ISN: Turkey’s Expanding Geopolitical Reach

ISN: Turkey’s Expanding Geopolitical Reach
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Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has been unable to convert its regional connections into political influence. But with an ever-growing number of factors converging to endow Turkey with greater regional authority, even domestic squabbles may not prevent the Ottoman phoenix from rising once again.


By Philip McCrum

Turkey’s size, geography, religion and ethnicity combine to extend the country’s reach way beyond its borders and into the heart of the surrounding regions. Its proximity to Greece and its Balkan connections provide a channel into Europe; its border with the Caucasus and its Azeri and Turkic links in the Caspian take its realm of influence into the heart of Central Asia; its Kurdish ties ally it closely to Syria, Iraq and Iran; while its rekindled Islamist credentials strengthen its bonds throughout the Middle East.

These connections are not new, but today they are assuming far greater significance than they ever have done. Recent domestic and regional developments have combined to confer upon Turkey much greater geostrategic importance than it has had since the halcyon era of the Ottoman Empire. While it has no such imperial pretensions these days, Turkey fully understands its newfound authority as a strategic pivot and intends to deploy it to widen and enhance its national interests.

This is even the case in its relations with Europe. For some years, Turkey has very keenly pursued EU membership, only to be rebuffed by numerous wary EU member states. Its acquis process is almost stalled, and although EU institutional procedures allow for Turkey’s entry in 2013, this is highly unlikely given the numerous political and economic obstacles in the way. Consequently, the earliest subsequent date for EU entry is 2021, when Turkey may well have made its own way in the world and may wonder whether it wants to bind itself into EU strictures.

Its deliberations over that are already evident; its reform impetus, most notably on the implementation of the Ankara Protocol, which requires concessions to be granted and ports opened to products coming from the Republic of Cyprus, has lost its way. This may in part be due to the Turks having come to terms with the fact that any further inroads into Europe, beyond its customs union, look increasingly unlikely.

But Turkey has managed to build its influence in areas of the EU periphery where the EU has so far failed to extend its authority. The Balkans is a region where the Ottomans held historical sway; renaissance Turkey has been able to project its influence over the two Muslim states in the region – Bosnia and Albania – pulling them eastward. Not only is Turkey developing its role in the Balkans as a benefactor, but the region provides a locus for closer cooperation with Europe, bringing them both into closer orbit.

But the Balkans is also an area where Turkey brushes up against Russia. The two countries have an awkward history; they took opposing sides during the Cold War, and while relations improved considerably following the break-up of the Soviet Union, differences persist, most notably in the Caucasus, where their respective support for local actors often sees them on opposing sides.

However, this antagonism is kept to a minimum as the Caucasus is a region in which Turkey prefers to avoid entanglement. It has little to offer Turkey except instability, so its interaction with the Caucasus is more defensive than anything else. Yet, sitting as it does on Turkey’s eastern doorstep, it can’t be ignored, particularly given the country’s persistently awkward relations with Armenia. Furthermore, Turkey’s minority Azeri population ensures that close links with the Caucasus are retained.

The Kurdish question

It is Turkey’s preoccupation with the Kurds, an ethnic group whose population is spread in an arc from Turkey’s eastern fringe, through Syria, Iraq and into Iran, that, above all, frames Turkey’s regional policy. It is also the nexus at which its foreign policy most closely intersects with that of the US.

Some 55 percent of all Kurds live in Turkey, where they constitute around 18 percent of the Turkish population. But they have traditionally avoided assimilation, in the hope of eventually forming their own state with their brethren across the region. Kurdish relations with the Turkish state have been perpetually fractious, with the latter historically pursuing a policy of ‘Turkification’, most notably by banning the use of the Kurdish language and suppressing other cultural manners. The rise of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), a violent secessionist movement in the 1970s, led to conflict throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s. But since the capture of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, and the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey in 2002, Turkey has once again moved to co-opt the Kurds.

However, these efforts have been complicated by the emergence of an increasingly independent Kurdish entity within neighboring Iraq. Turkey views a strong Iraqi Kurdish faction as a direct strategic threat to its national interests, as it could have the potential to grow into a fully-fledged state that would encourage other regional Kurds to join forces and lay claim to traditional lands. This concern allies it with other regional states, such as Iran and Syria; they all share a consensus against the establishment of a Kurdish state.

This coalescence of interest has prompted strengthened ties between Turkey and its eastern neighbors. In particular, Turkey and Iran are in ongoing discussions with the Iraqi government about how to counter the Kurdish threat, made all the more pressing with the outburst of violence in eastern Turkey in recent months, allegedly perpetrated by PKK rebels sheltering in northern Iraq.

This has also brought the US back into Turkey’s orbit. The PKK is a proscribed terrorist organization, and in 2007, the US agreed to provide “significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capacities and other equipments” to Ankara to combat separatist Kurdish rebels taking refuge in the Iraqi north. In 2008, Turkey, the US and Iraq set up a three-way committee to agree a unified strategy to deal with the PKK, and most latterly in February 2010, Robert Gates, US secretary of defense, offered additional equipment and intelligence to Turkey.

As ever, the US is seeking a quid pro quo. Not only does the US want Turkey’s support to help secure Iraq after its forces leave, but increasingly the US views Turkey as a viable regional counterweight to the influence of Iran. Additionally, the US also sees scope for Turkey as a useful intermediary in the Iran nuclear stand-off. In early February, Turkey signed a five-year, multibillion dollar deal with Iran to modernize its oil-and-gas industry, so clearly it sees no value in another war against Iran. However, it also remains wary of a nuclear Iran, hence its willingness to use its newfound relations to help broker a deal. In mid-February, Turkey announced that it was prepared to serve as the venue for an exchange of Iranian nuclear fuel. Interestingly, the US now needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the US.

The PKK issue is also finally bringing Turkish and Syrian relations into step, after a decade of mutual distrust. In the 1990s, Syria was accused of supporting attacks by the PKK and the two countries nearly came to blows. But subsequently, both countries have learned to cooperate over PKK issues, leading to accords in other spheres. In October, the two neighboring countries signed several agreements, including one for visa-free travel. A few weeks later, they held joint military exercises, much to the irritation of Israel.

Turkey’s relations with Israel have, until recently, been another important dynamic in regional affairs. Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize the state of Israel in 1949. The two countries couldn’t be called allies in the strictest sense, but they have cooperated closely in various spheres over recent years. Most notably, Israel is a supplier of military equipment to Turkey. Turkey has always viewed its position as providing a bridge between the Arabs and Israelis – it has mediated in talks between Syria and Israel – and as such, views this as an opportunity to project its influence in the Muslim world.

But as the Islamist-leaning government of President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has bedded down in Turkey, its position toward Israel has shifted, becoming increasingly critical of the Jewish state. Most notably, this occurred at the Davos summit in 2009, when Erdogan railed against Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Ottoman phoenix rising

Internal political squabbles and scandal in recent months – a reflection of the fundamental rift at the heart of Turkish politics between the civilian body politic and the military – have had a knock-on effect on the economy; Turkish share prices dropped nine percent in four days and the lira tumbled to a 10-month low against the US dollar in recent weeks, after a military coup plot came to light and a string of arrests were made in its wake. Turkey was also hit hard by the recession and is currently in discussion with the IMF for a multi-billion dollar stand-by credit facility.

But, taking a longer term view, Turkey looks set to return to growth in 2010, and its twin fiscal and external accounts will show reduced deficits – both manageable, particularly if the government adheres to IMF targets. Furthermore, Turkey’s economy remains a potent force in the region; it is the largest economic power in the Muslim world and far and away the largest in all of the sub-regions it abuts.

If Turkey’s regional linkages – be they political, strategic, ethnic or religious – as well as its economic size bind it to the wider neighborhood, then it is energy that lends it even greater geostrategic significance. In particular, it is defining its ongoing relations with Europe that may well play a decisive part in Turkey’s still just extant EU membership application. In light of Russia’s aggressive energy policy, the EU is keen to diversify its natural gas supply network; its favored option is the construction of the Nabucco pipeline, which will tap into Central Asian gas supplies from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and even Iran. Nabucco will run through Turkey and then into Europe. For Turkey, it sees considerable geopolitical value in being a part of a diversified east-west natural gas supply network and the issue is at the top of its foreign policy agenda.

The energy equation is just another indicator of Turkey’s growing geostrategic reach. Ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has been unable to convert its regional connections into political influence. More often than not, this has been on account of domestic instability and its weakened state. Such issues are clearly still at play and may well undermine Turkey’s ability to project its influence in the years to come. But with an ever-growing number of factors converging to endow Turkey with greater regional authority, even domestic squabbles may not prevent the Ottoman phoenix rising once again.

Philip McCrum is a former Middle East editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and currently an independent analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).