Is Turkey Overextending?

On July 15, 2016, a failed coup in Turkey allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take drastic measures in consolidating his power. Over 77,000 citizens, including judges, teachers, and journalists have since been arrested, and the military has seen significant overhaul and been filled with loyalists. While some suspect the coup may have been staged, its impact on Turkish society, politics, and foreign policy is unquestionable. In a 2017 referendum, which many claimed to be fraudulent, the power of the presidency significantly increased, removing the prime ministry and effectively dismantling the separation of powers. A recent study on the trend of illiberalism found that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling Turkish party, is on the extreme end of illiberalism and autocracy. 

The neo-Ottomanic aspirations of the Turkish President have been increasingly explicit, as he perpetually declares. Erdogan’s dream of becoming a regional power has led to the establishment of Turkish bases from the Horn of Africa in Somalia to the Caucasus in Azerbaijan. The lease of the Sudanese island of Suakin, a former Ottoman fortress, for the establishment of a Turkish base emphasizes the desire for a historical repeat of the Sultanate that dominated the Middle and Near East. 

Turkey’s most well known endeavors are in Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Eastern Mediterranean. In 2019, Turkey and the fragmented government of Libya signed a maritime deal to establish an exclusive economic zone in an area claimed by Greece and Egypt. The treaty, which has not been officially recognized internationally and disputed by the European Union due to its breach of international law, brings into focus the Libyan civil war — with Turkey supporting the faction of al-Sarraj in Western Libya, who supports the treaty. The other faction, headed by Haftar, is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Russia. As a result, this proxy war is played out between Turkey, Qatar, and al-Saraj’s Libya on one side, and Egypt, Russia and the UAE on the other. France has attempted to sustain the Libyan arms embargo, which it accuses Turkey of breaking and offending the French by not allowing them to inspect their cargo and almost provoking an intra-NATO conflict. A similar recent incident occurred between the EU-led arms control mission acting to sustain the embargo and a Turkish ship attempting to halt its inspection. Recently, the two Libyan factions have signed a permanent ceasefire, calling for all foreign powers to withdraw. While hopes for peace remain high, the hostility and distrust generated towards Turkey will likely remain. 

It is no coincidence that a month after the 2016 coup, Turkey began its direct military intervention into northern Syria, where it remains to this day. Trump’s further enabling of encroachment to move into Idlib made international headlines, as Erdogan attempted to restrain one of his biggest domestic problems– the Kurds. Comprising about 18% of the Tukish population and concentrated on the Southern border near Iraq and Syria , the Kurds have been systematically oppressed, with over 59 of the elected Kurdish mayors being jailed in recent years. The further endeavors into Kurdistan Iraq emphasize his motivations to purge any Kurdish element from Turkish or nearby society.

Greco-Turkish tension dates back decades, if not centuries. For decades, Turkish fighter jets have violated Greek national airspace, and heated disputes for island sovereignty in the Aegean have often led to the brink of war. In recent years, Turkey has denounced the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, which defines the current borders between Greece and Turkey following the Greco-Turkish War. However, the current situation has brought their relationship to the worst point since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

Over the last few months, Greece and Turkey have been engaged in a military standoff in the Eastern Mediterranean over a dispute of maritime exclusive economic zones, and thus access to newly discovered natural gas reserves. At present, Turkey has unilaterally sent drilling ships into an area claimed by Greece and Cyprus, despite warnings of sanctions from the EU. The German EU leadership, which has historically been relatively favorable to Turkey, is finding it ever more difficult to make their case. The next EU Summit on December 10th will largely focus on Turkish behavior, with the possibility of sanctions or an arms embargo.

Even though Turkey claims they want peaceful dialogue with Greece, its actions suggest otherwise. Daily threats towards Greek sovereignty, including an Erdogan-approved map showing Turkish claims to half the Aegean Sea including all of Greece’s eastern islands, worries many Greeks. The latest poll suggests that over 73% of Greeks are “very worried” about Turkish threats and a military escalation.

In just the past few weeks, the list of provocations has lengthened. In the de facto “pseudo-nation” state of Northern Cyprus, the Turkish government explicitly violated UN Security Council resolutions and opened the “ghost-town” of Varosha, a historically Greek town evacuated from the Turkish invasion in 1974. After the recent election of the Ergodan-backed candidate in Northern Cyprus, Ersin Tatar, the hopes of Cypriot reunification have become increasingly distant. Many EU officials have strongly disapproved of the recent visit of Erdogan to the illegal opening. 

While Greece and Cyprus are permanently high on Turkey’s agenda list, the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict brought them once again into the spotlight. The extensive support towards Azerbaijan through the aid of drones, arms, and jihadists once again put them at odds with Armenia, as well as Russia and Western powers that disapproved of their interference. 

Historically, Turkey has had close links with the United States due to its strategic North Atlantic Treaty Organization partnership. Recently, however, that seems to be changing, largely due to the dramatic fallout between Turkey and Israel, a strong ally of the U.S. Turkey has been supportive of Hamas, and seen as a key ally of Qatar (who is allied with Iran), while also antagonizing Israel over the gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. As a result, despite the uncomfortably close relationship between Erdogan and Trump, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has waned. 

In the sphere of NATO, Turkey has lost a significant portion of its credibility. With the purchase and subsequent activation of the S-400 missile system from Russia (despite numerous warnings from the U.S.), its allegiance and trustworthiness to the alliance can not help but be questioned. Members such as France have consistently called out Turkey on unnecessarily provocative actions, both in action and rhetoric, such as French President Macron needing “mental health treatment.” The tension between Macron and Erdogan led to daily jabs exchanged, culminating in Macron withdrawing the French ambassador from Ankara. 

Following the overthrow of the Egyptian president Morsi, who was strongly backed by Erdogan, Turkish relations with Egypt were heavily strained as the diplomatic ties were cut. President al-Sisi has clashed extensively with Erdogan, even officially recognizing the Armenian genocide, something Turkey refuses to acknowledge. The maritime deal between Egypt and Greece, delineating exclusive economic zones and concurrent with International law, effectively nullifies the Turkish-Lybian agreement. 

Erdogan’s insistent support of the Muslim Brotherhood has further put him in the crossfire of the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, but also Egypt and Jordan. The undermining of Kemalist secularism clashes not only with the West, but also the East. Its friendship with Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Qatar, and by extension Iran, maintains the last Turkish alliance. 

Erdogan’s expansionism is sending Turkey into isolation. While it may prove a popular domestic strategy, it is hard to see it as a sustainable one. The Turkish economy is severely declining, and not only due to the pandemic. The Turkish lira has plummeted to record lows, largely due to Erdogan’s insistence on low interest rates. Its foreign reserves are rapidly being depleted. The growing risk of U.S. and EU sanctions is detering foreign investment. If the economy is any indicator of a country’s condition, Turkey’s future is not looking bright– and its overextension can’t be helping. 

With the recent U.S. elections, Erdogan’s relationship with the U.S. will dramatically change, as Biden has pledged a much tougher stance on Turkish aggression and its disregard for democracy. The recent resignation of the finance minister, Erdogan’s son-in-law, is rumored to be linked with the ongoing Halkbank bank investigation in Washington D.C., ostensibly for circumventing Iranian sanctions, which Trump has been blocking. Responsible American leadership will surely worry Erdogan. Daring the U.S. to impose sanctions may not seem like such a wise move anymore.

Ultimately, Turkey has sabotaged its relationships with the West. Its bid for accession to the EU is now heavily contested to be cancelled with the increased provocations towards Greece, Cyprus, and France. Sanctions seem increasingly likely, and even prudent. It would be a mistake to allow provocations of such magnitude in both action and rhetoric to go unanswered.

Its historically friendly ties with Israel have significantly deteriorated, similarly further distancing itself from the US. Though many might view Russia as a potential Turkish ally, the clashes in Syria, Libya, and partially Nagorno-Karabakh illustrate either an incredibly convoluted relationship, or further tension. 

Turkey has refrained from multiple multilateral deals, such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the United Nations Convention on the Law and the Sea, as it seeks to exert influence in its own manner. Yet, a foreign policy without friends is not only risky, but reckless. While neighbors may not like each other, they must learn to live together. A Turkey engaging in civilized dialogue with its neighbors, free of threats and personal offenses, while advocating for regional peace, is ideal for all parties. Whether that is feasible, remains to be seen. 

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