Turkey is currently waging three and a half wars. Military operations began in the east, in Iraq, with the oldest conflict and have continued through Syria to the most recent conflict in Libya in the west. The “half war” is a confrontation with the Greeks.
The fact that Turkey is currently pursuing its hegemonic claims so aggressively has consequences not only for the Mediterranean countries and their neighbors in the Middle East. It also concerns NATO, of which Turkey has been a member for almost 70 years, and the European Union. Formal accession talks are still ongoing, but the EU and Turkey are increasingly becoming competitors and opponents. Whether on the refugee issue, on energy issues or on pacifying the European neighborhood – the Turkish government takes positions that are incompatible with the European ones.
The Turkish army has been in operation in Syria since 2016, the operations have flowery names such as “Euphrates shield” in the Jarabulus area, “Olive branch” in Afrin, “Peace source” in the cities of Tall Abyad and Ras al-Ain or “Spring shield” in Idlib. For a while, they were compatible with European goals, when Turkish soldiers fought against “Islamic State” jihadists. But mostly the Turks marched against Kurdish militias, which were well on the way to establishing a coherent state structure or at least an autonomous region on the border with Turkey. Today, Erdogan has brought a significant part of northern Syria under his control with Russian toleration and even introduced the lira in Idlib as an official means of payment.
The third and most dangerous expansion area for Turkey in Europe is the Mediterranean. The war in Libya is related to the struggle for mining rights. Long before Turkish military advisers landed in Libya, the Turks fought with their neighbors over the right to drill for natural gas in the Mediterranean. Greece and Cyprus, as well as Israel and Egypt follow the international maritime law convention UNCLOS and drill for raw materials in their waters.
Turkey has never recognized UNCLOS and was alone in the region. Until Erdogan persuaded the troubled government in Tripoli last year to divide a significant part of the Mediterranean into Turkish and Libyan “exclusive economic zones”. Turkey claims, among other things, Greek areas near Crete and the Dodecanese Islands, where rich natural gas deposits are suspected. In return, Erdogan is now strengthening Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s government with drones, militias and military advisers. That turned the strategic situation, unlike in Iraq and Syria. Success there is moderate, the PKK and related Kurdish militias continue to fight, and the Turks must always assure themselves of Putin’s mercy. In contrast, Turkey has become the most important player in Libya.
This position gives Erdogan the confidence to challenge all of Turkey’s Mediterranean neighbors at the same time. Erdogan exchanges war threats with Egypt. He sends Turkish drilling ships into waters south of Cyprus and threatens the Greeks with his navy. In the middle of the week, a Turkish exploration ship for test drilling set off for the Greek island of Kastellorizo. According to media reports, the Greeks put their army on alert. Erdogan sent refugees to the Greek border in February. Then he posed in front of maps on which Greek islands are assigned to Turkey. He repeatedly questioned the Lausanne Agreement, which established the borders between Turkey and Greece in 1923.
When Europeans look at Turkey, they think of refugees, accession negotiations and sometimes human rights violations. They overlook deep changes in the country. Turkey has the military strength for these missions. Above all, it has the will to play off this strength. And it creates an associated ideology.
The Turkish army is considered to be the second strongest in NATO, but it was long dependent on imports for its equipment, annoying for Tayyip Erdogan. Whether for tanks or airplanes, the Turkish government always has to deal with restrictive “end-use declarations” of the Germans or with technology from the Americans. In some cases, there are even embargoes from the NATO partners. “We always wanted to produce our own tanks,” said former Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül. Arms independence is the motto.
Domestic armaments production was increased under the Erdogan government. In February he boasted that the share of in-house production of armaments had “skyrocketed” from 20 to 70 percent during his reign. Arms exports in 2019 were $ 3.68 billion. By 2023, when the Republic celebrates its 100th anniversary, Erdogan plans to triple its size.
In fact, Turkey has been producing warships for a long time. The Dearsan shipyard in Istanbul produces patrol boats, the Gölçük shipyard in Izmit submarines, the Sedef shipyard builds an amphibious assault ship. Turkish ships are important to assert claims in the Mediterranean and to circumvent the arms embargo in Libya.
Recently, Turkey invested a lot of time, money and energy in the development of the Bayraktar TB-2 combat drone. The heavily armed aircraft has been instrumental in driving back General Haftar’s militias in Libya. The Turkish military previously used the drone on other battlefields, in southeastern Turkey and in Syria against Kurdish militias. The Bayraktar TB-2 were also recently stationed in Northern Cyprus.
State founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did not believe in the expansionist aspirations of the Ottoman Empire, the historical predecessor of modern Turkey. He saw this as a reason for the decline of the empire: it had overstretched. He wanted a “neutral” Turkey, being self-sufficient. Ataturk’s maxim was: “Peace at home, peace in the world!” During the Cold War, the country turned west, and in 1952 it became a member of NATO. The western bond deepened at some point with the desire to become an EU member.
In 2009, Erdogan’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu drafted a new diplomatic doctrine: the “zero problems” policy with the neighbors. The “zero” didn’t mean that you didn’t want to get involved, on the contrary. Turkey as a big brother, who ensures order and therefore “zero problems” – that was how they wanted to be seen. This policy seemed just right at the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011. However, with the suppression of the uprisings, the Turkish hope of being able to lead Arab governments under the banner of political Islam failed.
Today Turkey no longer relies on soft power, but on drones and warships. The further EU membership moves, the greater the claim to hegemony in the Middle East. This ambition is again embedded in a new doctrine: alone against the rest. This is a politically instrumented reading of the founding myth of the republic. The Turkish national movement under Ataturk had to fight for the independence of the country after a lost war and the decline of the Ottoman Empire against western powers.
With the attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016 and the EU solidarity towards Ankara, cautious from a Turkish perspective, Turkey and Europe became further alienated. At that time, Erdogan found new allies in right and left nationalists in army and politics. Today there is a military doctrine called “Blue Home”, which stands for the claims of the country in the eastern Mediterranean. According to political scientist Ilhan Üzgel, this foreign policy is based on three essential elements: militarization, “cross-border national defense” (also with the use of Arab-Islamist mercenaries) and the development of the armaments industry. It also includes long-term deployment of soldiers abroad – Turkey’s security is also defended in Somalia.
In Turkey, this new self-image is particularly suitable for critics of the Western orientation, the “Eurasian” politicians, officers and intellectuals who want to locate their country eastwards and who are better placed near Russia, Iran and China. In their view, the West is the enemy. Eurasian politicians have gained influence after the 2016 coup attempt and Erdogan’s alliance with the right-wing nationalists. Erdogan’s close coordination with Russian President Putin against the West fits perfectly into their concept. Russian and Turkish Eurasians meet regularly.
For Europe, this new Turkey is no longer the learned candidate for accession. No country that would modestly knock on the door in Brussels and look forward to admission. Erdogan is smart enough to officially pursue accession negotiations with the EU and to maintain NATO membership. These ties increase the weight of Turkey in its negotiations with Russia or Iran. But values no longer matter. The EU and Germany will no longer reach Turkey with lukewarm warnings and balanced travel advice from the German Foreign Office. They even run the risk of no longer being taken seriously.
Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell, is therefore calling on EU countries to become more militarily involved in their neighborhood. For example with a peacekeeping mission in Libya. That would fit into a “geopolitical” EU, as the Commission describes its own goal. To someone who learns the “language of power”, as her foreign minister Josep Borrell asked.