The Mediterranean Sea has witnessed the rise and fall of numerous powerful empires, from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians, to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire once stretched from the Middle East to the heart of Europe, and Russia to Sub Saharan Africa. After centuries of oppression and decline, it collapsed due to the events leading up to World War 1. But these days a new power is on the rise, the Neo-Ottoman empire, under the rule of a new Turkish Sultan, by the name Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan and his Islamist party colleagues regularly describe themselves as the “grandchildren” of the Ottomans. In this very pointed genealogy, Erdogan purposefully skips a generation, that of Turkey’s republican fathers of 1923, to leapfrog back in time to when the Ottomans ruled the globe, with their brand of Turkish Sunni Islamic politics, and to days when wars and domestic repression led to wealth and territorial power at the expense of others.
The recreation of a Neo-Ottoman Empire is dangerous for the people of Turkey, the Middle East, Europe, and indeed the rest of the world. To make Turkey Ottoman again requires the kind of violence, censorship, and vitriol that Erdogan has indeed shown himself ready to use.
Not so long ago, Turkey seemed to have found the elusive formula for foreign policy success. Its philosophy of, “zero problems with neighbors,” won praise both at home and abroad, as Ankara reengaged with the Middle East following a half-century of estrangement. It expanded business and trade links with Arab states, as well as Iran, lifted visa restrictions with neighboring countries, and even helped mediate some of the region’s toughest disputes, brokering talks between Syria and Israel, Fatah and Hamas, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Just a few years later, in the wake of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, that once-reliable formula was thrown out in favor of extremism, and aggressive expansion.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now burned his bridges with the military regime in Egypt, squabbled with Gulf monarchies for refusing to stand by deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, started a war of words with Israel for having a hand in the coup that removed Morsy from power, and over Palestine.
Erdogan has invaded Syria and Iraq under a false pretense of removing Kurdish terrorists from its borders. All the while, flooding Europe with the refugees from the warzones it helped create, extorting billions from the European Union, and threatening any politicians who stand against him. Not to mention, alienating allies in NATO, creating a standoff with Greece and Cyprus, and actively transporting and exporting terrorists abroad.
Erdogan was not content for Turkey to be an inspiration for the Muslim world. He wants leadership of the Muslim world. He sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, when it took power from the military-backed Hosni Mubarak. He deliberately dialed down Turkish relations with Israel, to win legitimacy in the Arab world. He even threw his support behind the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, in the 2008-09 Gaza War. However, these all turned out to be strategic miscalculations.
Egypt’s generals only allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power so it could fail. The Islamists, suppressed for decades, predictably overreached, alarming secular Egyptians, liberals, and Copts. Inexperienced, they were unable to prevent an economic collapse. Within a year, the military was back in charge, supported by the wealthy monarchies of the Persian Gulf, and western backers. Additionally, for the first time in history, the Egyptian Navy sent warships to the Black Sea to conduct a joint-training drill with the Russians in November 2020.
The same alliance plus Russia are aligned against Turkey in Libya, where they support the pro-western warlord Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of the country and its oil industry. Erdogan has sent pro-Turkish Syrian terrorists to North Africa, in a last-ditch attempt to save the coalition government in Tripoli, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood. This was to try and secure construction contracts, funding, and political support for Erdogan’s failing economy. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed on a truce there and in Syria, but it remains to be seen if their allies and proxies will obey it.
Greece and Turkey have had hostile relations going back to the Ottoman era, whereby the Turks subjected the Greeks to centuries of atrocities, destruction, and genocide. Even after Greeks lost most of their land, history, and gained independence, Turkey invaded majority-Greek Cyprus in 1974, to prop up the Turkish minority on the island, which has been divided ever since. Border disputes in the Aegean Sea remain unresolved. This looks like another desperate attempt, in this case, to stop Cyprus, Greece, and Israel from developing newly found natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish diplomacy failed to prevent a deal between the three countries, so Erdogan is resorting to strong-arm tactics.
Turkish aggression has only driven Greece, Cyprus, and Israel closer, as of January 2nd, 2020, they have signed the East Gas Pipeline deal, cutting out Turkey from the pie. These countries have increased cooperation, as an unofficial alliance against Turkey, “From Defence and Security to Technology, Research, Water Resources Management, Desalination, Renewable Energy Sources, Environmental Protection, and Health, particularly during these difficult times of the COVID pandemic, Education and the management of our common Cultural Heritage. And, of course, cooperation among our communities abroad,” Greek President of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Nikos Dendias said.
Erdogan’s offensive against the Kurds in Syria, with whom the Israelis sympathize, has not helped. Nor is it the first Turkish expansion into Syrian native territory, as in 1939 Turkey seized Hatay province from Syria by force. Recently, in some areas the Turks have moved the border wall into Syrian lands, effectively annexing more territories. Also, Erdogan’s scapegoating of Turkey’s own Kurds has been the final straw for many Europeans, who were skeptical of his “Muslim democracy” from the start. As Turkish aggression against all neighbors and internal opponents does not cease, it only takes a break.
When Erdogan’s party lost its majority in the 2015 election, in part because a Kurdish-led left-wing party cleared the 10 percent electoral threshold for the first time. Far from accepting the need for compromise, Erdogan pulled out of ceasefire talks with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and launched wide-scale repression of all Kurdish nationalists. Political leaders were jailed. Militant leaders were killed. After widespread repression, in re-elections five months later, Erdogan restored his absolute majority in the National Assembly.
When soldiers attempted to overthrow Erdogan a year later, still he refused to recognize he had pushed Turkey to the brink. Rather, Erdogan used the failed coup as an excuse to jail the remaining critics in the armed forces and the media. Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country. Even a correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, was jailed for a year but never charged with a crime, and claims to have been tortured there.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told reporters in July 2016, that 9,322 people were under legal proceedings concerning the attempted coup. Around 50,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants, and teachers were suspended or detained since the coup attempt, authorities shut down media outlets deemed to be supportive of the opposition, and said 15,000 people had been suspended from the education ministry, along with 100 intelligence officials. A further 492 people were removed from duty at the Religious Affairs Directorate, 257 at the prime minister’s office, and 300 at the energy ministry. The true number of people arrested in this crackdown is likely not in the tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands. Replacing the key society positions in the country with loyalists and Erdogan’s family members.
Abroad, Turkish intelligence is believed to have thousands of informants in Germany alone, which has close to 1.5 million dual German-Turkish citizens, and 2.7 million Turkish citizens overall. Recently, France and Germany have had to outright ban the activates of Turkish right-wing ultra-nationalists, and Erdogan supporters, the Grey Wolves. German Green party lawmaker Cem Ozdemir said he believed the group was the largest right-wing extremist organization in Germany, with up to 20,000 members. These armed ultra-nationalists are effectively Erdogan’s paramilitary wing abroad, responsible for crimes and terrorism against his opponents, including Armenians. The largest Gray Wolves umbrella organization, according to Germany's domestic intelligence service, is the A.D.U.T.F., with some 170 associations and 7,000 members.
Erdogan’s attempts to influence ethnic Turks in Germany, as well as the Netherlands, have aggravated those governments. Erdogan called the Europeans “Nazis,” when they refused to allow him and members of his party to campaign in the Turkish diaspora. He has repeatedly threatened to blow up a migrant deal with Europe, under which Turkey prevents refugees from crossing the Aegean Sea. Erdogan refused to help his allies defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, whose rise Turkey facilitated, by allowing foreign fighters and weapons to cross its border into Syria between 2012 and 2014, when Erdogan hoped to topple Assad, and whose atrocities contributed to the 2015 to 2016 refugee crisis.
European politicians now openly question Turkey’s membership in NATO, especially after purchasing the S400 air defenses from Russia. The Americans are considering pulling their nuclear bombs out of Turkey. Membership of the EU, formally still on the table, is out of the question so long as Erdogan remains in power. Turkey’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy is without doubt reducing the number of countries with which it maintains cordial relations. Ties with the European Union, long considered a linchpin of Turkey’s foreign relations, have descended into a level of acrimony without precedent.
Except for Qatar and the Tripoli-based statelet, Turkey’s relations with Arab countries are awfully bad. On October 4, 2020, Secretary-General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a televised statement: “Turkey is facing a group of differences with regional and superpower parties to a degree that will not end well for it or its leadership.
“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is interfering in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya militarily,” he added. “Erdogan also interfered in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia, collided with Greece and Cyprus, and attacked the eastern Mediterranean in the gas areas, which made a large and influential country like France send fighters and an aircraft carrier to Cyprus.
“Even Italy, which was understanding of many of the Turkish positions, went to France. Everyone is telling Erdogan now that he will face consequences for his actions. “It annoys me that the Syrians were used as mercenaries to fight for Azerbaijan against Armenia. It is very sad that Syrian mercenaries are being used by Erdogan in cases that are related to Turkey,” Aboul Gheit said.
Egyptian political sociologist, Sayid Sadek, said the Arab League should have taken "stronger steps like economic sanctions" to punish Turkey for its aggression. "Turkey is an imperialist regional power with a long history of massacres in the area."
Theodore Karasik, a Washington-based Mideast analyst, insisted that we are "witnessing a shift in the landscape in the Arab world regarding this Turkish military action. Arab opinion," he argues, "is steeped in the ills of the Ottoman Empire and how Erdogan's actions fit the description."
For more than a year, Saudi and Turkish traders have stressed that Saudi Arabia has been enforcing an informal boycott of imports from Turkey. In October, Saudi authorities started calling on their citizens to “boycott everything Turkish,” for pursuing policies that were destabilizing the region. The Saudi move seems to have been followed by unofficial boycott campaigns in other Arab countries.
Erdogan’s visit to Tunisia sent shivers through the spine of the establishment, his ally there is Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, whom a recent poll indicated was not trusted by most Tunisians, and is a dangerous radical.
The risk of a military confrontation between Turkey and its NATO allies, not the least of which are Greece and France, is growing. French President Emmanuel Macron, has been the most vocal critic of Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria. The risk of confrontation with those backing Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have laid siege to Tripoli since last spring, including Egypt, Arab Gulf countries, and France, will increase if Erdogan sends Turkish troops to Tripoli.
However, this has not stopped Sultan Erdogan from setting up numerous overseas positions, to build hard and soft power influences, and recreate his Neo-Ottoman dream. Camp TURKSOM is a military base and a defense university in Mogadishu, Somalia. The military base serves as Turkey's largest overseas military facility. The camp has been one of the symbols, Turkey has utilized to display its expanding economic and geopolitical presence in Eastern Africa. Certain scholars have emphasized that the Turkish military presence in Somalia could pose a threat to countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, countries that are within a regional rivalry against the current Turkey-Qatar alliance. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, of Saudi Arabia, has mentioned that the actions of Turkey reflect Erdogan trying to build an "Ottoman caliphate" in the region.
Neo-Ottomanism, is an ideology that suggests that Turkey is increasingly getting involved in regions that host Muslim countries, or those that used to be within the territories of the Ottoman Empire. Somalia also is situated by world trade routes as well as the Bab-El Mandeb strait, which is a strategic location. Turkish expansionism into the Horn of Africa, with increasing involvement in not only Somalia, but also Djibouti and Sudan, has been seen by political scientists as desperate measures, due to the Turkish state struggling with its destabilized economy, domestic conflicts, and deteriorating relations with traditional allies
The Turkish economy has been in a free fall for the past couple of years. Since the first signs of trouble for the lira appeared, the Turkish central bank has spent billions of dollars to stop the hemorrhaging currency. According to an estimate by US investment bank Goldman Sachs, the country has spent $65 billion in 2020 on propping up its currency. As a result, its gross currency buffers have dropped by more than a third this year, to $49.2 billion, as of July 17, 2020. Including gold, they stand at $89.5 billion.
What is making matters even worse is the central bank was not using only its own reserves, but dollars borrowed from domestic banks, to buy the lira. As a result, it now owes more foreign currency to the banks than it currently has in its coffers. Turkey’s central bank ramped up its key interest rate by a whopping 475 basis points to 15 percent, and pledged to remain tough on inflation in October 2020, meeting lofty expectations after Erdogan installed a new Finance Minister, since his own son-in-law was forced to step down due to incompetence.
These financial troubles have forced Turkey to look abroad for new funding. Turkey and Qatar signed more than 10 deals in November 2020, to free up liquidity and bad debts in its markets. In the previous months, Azerbaijan was forced to sign over lucrative transfer profits to Turkey, in exchange for their assistance in settling the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Armenia. And beyond being a mercenary state for hire, Turkey has begun a new phase of geopolitical and military aggression, through newly formed “drone diplomacy.” The development of Turkish drones from western manufacturers, has enabled Turkey to develop a robust UAV industry. They have been testing their drones in the conflicts of Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and recently inked a deal to export to Ukraine.
In the face of mounting opposition to Turkish aggression, Turkey has been funneling terrorists abroad, with the promise of up to $2000 a month, to fight for them. While this is nothing new, they are making these terrorists a formidable fighting force, by offering Turkish military supervision, training, and the technological benefits of drone warfare. This is a model that is based on traditional Ottoman strategies, but updated using modern unrestricted warfare theory. It is a cheap and effective, highly mobile fighting force, which can be sent anywhere a Turkish plane can fly, tipping the balance in a conflict, but for a fee of course. Currently, Turkey is recruiting terrorists to deploy in the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
The conflict over Kashmir started after the partition of India in 1947. Back then, India and Pakistan claimed the entirety of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Today, India controls over 55% of Kashmir. The remaining part, formally known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir, is administrated by Pakistan. The Syrian Hawar News Agency said on November 9, that Turkey is preparing to deploy Syrian militants in the A.J.K., where they will fight as mercenaries against India. “Turkish intelligence instructed the mercenaries of the Sultan Suleiman Shah Brigade to prepare a list of 100 mercenaries, who will undergo a training course in the Turkish city of Mersin, in preparation for deployment in Kashmir where they will fight against India,” and the Turkish intelligence promised the mercenaries a monthly salary of up to $3,000 during the deployment in Kashmir, the A.N.H.A. said, citing sources familiar with the matter.
Despite Pakistan’s denial, there is a real chance that Turkey is preparing to deploy its proxies in Kashmir. Turkey has a track record of using its Syrian proxies as a pawn to promote its interests in other parts of the world. Between 2019 and 2020, Turkey deployed around 18,000 Syrian militants in Libya, to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. In the second half of 2020, more than 2,000 Syrian militants supported Azerbaijan’s large offensive on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The upcoming few weeks and months will likely reveal more information on the issue.
In the meantime, where there is a crisis there is an opportunity. Ukraine is forming a joint venture company with Turkey to domestically produce as many as 48 Bayraktar T.B.2. combat drones. The news came from Vadym Ihorovych, General Director of a state-owned Ukrainian defense manufacturer.
On the possibility of exporting the drones to a third country, Ihorovych said the two companies have agreed to let Ukraine export them to any country, barring those to which Turkey already exports the drones. “There is already an agreement with the Turkish side that we do not go to those countries where they are already present with these products, to Azerbaijan for example,” he said. Ukraine bought its first 6 Bayraktar drones and 3 control stations in 2019, while the Ukrainian military underwent training in Turkey.
The arming of Ukraine is in line with western power’s goals of destroying Russia. Erdogan has stated he will never recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, and western powers have been funding Ukraine’s government, which is being used to contract expertise and equipment from partners such as Turkey, for the end goal of using the Ukrainians to engage a proxy war against Russia.
With the Armenian conflict with Azerbaijan calmed by the presence of Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh, essentially cutting Turkey out of the deal, the next move for Erdogan’s fledgling economy may be with Georgia. Georgia is a country that is not only hostile towards Russia, but is pro-western, and has extensive cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan. The country has benefited greatly from the joint Turkish-Azeri aggression and isolation against Armenia. However, they have seen the regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia try to break away, after being attacked by Georgian troops in 2008. This led to Russia protecting the regions in the same way it is in Nagorno-Karabakh today. Which provides fertile ground for Erdogan to seek expansion into the Caucasus, as another point of conflict to weaken Russia.
Never has the Turkish economy been so weak, has it been at odd with so many neighbors, and at the same time aggressively expanding territory, bases, and influence abroad, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. In many ways, the illegal actions of Erdogan are in line with modern unconditional warfare theory, and western goals, especially when it comes to countering Russia geopolitically, but in reality, he is seeking his own goals for domination.
Sultan Erdogan has brought wars to Turkey on several fronts, and at the same time managed to isolate itself with most of its neighbors and superpowers. Once allies of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, have become estranged geopolitical opponents, and in the long-term view will eventually become forced to either submit to the Neo-Ottoman will, or fight. Even more dangerous is the actions taken against Russia, which has fought 16 wars with Turkey over the years, and it is only a matter of time before the next one.
Will Erdogan survive long enough to see his dream of becoming a regional superpower come to fruition, or will he fall into the chaos that has swept away all other dictators of the region? One thing is certain, his time is running out!
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