Answering Erdogan’s Ambitions

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By Dr. David Wurmser
December 17, 2019

Over the last several years, President Erdogan consolidated his grip on the structures of power, security, law, education and public discourse in Turkey. And yet, he recently suffered a humiliating electoral setback when an opposition leader was elected as mayor of Istanbul. Undaunted, President Erdogan used his domination of courts to annul the election, but during the rerun, he lost again but this time with so much larger a margin that he had no choice but to concede. Since his electoral defeat in Istanbul, he has turned his attentions increasingly into a more aggressive foreign policy along three fronts: first, an escalation of his involvement in Libya against Egyptian-supported factions; second, an invasion of northern Syria and now third, a controversial assertion of vast Turkish maritime claims subjecting the entire eastern Mediterranean Sea to Turkish domination.

In Libya, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) -led Turkish government, armed and supported (possibly even with mercenaries) the shrinking number of factions aligned with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) head, Fayez Sarraj, including the Samoud Faction led by Muhammad ben Dardaf, one of the leaders of the raid on the US embassy in Benghazi until his recent untimely demise. After several Turkish shipments and agents were intercepted and exposed, Erdogan’s foremost strategic rival, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah as-Sisi, countered by launching a campaign to destroy the GNA via its own Libyan proxy, General Belqassim Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) exploded out of eastern Libya to take all but a small part of Western Libya surrounding the capital city of Tripoli. Ankara’s moves also met with significant pushback from France and the United States, both of whom shifted to a far more neutral position between the two Libyan blocs.

Although largely defeated in Libya last Spring, Erdogan has not yielded; he escalated his ambitions and surged strategically.

In Libya, the AKP-led Turkish government regrouped and escalated its involvement. Pro-AKP papers even boasted that Ankara was supplying the GNA with sophisticated and banned weapons as well as bragged that Turkish commanders were orchestrating and perhaps even directly participating in attacks on Haftar’s forces. 1

Absent a US response, Russia has taken its own advantage of the strategic vacuum.

Russia had during the Obama years exploited US opposition to Haftar and its coldness to Egypt to establish relations with the LNA. In September, Moscow saw Turkey’s escalation as an opportunity to escalate its own assistance to Haftar, to the point at which its mercenaries are reportedly present now in Libya. 2

In October, Turkey invaded Syria to depopulate a border cordon of “hostile” populations, such as Kurds, Armenians and other Christians (including in Ras al-Ayn to which Armenians refer as their “Auschwitz” for the slaughter of 80,000 Anatolian Armenians there in 1916). Turkey again ran up against a Russian response, as Moscow saw its own interests challenged in supporting the Assad regime and restoring his realm. Turkey was allowed to establish its border cordon, but at the cost of coming right up against Russian troops.

Finally, in November, Ankara signed the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement with al-Sarraj’s Lilliputian Libyan realm. Far from a technical agreement adjusting and codifying maritime lines, the deal attempts to upturn the architecture of stability and security in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has not yet published the agreement and map which it deposited to the United Nations on December 7, but its diplomats and journalists have revealed most of its parameters. 3 Using a questionable argument about continental shelves and extending its zone out 200 miles from them, these maps:

  • annex a cluster of Greek islands (the Kastelorizo cluster) to Turkey,
  • strip the Greek islands of Rhodes and Crete of all their waters to the west,
  • wrap around Cyprus to such an extent that almost no territorial waters are left to the Greek entity in Nicosia, and
  • cut into waters claimed by Egypt to bring the Turkish line to abut Libya’s and bring it within 100-200 KM of the Libyan coast.

These claims reduce almost the entirety of the eastern Mediterranean to a Turkish maritime economic exclusionary zone which severs the remaining waters of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Syria from the west. Perhaps even more alarming is that Turkey’s maps erase whole island clusters (Kastelorizo) that are part of Greece, suggesting Ankara may intend their occupation.

Moreover, the former secretary general of the Turkish Defense Minsitery, Umit Yalim, also laid claim last year to most of the Greek island of Crete, and the islands surrounding it, stripping Crete of any territorial waters and opening up the waters to the west of Crete as a further expansion of Turkish territorial claims.

“At the present time, Greece should immediately evacuate and surrender to Turkey three quarters of the Island of Crete along with the five Turkish islands, being Gavdos, Dia, Dionisades, Gaidhouronisi, and Koufonisia, that surround it and which it holds under occupation. It should also immediately evacuate all its military units, including the Iraklion Air Station, which is in the Turkish region of the Island of Crete.” 4

The context, imagery, and climate surrounding Erdogan’s moves are as disquieting as the actual moves themselves. Turkey’s Libyan adventures, its invasion of northern Syria, and its assertion of a maritime zone at the expense of Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt are attended by the threatening language and symbolism of imperial expansion swirling under President Erdogan. President Erdogan himself often engages in inflated rhetoric, but he also uses two particular newspapers as his mouthpieces, namely Yeni Safak (the official AKP party paper) and Yeni Akit, and several favored commentators in its pages, especially Ibrahim Karagul (editor-in-chief of Yeni Safak) and Harun Sekman, to telegraph his ambitions and condition the Turkish people.

The language employed mixes foreboding despair with swaggering confidence. On the one hand, Turkey is portrayed as besieged by the world powers and their agents who are obsessed with and conspiring to destroy Turkey. After the EEZ deal, Ibrahim Karagul wrote:

“[E]nemies … were encircling Turkey and making plans to corner it in Anatolia and tear it to pieces. They were dividing the Mediterranean, completely eliminating Turkey from this sea – which was once a Turkish Lake – and making it impossible for us to breathe … All the countries that stood against the Ottomans in World War I were now on the anti-Turkey front in the Mediterranean” 5

The imagery of a historic siege sharpened early last summer, when Karagul described sending a drilling ship – provocatively named Barbaros Pasha after the Ottoman admiral who defeated Genova and consolidated Turkish control of the eastern Mediterrenean in the 16th Century — into Cypriot waters:

“There is no option other than to strengthen Turkey’s hand and make extraordinary defense preparations. … The threat is coming directly from the West and targeting Turkey’s existence. Sieging Turkey from the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the north of Syria, building fronts within the country are all preparations …” 6

And throughout, time is traversed as if collapsed into one moment; what happened in 1546 is as valid and active as in 2019, both in terms of the acute conspiracy against the Ottoman empire and the glorious Ottoman response. In other words, the verdict of the entire Ottoman empire’s half-millennium history, survival and legacy is being played out here and now under Erdogan. Karagul again:

“Consider it as part of a great showdown. Turkey’s game-changing legacy being propelled into action once again, the reconstruction of the multinational front aimed at eliminating this, and every location within our reach becoming battlefields of this showdown. Think with the destinies of the battles of Preveza [1538] and Lepanto [1571] in mind. It is as though the millennium-old political history has been carried over to the present and squeezed into a few years. This is the kind of struggle we are putting up … [E]very activity, every intervention, every defense from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, from the Red Sea to the coasts of the Caspian should be considered a global intervention aimed at ‘stopping Turkey’ and an area of resistance against it. The vastest international coalition after the Çanakkale war is surrounding Turkey.” 7

On the other hand, Turkey is portrayed as a global power, on par with the superpowers.

“[W]hen we include our seas, territorial waters, continental shelf as well, Turkey’s surface area grows to an extraordinary scale. This leads to radical changes when we look at the map… This massive country grows greater in our eyes… If we take into account Turkey’s ethnic area, we see a spectacular power from Europe to Asia, the Middle East to the depths of Africa.”

And its aims are equally vast, causing the world’s powers quake in fear:

“We are rediscovering the ‘memory’ that allows us to see the region, political history, our nation’s political codes, our history-maker and region-builder role, our perception of Turkey, our perception of the Ottomans and Seljuks, and to see all these in a single picture… This means great changes not only for Turkey but the entire region. It means tremors, earthquakes are on the way. It means the entire established order will crumble… The Seljuks are back; the Ottomans are back; the showdowns from World War I are back; the Anatolia defense is back; the claims of past centuries are back; in brief, everything that belongs to us is back. We have seen that they are all ours, they belong to us.” 8

Erdogan himself on December 9 placed Egypt, Israel and Cyprus on notice that the development of their hydrocarbons assets in the Levant and Nile Delta basins demand Turkish approval, since any gas transmission structure from the fields in either of the three countries would now have to pass through Turkish maritime claims:

“With this new agreement between Turkey and Libya, we can hold joint exploration operations in these exclusive economic zones that we determined. There is no problem, …Other international actors cannot carry out exploration operations in these areas Turkey drew (up) with this accord without getting permission. Greek Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a gas transmission line without first getting permission from Turkey.” 9

Evoking the Ottoman golden age of dominance in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is again on offense and schooling the great powers in Turkey’s global superpower capabilities through the painful lesson of humiliation. Karagul wrote in early December:

“Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha returns after 473 years… The real ruler of the Mediterranean is back. The Turkey-Libya deal changed the nautical map; the Sevres Plan [Which Divided The Ottoman Empire In 1920] blew up in their face … The deal between Turkey and Libya not only ruined all plans over the Mediterranean but it also showed the world that Turkey has a Mediterranean map.” 10

And the commentators increasingly dispense with the word “Turkey” to describe the country and employ ever more often instead the term “Ottoman” to both evoke and blur the distinction between nationalism and Islamism. The drilling ship, the Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, was described not as a Turkish vessel, but as an “Ottoman frigate.” 11

President Erdogan signals his policy to his ranks through these editors and journalists, and at times to the broader population. As such, these series of articles should be seen less as analysis or observation, but potentially as a blueprint crafted by Erdogan himself.

While it is foremost a European interest to respond to this, the EU will unlikely follow through on its initial protests. Erdogan will assert his leverage, which includes: 1) threatening to open the mass immigration floodgates of refugees to Europe, a threat against which Europe really has no response, therein terrifying the EU’s elites, who fear a strong populist European anti-refugee reaction, and 2) threaten to release ISIS terrorists. Europe is simply not equipped to confront such threats effectively, so they will feel immense pressure to de-escalate. Ankara will feel emboldened and act yet more aggressively toward Greece because of this, and Erdogan’s dangerous transformation of his nation culturally by enflaming imperial ambitions and revanchism will accelerate.

A strong American response could bring this imperial chest-thumping to an end, especially were the US fleet to take up a presence near the “erased” islands of Kastelorizo and craft a coalition among several eastern Mediterranean allies under American leadership. While not militarily negligible, Turkey does not have a history of suicidal military adventurism. Nor is its current rise fueled by real power projection, but by indulgence. Turkey’s population is divided, with Erdogan always in danger of losing his grip electorally, as the elections in Istanbul showed earlier this year. Indulgence-delivered victories validate his leadership, but military conflict resulting in failure would indict it – and Erdogan appears to understand that.

And yet, Russia appears more likely to act than the U.S. as its moves in Libya and in Syria recently suggest. During the Obama administration, when tensions first emerged over Turkish attempts to assert its presence in Greek Cypriot waters, the United States not only failed to defend its NATO ally, Greece, over Cyprus, but subcontracted to the Russians to send a carrier (Admiral Kuznetsov) and missile cruiser to stand Ankara down. Since then, the Russians have had a standing fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. Yielding again to the Russians to restrain Erdogan would continue the Obama-era policy of abdicating to a Russian naval presence based in Syrian ports the traditional stabilizing role provided by the US Sixth Fleet.

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