaijan versus Armenia and Georgia versus Russia -- besides addressing Iran’s concerns relating to Turkey’s regional ambitions. Erdogan has made a recent attempt to reach out to Armenia by seeking “normalization” of relations following the settlement of differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the wounds of last year’s conflict between these nations still raw, prospects of such a settlement are remote.
Turkey’s other initiative is more promising. In mid-November, Erdogan convened in Istanbul the eighth summit of the “Cooperation Council of the Turkic-speaking States”, or briefly, the Turkic Council. It brought together the presidents of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with the president of Turkmenistan and the prime minister of Hungary attending as observers. The eighth summit adopted a new name – Organization of Turkic States.
First proposed by the president of Kazakhstan in 2006, it acquired formal status in 2009. Its areas of interest are grouped under six heads: economy, culture, education, transport, customs, and diaspora. The apex body has several platforms for regional cooperation in areas such as: Turkic culture and heritage, a Turkic chamber of commerce, and a parliamentary assembly of Turkic states. Members are looking at establishing a joint investment fund to diversify their economies, promote intra-regional trade, and support small and medium enterprises.
The organization is also focusing on promoting logistical connectivity based on the grand vision of the “Trans-Caspian East-West Middle Transport Corridor” that would link Turkey to China. This corridor has suffered from physical bottlenecks and poor ferry links in the Black and Caspian Seas. This is being addressed by using “block trains” that arrange all documentary approvals before commencing their journey. In February 2021, such a “block train” took 21 days to travel from Xian in China to Tbilisi, Georgia, highlighting the potential economic value of this corridor for the entire region.
Turkey’s estrangement from the West
As Turkey has become more distant from the US in recent years, puzzled commentators in both countries have been wondering – what went wrong with the relationship? An objective review of the last few years would suggest that, with significant changes in world order that had powerful reverberations across the Middle East, the old role that Turkey played as a part of the Western alliance was no longer sustainable.
Even in the early days of the Erdogan leadership, Turkey was already seeking to shape a new approach to the region, then defined as the “zero-problems” policy towards its neighbours. While this has been largely overturned in favour of an activist, assertive and interventionist approach over the last decade, the common link between the policy approaches of the first and second decades was Turkey’s assertion of strategic autonomy – retaining the freedom to take decisions on regional or global developments that were independent of positions of the larger entity – the NATO – to which it belonged. Linked with this is Erdogan’s view of Turkey, as “the leader of a wave against American, and more broadly, Western hegemony”, that takes him beyond the Middle East and the Muslim world.
As noted earlier, Turkey became estranged from the US due to the attempted coup and the Kurdish issue. However, the US continues to demand from NATO members full compliance with the organization’s shared rules, norms and interests, particularly where defence purchases are concerned. Hence, Washington has not been able to accommodate Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. It has subjected Turkey to sanctions under the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) and excluded it from research and production of NATO’s F-35 fighter jet.
However, Turkey’s distance from its Western allies continues to increase. In Syria, the US backs the Kurds, despite knowing how offensive this is to Turkey. On 7 October, Biden wrote to Congress to extend national emergency provisions in Northeastern Syria and, in support, said that Turkish action “threatens to undermine the peace, security and stability in the region, and continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”. Erdogan criticised a senior US official as the sponsor of Kurdish terror, while his foreign minister held the US’s “wrong policies” responsible for the problems in Syria.
From Turkey’s perspective, the EU also remains hostile. As Turkey challenged Greece in regard to claims on gas resources in the East Mediterranean, France, signed a contract with Greece in Paris in September to supply frigates that would be compatible with the 24 Rafale jets supplied by France earlier in 2021.
The Paris agreement also includes a mutual assistance clause in case of an armed attack of either of the parties. In his public remarks, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, indicated that the “third party” envisaged was Turkey. The prime minister also focused on the “Euro-Atlantic dimension” of the agreement, describing it as “the first step towards a European strategic autonomy” and hinting at Turkey’s exclusion from the Euro-Atlantic security system.
It is interesting to note that Erdogan has quickly checked this move towards a “Euro-Atlantic” alliance that marginalizes Turkey by inviting the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, to Ankara in mid-November. The two countries finalized a “new comprehensive association”, with Erdogan saying that Turkey hoped for joint production of a second aircraft carrier and possibly even a submarine. Sanchez described Turkey as “an indispensable ally for the European Union”.
A review of Turkey’s ties with the US and Russia suggests that, in keeping with its commitment to retaining strategic autonomy, Ankara will not seek to select one partner over another, but will attempt to maintain relations with both. Confirming this, Turkey conveyed to the US in late October its interest in acquiring 40 state-of-the-art F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits for 80 in its fleet. This initiative revives Turkey’s traditional cooperation with the US’ defence industry that goes back to the late 1980s, when it produced 300 F-16 jets for itself and another 46 for Egypt.
This deal serves to retain Turkey within NATO and helps to maintain US-Turkish relations, even when the US remains firm on discouraging attempts of NATO members to buy Russian equipment. Turkey’s principled positions on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea are also in line with Western interests. What could jeopardise all this would be hostility towards Turkey in the US Congress, which might vote to deny the proposed F-16 sale. This would push Turkey further into the Russian embrace and encourage Ankara to acquire Russian SU-35 or SU-57 fighter jets for its air force.
Turkey, Russia and Iran: accommodating competition and cooperation
Even as differences with the US have encouraged Erdogan to build stronger ties with Russia, the relationship between these two Eurasian partners is actually quite complex. The Turkish commentator, Omer Taspinar, has argued that “Turkey’s historic failure to find democratic solutions to Kurdish ethnic demands” precipitated the end of the US-Turkish strategic partnership and pushed Turkey towards Russia.
Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 missile defence system, Taspinar says, was linked with Kurdish territorial gains in northern Syria and overt calls for “autonomy”. Turkey judged that the Russian military presence in Syria would be an effective bulwark against these Kurdish challenges. Russian backing for Turkey’s three military incursions against the Kurds affirms the validity of Erdogan’s assessment.
Despite this development, Russo-Turkish ties have not been smooth. Russia has shown impatience at Turkey’s reluctance to attack the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham at Idlib. Again, while Russia has been happy to back Turkey in curbing Kurdish aspirations for independence, what it wants is not their military destruction, but their re-integration into the Syrian political fabric. Hence, Russian efforts are today directed at promoting engagement between the Kurds and the Syrian government.
In three other areas, Turkey and Russia have in fact been on opposite sides – Libya, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict in the South Caucasus, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The last has been a matter of considerable concern for Turkey. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has systematically militarised the peninsula in terms of naval infrastructure, extensive deployment of air force and missile and coastal defence systems, including the installation of the S-400 missile system.
These initiatives have tilted the balance of power in the Black Sea to Turkey’s disadvantage. Hence, Turkey has expanded its ties with Ukraine and refused to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In a joint declaration in April 2021, Erdogan and Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, pledged to continue “coordinating steps aimed at … the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, as well as territories in Donetsk and Luhansk regions”.
Turkey and Ukraine are also working together in the defence sector: in 2019, Kyiv purchased 12 Bayraktar TB2 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the weapon system that gave Turkish allies an advantage on the battlefields of Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Ukraine is expected to acquire five more of these UAVs.
Turkey’s ties with Iran are as complex as those it has with Russia. The two countries share hostility to the West-led world order and share concerns relating to US machinations in the Middle East, which, during the Trump presidency, had shaped battle-lines – the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt ranged against Iran and even Turkey. The blockade of Qatar from June 2017 and the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq in September 2017 further strengthened their bilateral relations, even as they worked together with Russia to manage the conflicts in Syria through the Astana peace process.
Much has changed since then. With Biden in the White House, the earlier battle-lines in the region no longer have much resonance. In fact, as noted above, Turkey has begun to reach out to its neighbours to rebuild ties on a fresh bases, while its rivalries with Russia and Iran have come to the fore. Iran has been particularly concerned about the Turkish-Azerbaijan nexus and the aggressive territorial claims by Baku, noted above. Iran has affirmed its close relations with Armenia and in September carried out major military exercises at the Azerbaijan border.
Iran is also alarmed by Turkey’s robust outreach to the Central Asian republics under the banner of “Turkic” affinity, which it sees as resulting from Turkey’s heightened stature in the region after the Azeri victory over Armenia last year, with Turkish help, and the territorial gains that Azerbaijan secured.
But, despite these rivalries, the two countries are closely bonded, with substantial and mutually advantageous energy and trade relations and regular dialogue at different levels to ensure that their differences do not get out of hand. Two events in November confirm this. On 28 November, the Azerbaijan and Iranian presidents met in Ashgabat, after which a gas swap deal was signed. It provides that 1.5-2 billion cubic metres of gas will be supplied annually by Turkmenistan to Iran, while Iran will separately deliver the same quantity of gas to Azerbaijan.
As the deal was being signed, Iran and Azerbaijan set aside the harsh words they had exchanged just a few weeks earlier. Now, Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi spoke of their ties as “relations of our hearts” and insisted that “we should never allow others to interfere in our relations”. An Azeri commentator noted that the agreement was due to Raisi -- described as “one of the smartest representatives of Iran’s political elite” – being able to overcome “resistance from pro-Armenian ‘hawks’ in the government”, and asserted that Azeri president Aliyev was the defender of Iran’s interests, recalling that he had resisted pressures from the Trump administration “to develop economic relations and good neighbourly ties with Tehran”.
The other dramatic development is the announcement that Turkey and Iran are preparing a “long-term cooperation road map”, which will signed during Erdogan’s “future visit” to Tehran. This was announced by the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, during the visit to Iran of his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on 15 November. The Iranian minister described the governments of the two countries as “pragmatic”.
During the visit, President Raisi said the region was capable of addressing its own issues, without foreign intervention. On the South Caucasus matter, he said that Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan have historical ties and share religious bonds, and hence should not allow “some foreign movements” to harm their ties, this being a clear reference to Israel.
A “Eurasianist model” for international relations?
While examining Turkey’s foreign policy in recent years, this article has brought out the complicated, even contradictory, aspects of its ties with principal figures of the existing world order – the US and the EU – and the complexities that attend its relations with players in the emerging order, such as Russia and Iran, even as it scrambles to reset its ties with its Middle East neighbours, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.
These diplomatic initiatives taken together reveal a pattern of kaleidoscopic shifts as relationships with neighbours are constantly reshaped in response to new developments and/or new opportunities (or challenges) that periodically present themselves. These changing images confirm that the world order is in flux, with its principal participants jostling to retain their place in it or find new places and new ties that better serve their interests. In this transitory period towards a new order, there is a sense of churn across the region as several nations move at the same time to defend their interests or shape new interests.
This churn frequently exhibits alternative patterns of competition and cooperation that today define relationships in Eurasia between Turkey, Russia and Iran. The Tbilisi-based scholar of the Caucasus and Eurasia, Emil Avdaliani, has described these relationships as a “Eurasianist Model” of foreign relations in which the three countries “can work together to limit Western influence, while avoiding an overreliance on one another. … They cooperate, compete, seek each other’s help and turn their backs on one another as they see fit”.
This is obviously a complex arrangement, but the three nations concerned have been able to ensure that their competitions do not evolve to conflicts mainly because of the larger, more abiding, interests that bind them, as also their long-standing interactions with each other that, in modern times, go back several decades. This enables them to assert what Avdaliani has called “regional ownership” when two nations among the three play a joint role in a specific geographical context, to the exclusion of other players – examples being Turkey and Russia working together in the South Caucasus and Northeast Syria, and Iran and Russia cooperating in matters relating to the Caspian Sea – while also seeking opportunities for trilateral action, as in Syria earlier, and possibly in Afghanistan and Central Asia in future.
The shift towards a new global order is likely to be prolonged and potential subject to harsh competitions and even short, sharp and cruel conflicts alongside short-term alignments and realignments to serve specific purposes. The “Eurasianist Model” set out here, that enables major nations to manage their rivalries while pursuing their shared interests, could be the way forward during this difficult transition.
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