Over the past few months, Turkish foreign policy has been put under a microscope owing to their recent actions in their eastern Mediterranean neighborhood. From Libya to the Caucasus, Turkey seems to be more active now than it has been in 100 years. To understand the meaning of these conflicts, we need to understand the region’s significance as a whole.
The eastern Mediterranean has long been a battleground of empires, whether that may be the nations of the Bronze Age, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity, or the Christian-Muslim clash of the Middle Ages. More recently, however, the Turkish Ottoman Empire fought with rival empires for dominion of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, and established hegemony for several centuries. In that time, the empire stretched from the Balkans and Greece to Egypt and Arabia, comprising Asia Minor as well.
However, after World War I, the empire was broken up and its successor state, the modern nation of Turkey, was born. Ever since the empire was broken up, however, Turkish nationalists have harbored a desire to restore the empire. In the 21st Century, this has translated into the election of nationalist and Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has aggressively pressed weak Turkish claims to territorial waters in parts of the Aegean Sea, most of which fall should fall under control of Greece, according to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Erdogan’s jingoism has also translated into intervention in the Libyan civil war, supporting the side that will give him access to Libya’s oil (both on land and in the sea), which has bolstered his claims in the eastern Mediterranean. Many observers argue that the UN-recognized Libyan government turned the tide of the war in their favor solely because of Turkish support (some even claim that without Turkey, the civil war would have ended conclusively in favor of the rebels based in Tobruk long ago). On the other hand, Egypt, a regional power, signed an agreement with Greece intended to curb Turkish ambitions and expansion, or hinder them at the very least.
So what drives Erdogan’s specific incursions into other parts of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean? Why the Aegean Sea, Syria, and more recently, Nagorno-Karabakh?
Let’s start with the Aegean. The Greek islands in the Aegean Sea and their surrounding waters, recognized internationally as Greek territory, have several things Turkey desires. First, as most would suspect, is oil. While oil deposits keep being discovered in the Aegean Sea nearly every day, Turkey risks Greece (a traditional rival) becoming stronger while leaving Turkey behind economically. There is also of course the land and potential maritime outposts that these islands offer, which might seem pale in comparison to the riches that oil has to offer (especially to a nation like Turkey suffering from a rapidly declining economy). Make no mistake, however; these islands have something Erdogan and other Turkish nationalists crave. They offer a portal to the days of the Ottoman Empire, when Turkish hegemony stretched from the Bay of Libya to the Caspian Sea. All the territories Turkey under Erdogan has attacked share one similarity: they were all once a part of the Ottoman Empire. Some may argue that if so, why hasn’t Erdogan attacked the Balkans or interfered in Tunisia? And to that there is a simple answer: Tunisia and the northern edges of the Balkans were never core parts of the Ottoman Empire (though Erdogan has stregthened ties with Muslim countries in North Africa), and Erdogan has actually made clear his intentions in the southern Balkans. He has already expressed his intentions to “air grievances”, in his words, against Bulgaria. And of course he has also challenged Greece, a Balkan nation, in the Aegean.
In fact, Erdogan recently completed construction of a brand new Presidential Palace, reminscent of the splendor of the old Ottoman palaces. Even bodyguards stationed at the new palace wear old Ottoman uniforms, causing many to accuse Erdogan of wanting to be an Ottoman Sultan.
So what of Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh?
In Syria, Turkey has been expanding into northern Syria, which has caused the displacement of somewhere between 200,000 and 700,000 people and contributed to the wider refugee crisis stemming from the Syrian Civil War. This comes after mounting tensions with the Kurdish peoples that live there and in Turkey, who have often voiced their desire for a free and indpendent “Kurdistan”. Turkey’s mission is to increase their influence over the region and have a foot hold in Syria, should they need to formally invade the nation or intervene deeper into Syrian territory. Its also a Turkish border region, which means Turkey has a nice buffer between Turkey proper and where Syria has control. It of course also means Turkey can have an even bigger, near-total hand that it currently has in Kurdish affairs.
It should be mentioned, however, that Turkey seems to have pulled back a little from Syria in late November, possibly due to the ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh brokered by Russia and Turkey, whose conditions might have included Turkish withdrawal from Syria.
Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh as it is known by Armenians (its indigenous inhabitants), provides justification to establish a more permanent link between Turkey and Azerbaijan, both diplomatically and territorially. Diplomatically, the war in Karabakh strengthened relations between the two countries and their populations, and continues to do so even after a ceasefire agreement between Armenia, the de facto Republic of Artsakh, and Azerbaijan. Territorially, it makes possible the idea of linking Azerbaijan, the enclave of Nakhichevan, and Turkey, which has been a dream of pan-Turkish nationalists since the birth of pan-Turkism itself. Taking de jure and (as of now) de facto Armenian territory centered around the region of Meghri, at the southern tip of Armenia, would territorially link Turkey to Azerbaijan, which not only affects the nations mentioned, but also disturbs Georgia, a nation situated between Armenia and Russia, through which a critical pipeline passes from Azerbaijan to Turkey. A Turco-Azeri border would eliminate the need to bypass Armenia via Georgia, which would make Georgia lose its only redeeming quality in Turkish eyes: access to Azerbaijan and a vessel with which to isolate Armenia. This part of the grand pan-Turkish ambition may have already been realized; one of the terms of the aforementioned ceasefire was that a road linking Azeri-controlled Nakhichevan (which borders Turkey) and the rest of Azerbaijan would be built. One can imagine that the Turkish peacekeepers supposed to patrol and guard the road might not have much trouble conquering the entire area altogether.
This of course also means that a union of Turkey and Azerbaijan or at the very least closer diplomatic ties is much more likely. From there, other Turkic nations in Central Asia could join and perhaps even foment dissent in China and Russia, where large swaths of remote territory is dominated by ethnic Turkic peoples. Erdogan’s strategies in the eastern Mediterranean, while maybe not specifically geared towards the goal of a pan-Turkist union, are certainly paving the way for a possible union. Thus, China and Russia are guaranteed to oppose any attempt at Turkic unity.
Russia, while previously expected to have defended Armenia and Syria from Turkey as it had done before, now seems to have taken a more diplomatic approach to Turkish expansion. It appears to be trying to strengthen its hold on Azerbaijan to prevent any close relationship between it and Turkey. In Central Asia, it will certainly need to assert itself as the region’s security and economic guarantor, lest the nations of Central Asia look to Turkey as their new hegemon.
China, meanwhile, seems to be taking a more direct and violent approach. Already accused of genocide against the Uighurs of western China (a Turkic people), the Chinese government has an uneasy relationship with Turkey. Erdogan, while not daring to directly oppose China, a nation with a military and economic capacity leagues ahead of Turkey’s, has at times expressed concern over the Uighurs.
Turkey’s aggressions in the eastern Mediterranean, serving the greater ambitions of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Turkism, have escalated in recent years. Erdogan has used the Turkish military to the fullest capacity, deploying it in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh, while also extending Turkey’s long diplomatic arm to Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and North Africa. He has pressed weak maritime claims in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, while also threatening Bulgaria, Greece, the Kurds, and Armenia. His next target remains to be seen; some have already predicted Cyprus, given that Turkey already has a foothold in Northern Cyprus, and that it would strengthen his maritime power (something he distinctly lacks) in the eastern Mediterranean. Simultaneously, Erdogan risks the anger of Russia, China, and the West; Russia has not taken lightly to Turkish aggression, purportedly expelling them from northern Syria and strengthening its hold on the Caucasus. China has reportedly started establishing better diplomatic relations with Turkey’s rivals, and Chinese treatment of the Uighurs is in direct conflict with Turkish ambitions, the matter being whether it becomes a point of conflict now or in the future. Europe seems to be at odds with itself, with some nations like Greece and France opposing Turkey and others like Germany quietly conducting business with them. Only time will tell whether Turkish aggression will be a footnote in history or the flame to spark a major war.