Visions of Empire: Erdogan’s Ottoman Nostalgia and the Future of Turkish-Western Relations

Turkey’s Great Power Resurgence

Turkey’s NATO accession marked the first expansion of the alliance after its inception in 1949. Ankara’s membership served to stem the tide of communist expansion, blocking the USSR from accessing the Mediterranean sea lanes. Whereas Western motives were largely strategic, for Turkey’s ruling class, composed mainly of military officers and coastal elites, NATO did not just provide a check against Soviet aggression. The alliance became a bedrock of Turkish identity, embodying the ideals of secularism and Westernization, established by the nation’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Ataturk’s legacy was confronted with a new political vision. Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power in 2003 as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan drew the majority of his support from Turkey’s conservative heartlands, and positioned himself as an opponent of the Kemalist elites. Erdogan broke sharply with his predecessors, infusing the country’s secular political tradition with an ever more prominent Islamic streak. The death of Kemalism was sealed in 2016, when Erdogan defeated an attempted coup by his opponents in the military.

Seeking to bury Turkey’s republican legacy, Erdogan reached deep into the past. In 2017, following a referendum that greatly expanded the powers of the Presidency, Erdogan went on a pilgrimage to the tomb of the 16th century Ottoman sultan, Selim I, drawing a clear parallel between himself and one of the Ottoman Empire’s most celebrated rulers. In 2020, Erdogan announced the reconversion of the former Byzantine temple, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque. The Turkish President’s quest for imperial glory is perhaps most pronounced on the international stage, with Erdogan recasting Turkey as an independent great power, free from the constraining influence of NATO. Ankara is no longer looking to the West for guidance. Instead, it strives for regional hegemony and diplomatic sovereignty.

Erdogan has challenged the Middle Eastern status quo, wielding his brand of political Islam as an ideological counterweight to Arab autocracy. Turkey has supported the revolts of the Arab Spring and forged close ties with local branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially recognized as a terrorist group by the governments of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. In 2018, after the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Erdogan vocally criticized the regime of Mohammed bin Salman, further fueling the growing rivalry between Ankara and Riyadh. Rejecting the region-wide push towards reconciliation, Erdogan has exploited the subsiding of the Arab-Israeli conflict to escalate his aggressive foreign policy. In 2020, against the backdrop of negotiations between Israel and the UAE, Erdogan has invited Hamas leaders to Istanbul, demonstrating his ongoing support for the Palestinian cause.

Turkey’s regional ambitions possess an increasingly prominent military aspect. In January 2020, Ankara sharply ramped up its support to Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli, supplying it with armored vehicles, anti-air weapons, and drones. Turkey also facilitated the deployment of mercenary forces, mainly from Syria and Turkmenistan, and provided military advisers to instruct Libyan forces in drone warfare. Turkey’s intervention in Libya exacerbated tensions with other powers. Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Russia all support the regime of Khalifa Haftar against the Turkish-aligned Government of National Accord. Initially, Ankara sought merely to avert the looming fall of Tripoli, and thus safeguard its geopolitical and economic foothold in the country. However, Turkish forces soon became embroiled in a protracted, region-wide proxy war.

The implications of Turkey’s new bid for great power status extend beyond its immediate neighborhood, casting a shadow of doubt over the nation’s future role in NATO. In its fight against ISIS, the US allied with the Kurdish SDF militias in northern Syria, sidelining Ankara’s concerns over the threat of Kurdish terrorism and separatism. Frustrated with the West’s pro-Kurdish stance, and emboldened by the eventual pullout of US troops from northern Syria, Erdogan opted for unilateral action. In 2019, Turkish armed forces launched an attack on the Kurdish enclave of Rojava in an effort to dislodge the SDF, and create a buffer zone on Turkey’s southern frontier. The offensive attracted a wave of condemnation from Western states, with the US imposing sanctions on Ankara and backtracking on a planned trade deal.

The discovery of new offshore gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean further strained the limits of NATO cohesion. In August 2020, Ankara dispatched a seismic research vessel accompanied by military escort into Greek territorial waters. The result was a revival of long-running tensions over claims in the Aegean Sea, with NATO and the EU standing firmly behind Greece. French support proved particularly forceful, culminating in a mutual defense agreement between Paris and Athens, signed in September 2021. Although the agreement’s provisions do not reference Turkey explicitly, the intent is clear — to combat Erdogan’s encroachments in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The series of flare-ups both between Turkey and the West, and between Turkey and other regional powers, gave rise to a mounting sense of encirclement among some segments of the Turkish population. France’s support for Greece, and the tightening relationship between Athens and Washington, bolstered recently by the Greek decision to extend US access to its bases by another five years, are viewed by some Turks as part of an organized plan by the West to weaken and isolate their country. NATO membership is often no longer seen as a guarantee of security, but rather as a barrier to the pursuit of a neo-Ottoman revival.

 

NATO Membership as a Diplomatic Weapon

Erdogan has sought to exploit Turkey’s position in NATO for his own political ends. In 2009, Erdogan pushed to block the appointment of the former Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as NATO’s Secretary General. This step was informed by Rasmussen’s past critiques of Erdogan’s Islamist direction. On multiple occasions, Erdogan has pressured his allies to extradite dissident activists. Erdogan blamed the anti-regime cleric, Fethullah Gulen, for the abortive coup of 2016, and demanded his handover to Turkish authorities. The resulting row between Turkey and the US, where Gulen has resided since 1999, contributed to the cooling of relations between Washington and Ankara.

Conflicting stances on Kurdish autonomy remain a persistent source of division between Turkey and its Western allies. In 2019, Turkey stalled the push to bolster NATO’s eastern presence by transferring additional force to Poland and the Baltics. In exchange for his approval, Erdogan demanded that the PYD and PKK, the Kurdish parties in northern Syria and southern Turkey, be officially designated as terrorist groups by NATO. Although Turkey ultimately backed down, its fixation on the Kurdish issue remains undiminished. In 2022, Erdogan threatened to block Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO accession over the Nordic states’ pro-Kurdish sympathies. The Turkish President only retracted his objections only after the two countries pledged to reduce support for the PKK and lift restrictions on arms sales to Turkey. To placate Erdogan, the Biden administration also approved the sale of new F-16 fighters to the Turkish military.

Turkey, aware of its increasing strategic weight in both the Middle East and the Black Sea region, is no longer content to follow the lead of its alliance partners. Erdogan exploits his influence within NATO to legitimize his policies on the international stage, and force concessions from the West. Simultaneously, by positioning himself as a dissenting voice within the alliance, he appeals to the powerful anti-Western strand of Turkish society.

 

Courting the Bear: Erdogan Between NATO and the Kremlin

In a bid to reduce his dependence on the West, Erdogan has been looking north across the Black Sea in search for new strategic partnerships. The relationship between Ankara and the Kremlin is marked by an interlocking web of conflicting and converging interests, a reflection of the complex, multi-polar landscape that has come to characterize NATO’s and the EU’s periphery at large.

Following its break with the US in 2017, Turkey moved to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Russia amid protests in Washington. Russia, sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge between the two NATO countries, subsequently pushed the sale forward from 2020 to 2019. The S-400 dispute ultimately resulted in the US imposing sanctions on Turkey, and ejecting it from the F-35 program. Turkey played a significant role in developing, funding, and producing the F-35; its removal from the program constituted a harsh blow to technological and military cooperation between Washington and Ankara, creating an atmosphere of mutual distrust.

Soon after its rift with Turkey, the US approved F-35 sales to Greece, and pledged to assist in an ongoing program to upgrade the Hellenic Air Force’s F-16 fleet. The knock-on effects of the S-400 crisis, coupled with the tightening relationship between Washington and Athens, thus contributed to Ankara’s fears of a Western-led anti-Turkish front. The combination of Erdogan’s wild brinkmanship, Russian opportunism, and American insensitivity to Turkish strategic interests set the tone for the future.

Turkey denied US claims that its purchase of the S-400 would threaten NATO integrity, and stated that it only turned to Russia after Washington refused to provide it with an alternative in the form of the Patriot system. Erdogan is not pursuing a hard pivot towards Russia, but instead seeks to leverage his ties with the Kremlin to gain a more favorable standing within NATO structures. Turkey’s relationship with Russia is in many ways conditioned by strategic necessity. As of 2020, Turkey relied on Russia for over 33% of its natural gas imports, as well as 75% of its wheat imports. By adopting a hardline anti-Moscow stance, Erdogan would endanger his country’s food and energy security. Furthermore, with both Russia and Turkey pursuing an increasingly proactive policy towards the Middle East, the two states brush up against each other constantly. After already alienating many of the region’s major powers, Erdogan is understandably wary of inviting the Kremlin’s anger.

In Syria, Russia and Turkey have brokered a ceasefire deal that led to a subsiding of hostilities, enabling incremental progress towards the reimposition of centralized authority in the war-torn country. Turkish forces maintain a presence in the north, while the Russian-backed Assadist regime has free rein in mopping up rebel forces in the south. For all the successes of their Syrian settlement, Erdogan and Putin failed to replicate its structure elsewhere. The two states have come to stand on opposing sides in the proxy wars in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, failing to reach a workable compromise on joint de-escalation. The Syrian deal is conditioned by converging interests in the neutralization of rebel elements and the stabilization of the country; as such, it is not rooted in a more comprehensive vision of a broader Middle Eastern order. The chance of a new regional status quo, overseen by Turkey and Russia, remains faint.

Turkey’s stance on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has further complicated its relationship with the Kremlin. In February 2022, Turkey and Ukraine, building upon a long-running history of military cooperation, agreed on further deliveries of the Bayraktar TB-2 drones, and introduced a scheme for the joint production of the aircraft. In the early stages of Putin’s subsequent invasion, Turkey was among the most proactive in delivering arms to the Ukrainian government in a rare show of solidarity with NATO.

However, Turkey’s support has waned as the conflict progressed. Erdogan’s rhetoric has become more even-handed, with the Turkish President casting himself as a mediator between Russia and the West. Ankara’s new position was not without results. In July 2022, Erdogan mediated a deal allowing for the export of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports, with a Joint Coordination Center set up in Istanbul to oversee the flow of trade through the Bosporus Strait. Despite its often-destabilizing diplomatic posture, Turkey can operate as a constructive broker, limiting the disruptive effects of Russian-NATO hostilities.

 

Guarding the Southern Flank: The Case for Turkey in NATO

The new NATO Strategic Concept, introduced in July 2022 at the summit in Madrid, is informed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and portrays Putin’s regime as the most immediate threat to the alliance. This renewed focus on Russia implies a pivot away from the Middle East and Africa, and towards Eastern Europe. However, in recent years, the Kremlin’s foreign policy, building upon the legacy of the USSR, acquired a truly worldwide scope. Russia’s global ambitions are particularly concentrated in the Middle East and Africa — areas where Turkey counts among NATO’s most instrumental members. The struggle to contain Russia will inevitably have to incorporate Ankara.

After successfully propping up Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, Russia moved to expand its presence across the MENA region and beyond — operating naval and air bases in Syria, Libya, and Algeria, and setting up close ties with the CAR, Mali, or Sudan. The war in Ukraine drew away a large share of Russia’s expeditionary forces, both conventional and paramilitary, temporarily weakening its global presence. Nevertheless, the Kremlin continues to forge new partnerships, providing weapons and counterinsurgency and coup-proofing aid to authoritarian strongmen, and those who are disillusioned with the failings of the Western-led order. In April 2022, Cameroon signed a deal on mutual defense cooperation with the Kremlin in one of the latest manifestations of this growing trend.

In its push for strategic autonomy, Ankara is rapidly expanding its military capabilities. Turkey boasts the second largest military in NATO in terms of size, and can draw on a vast pool of conscripts. Its recent operations across the Middle East indicate that this quantitative edge is complemented by an ability to carry out complex, combined arms expeditionary operations. Turkey’s booming drone industry provides it with a foothold in an increasingly prominent sector of arms manufacturing. As seen in Libya, Ukraine, or Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey is not just capable of providing its allies and clients with drones, but also offers integrated support in all areas of unmanned air warfare, from production to battlefield use.

Turkey’s continent-straddling position and its power projection potential set it up as a key actor in NATO’s coming push to broaden and diversify the alliance structure. Despite its current preoccupation with Russia, NATO’s future is decidedly global. The new Strategic Concept casts China as a systemic threat to NATO, and stresses the need for cooperation with the alliance’s partners in the Indo-Pacific. The July summit in Madrid was attended by the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan, underscoring this widening of focus. To enable its pivot to Asia, the alliance will need to construct a more independent European pillar, resting in large part on Ankara’s support.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, calls for strategic autonomy were growing increasingly prominent within the EU’s foreign policy establishment. Russia’s invasion weakened these notions, exposing the shortcoming of the EU’s cumbersome institutional structure, and the organization’s reliance on outside powers. The globalization of NATO requires a new vision of European security, which incorporates non-EU states — not just Turkey, but also the UK or Norway. A more inclusive European security architecture should assuage Turkey’s fears of geopolitical encirclement, extend the EU’s diplomatic reach in the Middle East, and compensate for its current lack of autonomous military capabilities.

 

Learning from Past Mistake and Building a New Strategic Partnership

The Western response to Turkey’s political and military emancipation has been marred by heavy-handedness and a chronic lack of imagination. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Greco-Turkish conflict. In 2004, the EU accepted Cyprus’s membership application without putting pressure on a resolution of the tensions between its Greek and Turkish population, thus contributing to the entrenchment of ethnic hostilities. The outpouring of Western support for Greece in the wake of the 2020 Aegean crisis was similarly unburdened by conditionality. As a result, the Greek government was emboldened in pushing its sweeping territorial claims, which include such locations as the island of Kastellorizo, just two kilometers off Turkey’s coast. In the future, the EU and NATO should adopt a more balanced stance, one that takes a firm stand against unilateral territorial expansion, but recognizes the legitimacy of Ankara’s strategic interests.

The flexible, often unpredictable character of Erdogan’s foreign policy is both a threat and an opportunity. On the one hand, the Turkish President is wielding NATO membership as carte blanche to behave recklessly while escaping direct military consequences. Erdogan has also repeatedly shown that he is only willing to toe the NATO line insofar as it benefits his own strategic interests. At the same time, however, Erdogan is clearly willing to adapt and moderate his ambitions in response to changing diplomatic contexts. Indeed, from 2021 onward, domestic instability and the threat of complete international isolation has forced Ankara to backtrack on its heavily militarized external posture.

Confronted with the prospect of a region-wide anti-Turkish alliance, Erdogan has made overtures to Israel, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. As with most other aspects of Erdogan’s foreign policy, the roots of this change were largely an outgrowth of domestic politics. Throughout the 2010s, Erdogan’s ideology has lost its distinctiveness, defined by a fusion of democratic pluralism and Islam, and the Turkish President has increasingly adopted a fundamentalist stance more in line with that of Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States. Turkey is no longer an exporter of revolution, but rather one of the region’s status quo powers. Ankara’s anti-revisionist shift likely sounded the death toll of Middle Eastern democracy for years to come. Simultaneously, however, it also set the stage for the emergence of a more flexible, and thus more peaceful, diplomatic system, founded on ideological convergence.

Erdogan’s posture towards the West has also grown less forceful. In 2021, Turkey initiated a drawdown of its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, scaled back operations in northern Syria, and entered negotiations with both Greece and France, and the EU at large.

Erdogan’s relationship with Putin is not rooted in broad-based strategic alignment; the threat of a Moscow-Ankara axis straddling the Black Sea remains minimal. Simultaneously, the anti-Western streak of Erdogan’s foreign policy should not be dismissed as a mere diplomatic ploy. Hostility towards NATO has deep roots in Turkish society — a PEW poll, conducted in 2017, at arguably the lowest point in US-Turkish relations in decades, revealed that 72% of Turks see the US as a threat to their nation’s security.

The future of Turkish-Western relations will be in large part determined by the outcome of the coming 2023 elections. Erdogan’s mishandling of his nation’s economy in wake of the COVID-19 crisis has produced rampant inflation and raised the threat of a foreign exchange shortage. Turkey’s economic woes constitute a major opportunity for the opposition, which is more pro-Western, and peace-focused in its diplomatic orientation. An opposition victory would solve some of the EU’s and NATO’s problems, steering the country away from Erdogan’s Islamist-infused authoritarianism. However, the strategic realities underpinning Turkey’s relations with the West will prevail regardless of who rules in Ankara. Thus, the EU and NATO should develop a new comprehensive, long-term diplomatic approach to Turkey, rather than simply counting on a change of power.

Temporary tensions between Ankara and the EU tend to obfuscate the depth of mutual convergence on key issues. Currently, Turkey is housing up to 5 million refugees on its soil, about 80% of whom hail from Syria. Erdogan’s supposedly excessively permissive border policy has long been a major avenue of attack, exploited by the opposition. Turkey and its European allies thus have a shared interest in stabilizing the Middle East and stemming the flow of migration. Furthermore, there is room for cooperation on a joint push to reduce reliance on Russian gas imports and diversify energy supplies.

Despite recent shifts in its orientation, Turkey is still tightly geopolitically linked with the West, and EU accession remains a centerpiece of Erdogan’s agenda. Instead of seeking to subdue Turkey to its aims, the West should seek to pursue narrower, transactional cooperation on particular issues, while leaving open the possibility of tighter integration, if conditioned by domestic liberalization and moderation on foreign policy.

 

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Written by Matyáš Knol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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