The article examines the evolution of Turkey from an obedient Client State of the US to an independent and significant Regional Power that is still growing. The abandonment of Kemalism over the years and the development of a neo-Ottoman dogma is analyzed.
The increasing strength and the regional ambitions of Turkey are examined together with its turn away from the West and its confrontation with the Sunni Arab Countries.
The new hybrid alliances of Turkey with Russia and Iran and the ambivalence of the behavior of the West towards Turkey are noted.
The dangers to the West of the Turkish geostrategic ambitions are stated.
(25 minutes read)
The metamorphosis of Turkey from an accommodating ally of the West to an independent important regional power, that is still growing, has not been adequately understood by both the Islamophobic and the Liberal West.
The evolution of this, game changing, geostrategic parameter is worthy of a historical review.
Very broadly this is the transformation of an obedient US client State to an Independent Regional Power.
In 1946 the USS Missouri, then, the best battleship in the World, anchored in Istanbul to protect Turkey from Stalin’s effort to materialize the centuries old Russian dream, to conquer the Dardanelles, thus opening the only controlled door to the Mediterranean and all the Southern Seas.
Turkey was the wily neutral, during the Second WW, who declared war to Germany 10 days before Germany surrendered.
In spite of that, the U.S. who was leading the Western Allies, considered Turkey important enough to risk military confrontation, with the then mighty USSR, their ally up to that moment.
Turkey started then the continuous strengthening of its ties with the Western Alliance.
Turkey was created by Kemal Atatürk, a secular General, on the ruins of the collapsed, many centuries old, Ottoman Empire. The population was forced to accept the West as strongly as possible, from the adoption of the Latin alphabet to the prohibition of the veil (ḥijāb) for women and the fez (ṭarbūsh) for men.
Kemal never appreciated the deep cultural identity roots of the Turks with Islam and the Orient.
The post Second WW Turkey, became the obedient Client State of the US, accepting everything, from participation with the US in the Korean War in 1950, entering NATO in 1952, to the establishment of American nuclear forces and U-2 spy planes bases on its soil.
Turkey stayed the obedient ally of the US for the very simple reason that it was the only power that could protect it from its traditional enemy, Russia.
It took only the American Ambassador entering in the middle of a Turkish Cabinet meeting, for Turkey to abandon its plans for intervention in the Syrian turmoil in the Fifties.
Menderes, Prime Minister of Turkey attempted a commercial approach to the USSR, but he and his ministers were deposed and hanged, following a Coup d’état in 1960, the first of many, by the Turkish Army.
The Turkish Army remained secular and staunchly pro-American until the failed coup attempt of 2016.
However, as Turkey was growing fast economically and in population, it’s Ottoman memories started resurfacing.
The return of Islamist Neo-Ottomanism.
This was the first time that a new, different than the Kemalist, ideology entered the mainstream of Turkish politics. Essentially it was the beginning of the Neo-Ottomanism ideology that dominates Turkish Geostrategy today.
Its first application started five years later.
When the Greek Junta abolished with a Coup d’état, the legitimate Government of Cyprus, Turkey’s Government, in which Erbakan was a Member, exercising its right as a Cyprus Guarantor Power, invaded militarily the island. This act took place with the blessings of the United States, ostensibly to re-establish the Republic of Cyprus but in the process took over more than 40% of the Island staying there ever since.
The Turkish Army, basking in the glory of its first very successful foreign invasion, hurried to reestablish Kemalism, by chasing Erbakan and Islamic Oriental Culture, with a series of military coups.
Erbakan and Islamism were chased out of Turkish politics by the Generals while secularism was reestablished for some time. However, Islamism and Neo-Ottomanism were silently growing in the background, with the increase in Turkish Economic power and population.
The beginning of Turkish detachment from US Policy
Turkey’s first flashes of real emancipation from their US tutelage started with the collapse of the USSR.
New regional conflicts in the Caucasus and the Balkans erupted on or near the Turkish borders. The formation of independent Turkic-language states in Azerbaijan, Crimea Tatars and Central Asia, gave the Turkish political and administrative elite the impression that abandoning Kemalist isolationist principles, would bring new opportunities of influence and leadership.
Turkey made its first attempt in foreign expansionism, since the inception of the Turkish State, half a Century ago.
The ruling elites of the Central Asian republics, all Moscow trained survivors, had no interest in the “Turkic brotherhood” concept. Cooperation, with the approval of Turkish elite was limited to the Economy and Education. These republics by 1995 had normalized relations with the emerging Russian power and the ethnic Islamic Card was not played further in Russian territories.
The Islamic-Neo Ottomanism concept was though not dormant and the new Erdoğan – Davutoğlu team took the relay.
Erbakan acted as a mentor and informal advisor to the founders of the Virtue Party in 1997, among which founders was, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The road from Erbakan to Erdoğan suffered from many obstacles and deviations.
The rise of Erdoğan
In 1994, a well-known football player, supported by the Islamist Welfare Party became Mayor of Istanbul and subsequently was imprisoned briefly for his promotion of the Islamic concept of Government, his name: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan abandoned openly Islamist politics and established the moderate conservative AKP in 2001. Following the AKP’s landslide victory in 2002, the party’s co-founder Abdullah Gül became Prime Minister. Erdoğan became Prime Minister in March 2003.
Erdogan has a visceral understanding of the Turkish Psyche.
This was finely wrapped up intellectually by Ahmet Davutoglu a Professor of Political Sciences in Istanbul who subsequently became Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor after the latter became prime minister. Davutoglu, developed the Justice and Development Party’s new foreign policy outlook that would bring Turkey to play a larger role in the Middle East and the World.
Davutoglu, with his now famous book, Strategic Depth, was the theoretical leader of the whole Neo-Ottomanism dogma. He went even further, to propose a Pan-Islamist movement, implying Turkish leadership in it.
Davutoğlu ‘s teachings formed a whole new elite in the Turkish administration.
This is the intellectual basis which shaped the new Turkish Power dogma, the concept of the superior position of Turkey, much more than just a Regional Power in the Middle East, the emphasis of internal development in Anatolia, away from Istanbul and the Asia Minor coast, the interventionist Policy in Iraq and Syria and the dissension between Turkey and the USA.
Initially the AKP was considered by the West as the Islamic equivalent of the Christian-Democratic Parties.
The Economist noted in 2008, “No Islamic party has been as moderate and pro-Western as the AKP, which catapulted into government in 2002 promising to lead Turkey into the European Union.”
The abandonment of Kemalism and the turn to the East.
The master stroke of Erdoğan is that he used Europe to turn to the Orient.
Erdoğan used quite adroitly the European Vision of Kemalist Turkey to diminish the Kemalist grip on Turkey which until then permitted everything in Turkish life from the Army and the Administration to the Educational and Religious Institutions.
With a series of reforms, ostensibly aimed at facilitating Turkey’s entry to the EU, he demolished Kemalism, opening the way to National Islamist dogma followers.
The full understanding of the rise to Power of Erdoğan and AKP to the total dominance of Turkey cannot be accomplished without an analysis of the Gülen parameter.
Fethullah Gülen was born in 1941 near Erzurum, in northeastern Turkey, and first came to prominence as a Muslim preacher and intellectual in the 1970s, advocating for interfaith dialogue, modern education, and faith-based activism.
“The Gülen movement differentiates itself from other Islamic movements by stressing the importance of ethics in education, media, business, and public life,” wrote Gürkan Çelik, author of “The Gülen Movement”
Erdogan was close to Gülen for decades, both leaders being in common opposition to secular Kemalist forces in Turkey.
They also shared the goal of transforming Turkey into a state of “Turkish nationalism with a very strong, conservative religiosity” at its core, said Ariel Salzmann, an associate professor of Islamic and world history at Queen’s University, in Canada.
Erdoğan and Gülen were “partners in trying to assume power for decades”, Salzmann said.
The leaders shared a common opposition to Kemalist forces in Turkey for many years, and though he did not enter politics himself, Gülen supported the AKP – thus mobilizing his followers – when the party was founded and later came to power.
Members of the Gülen movement were also linked to two notable cases in Turkey – the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations – that looked into alleged attempts to overthrow the AKP government and Erdoğan.
The Ergenekon case was merely a pretext to target dissidents and remove Kemalists from key positions in the Administration.
Erdoğan & Gülen, the bitter divorce
Ties between Erdoğan and Gülen began to fray when Gülenist in the police and judiciary “became a little too independent”. Prof. Salzmann wrote and worsened when Gülen himself criticized Erdoğan for his handling of the Gezi Park protests in 2013.
Later that year, Erdoğan claimed, Gülen and his supporters were trying to bring down his government through a corruption probe that implicated several officials and business leaders with ties to the AKP, which led to the resignation of AKP ministers.
The government also accused members of the Gülen movement of wiretapping government officials.
Since that time, Erdoğan has repeatedly claimed that Gülen is running a “parallel state” inside Turkey and that his government has been cracking down on Gülen-affiliated institutions, including the popular Zaman newspaper and Bank.
In the meantime, for the last twenty years, Gülen has lived on a 25-acre grounds of a former Turkish-American summer camp. Washington Post has reported that there are several large houses in the property, a fragrant garden, a pond, soccer field and volleyball court.
The various organizations and people affiliated with Gülen in the U.S., Turkey and elsewhere are believed to be worth millions, if not billions, of dollars.
How exactly the son of a poor Turkish Imam managed to build this multinational corporate empire, is unknown.
The economic “take off” and the turn of Turkish Policy
The Turkish Economy, after 2001, took off with significant infrastructure investments in Anatolia, which developed a lot the agro-industrial Economy of this, previously neglected, region.
Between 2002 and 2011, the Turkish economy grew by an average rate of 7.5 percent annually. The average per capita income rose from $2,800 U.S. in 2001 to around $10,000 U.S. in 2011.
Finally, the Turkish Foreign Policy, started subtly to change, with the adoption of a more Islamic posture and extrovertism than the Kemalist dogma allowed until then.
This deepened Turkey’s internal divisions also. Its symbol was to lift the Kemalist ban on Islamic dress. Hijabs and skull caps were adopted by the majority of the Turkish population.
Tensions between the AKP and the military climaxed after Erdoğan announced he would nominate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül for the presidency. The presidency is a prestigious though ceremonial post—but also the last bastion of secularism in the eyes of the military and the opposition.
When the Turkish Army expressed its Pronunciamento on April 2009, Erdoğan defied it with early elections that produced a landslide victory for AKP.
The party next survived its legitimacy challenge by a “constitutional coup”, for its Islamist agenda.
AKP was now free to change Turkey’s Geostrategy.
The disengagement with the West was prepared by the establishment of the Party supremacy over the Military.
AKP was now strong in public approval because of the booming Economy and the ascendancy of the, disdained until then, Anatolia region and Anatolians.
The Army in 2011 showed its strong disagreement with the abandonment of secular Kemalism for an overall Islamocentric Policy at Home and Abroad.
In 2012, half of all Turkish admirals and one out of ten active-duty generals were in jail for plotting against the government.
The, one before the last, battle of Party versus Army had been won.
The 2016 Coup d’état attempt by the Turkish Military
One thing is certain. Erdoğan knew about it before it happened and had prepared the purge lists beforehand. The degree of involvement of Gülenist and Kemalist officers is uncertain but it is accepted that they were involved and that this coup attempt was the failed effort of the Army to stop Erdogan taking full control of it.
Erdoğan blamed the US for condoning if not initiating the coup attempt and for protecting Gülen in his Pennsylvania domain.
The purge of the officers’ class of the Turkish Armed Forces and the bureaucrats of the Administration was such that the Turkish Armed Forces lost a lot of their strength for a few years while the State machinery has been crippled.
The gain for Erdoğan was greater than the temporary loss in military and civil efficiency.
He has obtained control of an increasingly more Islamic Army and Administration, without the Kemalist ideology which is unable to influence his policies and is more obedient to the Presidency’s desire.
This has strengthened his swing to the East and his separation from the West.
Erdogan, the dictator by popular vote.
The 2017 constitutional referendum established the Presidency as the dominant executive office to the detriment of parliament and parliamentary democracy.
Erdogan is the quasi absolute ruler of Turkey and there is nothing to stop him to stay as such until 2029, with a total tenure of 26 years.
Even if his health, or other events, may not allow him to fully exploit his potential Sultanic rule, he has already indelibly and irreversibly marked Turkey.
The Geostrategy of Crime exploitation.
Recently, the Turkish Government and particularly its President Erdogan made an opportunistic political capital of an assuredly gruesome and hideous crime committed in Turkey, but on Saudi Diplomatic soil.
For the geopolitical consequences of this affair the most apt parallel is the geostrategic evaluation by Talleyrand of the abduction and murder by Napoleon of the Duke D’Enghien.
“It was worse than a crime. It was an error”
Erdoğan was quick to shamelessly seize the opportunity presented by this error.
The cold-blooded crime mongering of the murder act by the Turkish Leadership is just as base as the crime itself.
In Turkey, more than 50,000 people, politicians, the highest number of journalists in the World and others have been imprisoned, many without trial, since the Coup attempt of 2016.
This did not stop Erdoğan to claim the moral high ground and expertly manipulate the World Media, condemning others for practices not unknown to him.
The World media, with impressive resonance, based their news reporting on a single source, leaks by the Turkish Secret Service, drip feeding a Turkish Government newspaper. The Turkish Leadership subsequently claimed that they had evidence.
Instead of making open to public scrutiny all the alleged evidence immediately, however illegally obtained, Erdoğan maintained, in a masterly way, the public opinion interest alive, by leaking successive, more and more horrible descriptions of the act, in a form of murder pornography. This leak was always taking place, prior to Erdogan’s public statements about it, exercising an obvious but successful political blackmail with many targets.
Observed cold bloodedly, it is a ruthlessly calculating but very efficient Machiavellian use of an opportunity, through the Media, bringing multiple geostrategic advantages to Turkey.
Erdogan didn’t reveal the “naked truth” as he promised. He has obtained though, by this media manipulation, strong political leverage.
The first is the embarrassment caused to the Saudi Monarchy.
Erdogan in his Neo-Ottomanism spirit, adopted by the ruling elite of Turkey, wants the leadership of the Sunny Islam to return to Turkey, as in the times of the Sultans.
Turkey poses a particular threat to Saudi regional supremacy by proposing an Islam “light”, not the heavy version of Saudi Salafism.
To achieve this, he tries to destroy the moral advantage of the Saudi King, the Guardian of the two Mosques, the holy of holies for Islam.
This goes together with forcing the Saudis, who are prime investors in Turkey, to support financially the wrecked Turkish Economy, where inflation now runs at 25%, so as the Saudis be spared further embarrassment.
The Shi’itic Iran, allied to Turkey, has every reason to encourage this, as any diminution of Saudi Arabia is perceived by its leadership to work to its benefit.
Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, is a rivalry driven between the two regional powers, for influence in the Middle East. For reasons though of mutual interest, both sides will endeavor to keep, somehow, the relationship and to contain this crisis between them.
The Turks know that they are not ready yet to frontally challenge Saudi Arabia.
They also know that they do not have anything approaching the Holiness of Mecca and Medina to the Muslim World.
The biggest blackmail is aimed at the USA. The Trump administration is committed strongly to its Saudi Alliance, not only as a big spender Client State but also, if not mainly, for its fight against Iran.
Erdogan is even proposing to “trade” easing the pressure on Saudi Arabia in exchange for the US delivering Gülen to Turkey.
The US and the rest of the West cannot afford to abandon Saudi Arabia and side with Turkey, even if Saudi Arabia misbehaves. Eighty years of primary American Geostrategic and Geo-economics commitment is focused on the Gulf and Israel. Even Israel expressed the geostrategic need to support Saudi Arabia.
Both Russia and China are lurking to catch such an opportunity if it ever appeared, which will not happen.
President Trump must persuade Erdogan to tone down its polemic because further than weakening the Foreign Policy of his administration, it highlighted administrative ineptitude before the crucial November elections.
There is a bounty to be extracted by Erdoğan there as well, but Erdoğan must understand that his bipolar diplomacy will not work in the long term neither with America nor with Saudi Arabia.
Erdoğan considers this opportunity to gain the upper hand without cost in his badly damaged relationships with the USA and the West, as his alliance with Russia and Iran are hybrid and fragile and he knows it. This is unlikely to succeed long term.
However, just the fact that Erdoğan can “push” the Saudi Kingdom and use it as leverage in its relations with the US was unthinkable ten years ago.
Russia, although pleased with the embarrassment caused to the West, has a strong and long-term interest in the region, hence coldly chose the attitude of keeping out of it, ensuring its maximum benefit from all parties.
The increasing regional influence of Turkey
With unfortunate timing, Kuwait chose this particular moment to sign a treaty of Security cooperation with Turkey, to underline its long lasting big frontier area dispute with Saudi Arabia.
Kuwait, uneasy with Iran at its eastern frontier and Shiite Iran at its northern frontier, hopes for appeasement and support from Turkey, by upgrading its cooperation from soft power to hard power, providing new sources of Energy to Turkey and Turkey providing investments in Economic and Security areas in Kuwait.
One more geostrategic victory for Erdogan.
The significance of Turkey for the area was made obvious with the recent four Powers summit in Istanbul, concerning peace in Syria.
Erdoğan invited Putin, Merkel and Macron to discuss the Syrian pacification, in the presence also of the Representative of the UN, and in the absence of USA.
Fearing a new wave of millions of refugees and also their possible collateral damages from a crumbled Turkish Economy, France and Germany went to persuade Russia to do as Turkey wishes and stop Assad from attacking Idlib, the last pocket of terrorists in Syria.
It must be noted that the Turkish Army has invaded and occupies now a considerable Syrian area.
It must be also noted that Erdogan, possibly with a dose of humor, insisted that the desire for Turkey to join the EU is still a major Turkish aim.
This shows Erdoğan’s strength and competence and that his impact on regional events is accepted and respected.
Fully understanding his recently acquired political muscle, through Samson style threatening, Erdoğan went further.
While he is discussing peace in Syria, he is at the same time preparing to attack the Kurds in Manbij.
This attack escalates its fight against the US-allied and Saudi financed Kurdish group.
The shelling of People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions on the Euphrates’ eastern shore, came just two days after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave his “final warning” to Syrian Kurdish fighters to retreat while accusing the United States of dragging its feet in an agreement to remove the group from Turkey’s border.
“Soon, we will descend on them with more comprehensive and effective force”, Erdoğan vowed before members of his AK ruling party.
Erdoğan, exploiting simultaneously and with consummate skill, both the Syrian imbroglio and the Khashoggi affair, in the absence of the USA, has elevated himself as the dominant force in the Middle East. He is the president of a regional power, who rises higher than both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Erdoğan is a pragmatist and a realist. He will try to keep the crime in the first page for as long as he can. After extracting the maximum benefit, playing the thriller of the recent events, he will stop.
He knows that nobody is going to abandon Saudi Arabia because he denounced a really hideous crime. Even Israel is supporting stability in Saudi Arabia.
The gains of Turkey from going against the Saudi Kingdom are tactical and short lived. The Arab memory is long.
The establishment of Turkey as a major Independent Regional Power
The growth of Turkey into a Strong Regional Power will continue.
- Turkey’s population is over 80 million.
- The average age in Turkey is 30 years old.
- The Turkish per capita GDP is equal to that of Russia.
- The Turkish Armed Forces are among the ten biggest in the World.
- The Turkish Navy has already done the round of Africa from Suez, to Cape Town, to Gibraltar, a feat not done yet by even the Chinese Navy.
- The Turkish Military Industry is the second best in the region after Israel.
Since 2002, the rate at which Turkey’s defense industry has met Ankara’s procurement requirements has risen from 24 to almost 70 percent and is still rising.
The co-production of the F-35 airplane with Lockheed-Martin, the design and construction of a Turkish main battle tank and the plans for the construction of an aircraft carrier and submarines in a Turkish shipyard, are cases in point.
The Turkish military Bases internationally in Azerbaijan – Northern Cyprus -Iraq -Qatar – Somalia – Syria –Kuwait and elsewhere bear witness not only of Turkey’s big regional ambitions, but its capacity to follow up these ambitions with their application.
The strategic network of Turkish bases shows clearly their intention of expanding their political-military presence around Arab territory.
The development of such military power, with active intervention potential, necessarily will end by being used.
Turkey’s growth into a major Regional and an important International Power is unstoppable.
This is not a moral story. It is a geopolitical analysis of the Newtonian forces involved and the Darwinian selection process, on one of the most remarkable phenomena in the Middle East; and further, one that has not been adequately understood by the West, either for reasons of Ostrich-like policy or more probably from cognitive inertia because change demands also to exit from the diplomatic comfort zone.
Turkey has already grown into one of the Major Powers in the Middle East.
When it will have its interest there solidly established it is natural to turn its expanding strength to the West.
Its problematic Economy will not stop its geopolitical expansion.
A Turkish Economic crash will hurt Europe more than it will hurt Turkey.
Turkey will re-emerge stronger after the crash as it has happened during its history. Devaluing the Turkish lira and prosperity through bankruptcies is a known and tested method of recovery and the Citizens grumble but accept it.
Turkey’s geostrategic choice is helped considerably by its association with Russia and Iran, which goes further than Syria and the Kurds.
This maturing of Turkish strength is driving a developing schism with the West, this is why both Russia and Iran are very quiet, not wishing to upset events tilting towards their own geopolitical interests.
The Middle East disruption and reset works to the detriment of the American interests.
Turkey, like the Ottoman Empire before, has never been accepted as an equal partner by the West. In the time of the Sultans, in the beginning of the Empire there was continuous military confrontation and when the Empire started weakening, its economic exploitation was linked with its physical reduction.
Kemalist Turkey was seen by the West as a great bastion against the USSR and subsequently by the European Community as a place for exports and a source of income.
In spite of the agreements signed, Europe never intended to honor them and integrate Turkey in the European Union.
The Turkish people working in Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere were never accepted by the local Societies and never integrated with them.
With Turkey increasing its pro-Islamic policy and Europe becoming more and more Islamophobic, this gap will dangerously increase.
The new Turkey is becoming a big Power of the second order, geopolitically more important than any other significant Country, like Italy, for example.
It is therefore natural, geopolitically, that Turkey, once it has established its importance in the Middle East, will turn its expansionist force towards Europe.
It will start with the Balkans.
Turkey has already great influence in Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and elsewhere. It also has significant associated minorities to manipulate, in Bulgaria and Greece.
Dynamic confrontation of Turkey with the West is not for now but it is very likely to come in a few years.
The new continuously growing and strong Turkey will teach the West the cost of underestimating and rejecting it.
A new block that will reset the balance of Power in the Middle East and beyond is formed. Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Turkey, is the new, World class, emerging Power.