GP Insights # 422, 4 October 2020
On 3 October, the EU issued a threat that it could impose sanctions on Turkey over "provocations and pressures" in a row with Greece over energy resources and maritime borders. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on Ankara to "abstain from unilateral actions" in the eastern Mediterranean and said that the bloc wanted "a positive and constructive relationship with Turkey and its relation will work only if the provocations and pressures stop."
The statement by the EU comes at a time when Turkey has not only been militarily engaged in the East Mediterranean Sea, into an area south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo, but also in the Caucasian region as a proxy in the ethnoreligious conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey's assertive role in its neighbourhood has been increasing with President Recep Erdogan at its helm of power.
What is the background?
First, a militarily assertive Turkey. Turkey has increased its military footprint from Libya to Azerbaijan. Its relation with the US is already troubled by the US support for Syrian Kurds, the Turkish military backing the Libyan government in Tripoli, Ankara's tensions with Greece and its acquisition of Russia's S-400 anti-missile defence system. President Erdogan's ambitions are driven by his desire to expand Turkish influence across large parts of the globe. His focus on Africa to Eastern Europe began before he even became president.
Second, the Blue Homeland doctrine and Turkey's maritime ambitions. Turkey's recent engagement in the East Mediterranean is as part of its "Blue Homeland" (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, which stipulates that the country's security lies under the seabed of the Mediterranean. Turkey's Blue Homeland supports its search for gas reserves across a swath of the Mediterranean and has seen warships head to the region this week. This doctrine, championed by Erdogan, challenges Greek and Cypriot maritime claims and looks to expand Turkey's maritime adventurism in the form of energy excavations in the narrow strips of Aegean and Mediterranean coastal waters.
Third, winning the diplomatic and cultural heart of the Muslim World. The recent Abraham Accords and the Palestinian issue has become the immediate ground for Turkey to step in support for the cause when the rest of the countries in the region have diluted the issue. Turkish President did not miss a beat during his address to the United Nations General Assembly, insisting that he, unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, would not accept a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not endorsed by the Palestinians.
Fourth, Erdogan's revivalist Ottoman dream. Erdogan has controlled Turkey for 17 years, first as Prime Minister and second as a President. Erdogan has taken the country in the autocratic path with a calculated military rule of control. Even in its TV series, Ertugrul, Erdogan's "New Turkey" approach has been advocated. This 'New Turkey' replaces Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secularism with an Islamist and nationalist agenda, that is quite evident from the domestic policies like conversion of Byzantine Christian Hagia Sophia church to a mosque. Turkey is increasingly looking eastward, away from its NATO, to its old sphere of influence during the Ottoman Empire and Erdogan's policies have facilitated such stance.
What does it mean?
Today's assertive Turkey is breaking away from the given peripheral identity and becoming more than just a geographical transit between the EU, Russia and the Middle East. An assertive Turkey would mean that it fills the leadership vacuum regionally and globally. But at the same time, Erdogan's foreign policy has a domestic sanctity where many views his strongman politics as a step towards restoring the glorious history of the Ottoman empire. Turkey has become more than the sick man of Europe, and through asserting politically and diplomatically, EU's sanctions will do little to offset the strategic ambitions Turkey has come to achieve.