By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Military University
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a man on a mission, or actually, several missions. First, he aims to dismantle the secular character of the Turkish republic. The separation of church and state has been the cornerstone of modern Turkey as envisaged by its founder Mustafa Kamal Atatürk. But Erdoğan has slowly but surely lowered the barrier between Islam and the government.
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However, this change is not his only goal. At this point, it is clear to all Middle East commentators that Erdoğan wants to achieve second and third goals. He seeks to make Turkey into a regional power – even an empire – and set himself up as its emperor.
Erdoğan’s Background in Turkish Politics
Erdoğan has been a player in the Turkish political arena since the late 1990s. This authoritarian leader began his career as the mayor of Istanbul as a representative of the Islamic party (1994-1998) and later as prime minister (2004).
During his tenure as prime minister, Erdoğan took several moves to limit some of the freedoms the Turkish secular constitution created. These constitutional freedoms included abortion rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, and academic freedoms.
Erdoğan also increased the latitude Islam has in public life, dramatically changing the state-religion relationship that existed in Turkey since the days of Atatürk. For instance, he turned Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church and secular museum in Istanbul, back into a mosque in July 2020.
Erdoğan’s Activities Could Be Explained as Neo-Ottomanism
It is impossible to summarize all the events and international conflict points the Erdoğan government has been involved in throughout the past few years in one article. But there have been many controversies – the Turkish involvement in Syria, Erdoğan’s support of Hamas and his constant attacks on Israel, and the growing tensions with Greece are only a few examples of the expansive and aggressive foreign policy Turkey is pursuing.
The most accurate term to describe what Erdoğan is doing is neo-Ottomanism. This term encapsulates the idea that Turkey is interested in creating a sphere of influence similar to that of the Ottoman empire, which ruled the Middle East and northern Africa for centuries.
It is a controversial term that some experts think is not accurate. However, it does explain Erdoğan’s personal desire to make Turkey a force to be reckoned with on both a regional and a global scale.
This national policy is rooted in several identities because it combines Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism. Using the Turkish ethnic and linguistic identity, Turkey is intervening in places such as Azerbaijan or Iran, which have large ethnic groups with a Turkish heritage.
Erdoğan has also used Islamic rhetoric to become heavily invested in places in the Arab world, such as Egypt. He actively supports the Muslim brotherhood in their fight against Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean
How is the neo-Ottomanism policy affecting current Turkish political moves? There are multiple examples from the past months that exemplify Turkey’s far-reaching desire for more power.
For example, there is the growing involvement of Turkey in Libya. Turkey supports one side in the civil war, which is combating a faction supported by Egypt. A victory to the Turkish-backed side will have long-ranging effects.
This move is connected to Turkey’s attempt to increase its territorial reach in the Mediterranean. Turkey claims that areas in the Mediterranean that were considered by bordering countries to be international waters are part of its economic waters.
This claim completely ignores the rights of Greece and the interests of Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus. It led to a counter move by Greece and Egypt, who signed a maritime border demarcation agreement on August 6, 2020.
This significant development clearly demonstrates that Turkey is aggressively seeking regional domination not only in the Islamic sphere, but also against European interests, including Greece, France and Italy.
Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
The latest move Turkey is taking is in the conflict zone of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It is populated by Armenians, but was part of Azerbaijan during the Soviet era.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Armenian majority decided to unite with Armenia, bringing about a civil war with the Azeri minority. That conflict evolved into all-out war with Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The most recent conflict erupted on September 27, 2020. According to the Gulf Times, Armenia’s defense ministry said, “Our response will be proportionate, and the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan bears full responsibility for the situation.” Azerbaijan denied the Armenian defense ministry statement, saying it had “complete advantage over the enemy on the front.”
Turkey is heavily involved in this conflict, supplying the Azeri forces with military aid. There are several reports that state that Turkey is also involved in sending mercenaries to fight alongside the Azeri forces in this conflict.
U.K. newspaper The Times has reported that Syrian mercenaries were organized by Ankara to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Times reporters, “Turkey is sending mercenaries to Azerbaijan after two days of clashes with Armenian forces, raising fears that outside powers such as Russia could be drawn into the conflict.”
Russia was quick to point to the crucial part Turkey is playing in this conflict. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists: “We call on all sides, especially partner countries such as Turkey, to do all they can for a ceasefire and get back to a peaceful settlement of this conflict using political and diplomatic means. Any statements about some kind of support and military activity undoubtedly add fuel to the flames. We are categorically against this.”
Turkey’s Expansionist Activities Have Been Noticed by European Powers, Including France
These power-grabbing moves have not gone unnoticed by European forces, especially France, who is worried about this growing expansion into spheres of influence that were traditionally French. In recent months, Turkey has attempted to gain even more influence in parts of Africa.
The latest involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, an area that France has been actively trying to bring peace to for several decades, led President Macron to condemn Turkey and Erdoğan. According to France 24, Macron said, “I have noted Turkey’s political statements which I think are reckless and dangerous. France remains extremely concerned about the bellicose comments that Turkey made in the last hours, which essentially remove any inhibitions from Azerbaijan in what would be a reconquest of northern Karabakh. That we will not accept.”
He also appeared to voice support for the Armenian capital of Yerevan: “I say to Armenia and to the Armenians, France will play its role.”
The US Needs to Pay Attention to Erdoğan’s Goals and Form a Strategy
The issue of Erdoğan and his quest for greater power is not going away. Eventually, it could involve U.S. interests, first and foremost the United States Air Force base in Incirlik. This air base houses nuclear weapons and has strategic importance in light of its proximity to Russia and hotspots in the Middle East.
The U.S needs to quickly formalize a strategy as far as Erdoğan is concerned. He is not going to change.
About the Author
Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B. in Law, an LL.B. in Law and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University.
He has published a book, “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 17 articles in leading scholarly journals. At AMU, he teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.
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