The end of the Cold War gave Turkey, a large and important country in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin, greater freedom of action in its foreign policy. Turkey’s ambitious and expansionist leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has capitalized on this and on US isolationist tendencies in enhancing Turkey’s international standing.
Erdoğan’s AKP, which came to power in 2002, a party that can be described as a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood, has systematically engaged in policies designed to restore the country’s Islamic character in the public sphere and at all levels of its educational system. Alongside, the political system underwent a transition to authoritarian rule commensurate with Erdogan’s domineering personality. At the same time, Erdogan’s Turkey seeks to enhance its regional and international status – with overt references to the bygone glory of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey aims for regional hegemony, undermining the existing political order in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is very active in the Muslim nations in a quest for a leadership role. It has established a military presence in Iraq, Syria, the Gulf (Qatar), and Somalia. Recently it has been challenging Greek sovereignty in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean (by claiming an Economic Exclusive Zone “border” with Libya), posing a challenge to the plans to export gas from Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus to European markets.
It intervened militarily in Libya eyeing its energy riches and hoping to capitalize on its coast (a springboard for illegal immigration) to gain additional leverage on the EU. It is seeking to consolidate influence in Lebanon and Gaza, as well as Balkan lands that once were under Ottoman rule.
The political changes in Turkey reflect long-term trends in Turkish society and foreign policy, that will not disappear even when the Erdoğan era ends. Turkey’s frictions with Israel likewise reflect a distancing from the West and an effort to gain points the Muslim world.
Caution is recommended in the attempts to restrain Turkey, as the West has no interest in pushing this powerful country into the Russian orbit. It should be borne in mind that under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey has demonstrated a certain degree of pragmatism when President Trump threatened to destroy its economy.
Even regarding the Jewish state, it has not completely severed its diplomatic relations with Israel, with which it maintains extensive economic ties, alongside mutual air traffic that is important for Turkey’s tourist trade including securing access for Muslim visitors to Jerusalem and particularly the Temple Mount.
Consequently, it behooves Western powers to distinguish between Turkey’s current leader and Turkish society as a whole, to preserve the possibility of better relations with a future government that is not under AKP control, or a government based on moderate elements in the party. Turkey, now a questionable NATO member, with a well-integrated economy in a globalized world is not Iran. Its status in the G-20 and its relations with the US are important to Turkey.
At recent summits of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) and in tripartite summits of the leaders of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece it has been emphasized that the new regional alignment does not seek to exclude Turkey – if its leadership chooses to cooperate.
At the same time, the West needs to identify the levers of influence that will make it possible to restrain the ambitions of the current Turkish leadership. This relates foremost to the economic realm, which has been the source of Erdoğan’s power and has become his Achilles heel. The aim is to prevent him from posing threats to vital Western interests and to its partners in the region (and in particular to Egypt’s stability).
Most diplomatic activity on the Turkish issue must focus on Washington, seeking to harness the US (both the administration and Congress) in the effort to curb Erdoğan. The experience of recent years indicates that despite expressions of contempt, Erdoğan is leery of a direct confrontation with Washington.
It is also important to increase European awareness of Turkey’s problematic behavior. Unfortunately, the EU is hardly a strategic player despite its capability to inflict economic damage on Turkey. Brussels, torn between contrasting perspectives of its members towards Turkey, has difficulties designing effective policies to restrain Ankara.
Meanwhile, the challenged regional powers are left with the task to stop Turkey. Egypt, Greece, Israel and the United Arab Emirates must work together to contain Turkey. The recent Israel-UAE peace agreement was much about establishing a strong alignment to influence Ankara to change its ways. This can be done in tandem with the measures now being taken by France, which is waging a diplomatic campaign as well as demonstrating a military presence in the eastern Mediterranean (in Libya and Lebanon).
The Balkan countries, too, suffered under the Ottoman yoke in the past and are fearful of Turkey. Romania and Bulgaria (which are EU members) as well as Serbia and Kosovo (which are knocking on its door) are natural partners in this effort.
Turkey’s actions threaten the stability of the region. The implications of the strengthening of the Turkish naval fleet and is aggressive doctrine must be carefully considered. Considering Erdoğan’s statements, developments in the Turkish nuclear domain need to be similarly monitored to prevent nuclear proliferation.
The EU must wake up. It should make clear its commitment to defend the legal rights of its members – Greece and Cyprus. Conveying without any ambiguity to Ankara that harsh economic sanctions will follow any Turkish aggression is imperative. The EU has to announce its unequivocal solidarity with the concerns of the French president Sarkozy and back its military moves. Furthermore, the EU should try to enlist the US to join this course of action. Turkey plays power politics and only a determined united Western position can deter Turkey from further mischief.