Written by Konstantinos Apostolou-Katsaros.
The Turkish bid for regional hegemony is not solely driven by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambition: It is rather an intrinsic feature of Turkish civilization. Historically, the Ottoman Empire decline started immediately after the halt of its expansion. Many believe that Turkish revisionism is at its dusk, as is Erdoğan’s rule after almost two decades. This assumption is backed by false hopes on a foreign policy shift towards the West, following possible Turkish leadership take over in the forthcoming presidential elections of 2023. It is debatable though that Turkey’s pivot to East is here to stay, instigated by Turkish nostalgia for its imperial past.
There is ample evidence suggesting that an irredentist Turkey will continue the provocative maximalism in foreign policy even after Erdoğan’s reign. In fact, this characteristic is deep-seated in Turkish society -irrespective of the government and political party in power- as a result of the way Turkish nation formed. Armenians, Greeks, Arabs and Kurds can confirm this: They want nothing more than Turkey to be at peace with itself and its neighbors.
Turkish disdain for the West derives from the irreconcilable cultural differences that are likely to persist. Soner Çağaptay, a senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at “The Washington Institute” explains that “Islamist thinking, as well as anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments are all closely linked”. This can be confirmed by President Erdoğan’s public statements alone. He has in many instances bullied fellow NATO ally, the United States, with heavy accusations such as “terrorist supporter” and “collaborator” of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen in the 2016 failed coup. In response to U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish President said: “If you say genocide, then you need to look at yourselves in the mirror and make an evaluation. The Native Americans, I don’t even need to mention them, what happened is clear.”
Erdoğan’s volatile statements targeted equally Israel. “Erdoğan seems to despise America less than Israel but not by much,” counters Daniel Pipes, President of the Middle East Forum. In numerous cases the Turkish President accused Israel of “oppressive” policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. During the November 2012 Gaza crisis -true to his disparaging rhetoric-, he called Israel a “terrorist state”.
Expecting Turco-Israeli relations to return to the pre Mavi Marmara “flotilla crisis” (May 2010) status is becoming increasingly unrealistic even though a certain degree of normalization is foreseeable.
Erdoğan’s pre-meditated decision “to sever ties with Israel so that he can become the Sunni leader of the Middle East” has been in a sense facilitated by the flotilla raid. The foretelling “yelling” of then-Israeli President Shimon Peres by Erdoğan during the Davos forum back in 2009, was neither a coincidence; nor was his 2018 reaction to U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the subsequent recalling of Turkish ambassador to Israel, with Israel following suit.
Ankara’s aim to outmaneuver Israel in the competition for regional influence will not appease. Ahmet Davutoğlu former Turkish Prime Minister -then close friend and senior adviser, now Erdoğan’s sworn rival- clarified in his 2001 book “Strategic Depth” -a doctrine often dubbed as “neo-Ottomanism”- that Turkey will clash with Israel in order to become a leader in the Muslim world and will prioritize its own interests over those of NATO and the West.
Both anti-US and anti-Israel sentiments are rampant in the Turkish public opinion as well. Gönül Tol, the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, said: “Anti-Americanism has always been there, but it has peaked in the last few years.” She added that “an overwhelming majority of people in Turkey think that Russia is a better ally, and that the bigger national-security threat comes from the U.S.”. This is confirmed by Turkish pollsters Areda Survey that showed:
«54.6% of Turks view the U.S. as the biggest security threat to their country while 51% think the biggest threat is Israel; 31.1% think it is the United Arab Emirates; and 30.7% think it is Saudi Arabia.
35.5% of Turks consider the U.S. unreliable; 32.8% think it is a colonialist state.
72.2% object to any kind of cooperation with the U.S.
When asked with which one of the two countries Turkey should develop its relations, 78.9% said Russia against 21.1% who defended cooperation with the U.S.
58.2% of Turks think that Russia is their strategic ally.
69.3% think that the acquisition of the Russian S-400 system was the right decision.»
Since the failed coup attempt in 2016, thousands have been purged from the military by Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime. Turkish military personnel now give emphasis on ideology and religious views rather than on professionalism. Under these conditions “it’s very difficult to promote closer U.S.-Turkey ties or NATO-Turkey ties,” Tol said and added, “if you are seen as pro-NATO now, it could kill your career.”
Dealing with such a hostile view of the West, “will take decades of concerted effort -and a completely re-worked if not purged bureaucracy- to work [Erdoğan’s] poison out of the system” should Erdoğan’s rule end tomorrow, according to Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former Pentagon Official.
In summary, the question is not whether it is possible or not for Turkey to recover from Erdoğan’s reign. The real question is whether Turkey -a country with five military coups in the past seven decades- is feasible to integrate with the Western civilization and values (considering also the disturbing human rights records) that currently is drifting apart.
To make matters worse, Turkey is striving to settle regional hegemony by spreading its sphere of influence (extending from the Black Sea to the Red Sea; from Central Asia to Western Balkans, as well as Africa and Latin America to lesser extent) thus inevitably clashing with major actors: including Israel, U.S. as well as Russia -that currently sustains an ill-fated opportunistic partnership which is transactional at best and certainly not “strategic”- contrary to popular belief.
The idea of a “region-centric” foreign policy was cultivated during the Cold War by then-PM Bülent Ecevit, even thought Turkey was at the time cozying up to the West. Back in 1974-1975, Necmettin Erbakan -then deputy PM- also tried to join forces with the Arab world. This did not avert Ankara from building closer ties with the Soviets as well. Therefore current palinodes of Turkey’s foreign policy should not come as surprise.
The autonomous path Turkey paved presently is certainly not seeking to reapproach the West. It is the path of neo-Ottoman imperial revival -as blatantly declared the Turkish President himself- where Turkey will rise as a gate keeper on the Western frontier of Eurasia, thus playing the cat and mouse game with both sides in order to further its own interests. The sooner it is realized, the better will be for those directly affected as well as those aiming to sway this NATO ally back in line.