Ankara (GPA) – Yesterday we announced the launch of our series of stories on the current situation in Turkey, this is part two of that ongoing series.
With multiple foreign military adventures, a tumbling lira, spiking COVID cases, and various condemnations from most of the outside world, what are the prospects for Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s grasp on power?
Geopolitics Alert will seek to answer these questions and more in the next several days in order to bring our readers up to speed on the current situation in Turkey and to explain what all this may mean for the future. Check back with Geopolitics Alert every day for these updates that will run until early next week.
Foreign Adventures: Restoring Turkish Prestige
For a NATO member, Turkey sure has been busy launching military operations and building bases across the MENA region against the wishes of the coalition. Even when a body such as NATO or the EU does finally scream “for the love of God, you’re making it worse” this only makes Ankara more obstinant.
There are several of these highly controversial operations to focus on for this section including Turkey’s recently increased involvement in a chaotic Libya and the heightening tension with Greece over oil in the Mediterranean Sea. While the Libyan and Greek conflicts are currently in the news, Erdogan’s ambitions for Turkey were first put on full display through years of operations across Turkey’s southern borders with Iraq and Syria and their cooperation with known Salafist groups, Al-Qaeda linked militias, and even the Islamic State (IS).
Syria and ISIS
Any regular reader of Geopolitics Alert will likely be familiar with our extensive coverage of Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict from the earliest days in the war when Turkey was basically bussing jihadists over their border with Syria and buying oil stolen by IS valued at several million dollars a day. These connections were so blatant that even a former US Air Force colonel publicly spoke about Turkey engaging in these activities, although he later claimed that these problems weren’t serious enough to warrant confronting an ally.
This continued all throughout the war even as IS grew into the West’s top priority after it was obvious that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, now backed by Russia, wasn’t going anywhere.
At some point, the majority of IS fighters ended up scattered throughout Syria and Iraq following the loss of land that previously comprised their “caliphate.” Yet most of the foreign fighters that comprised IS have not returned to their countries of origin and nobody is dumb enough to believe they just retired. What really happened is that some members of IS were captured and are primarily in Kurdish custody, the former IS fighters that did escape went on to join new organizations such as the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jahbat al-Nusra (later Jahbat Fatah al-Sham). While these are only two of many different factions in the “Syrian resistance,” most smaller militias were compelled by necessity to form coalitions that became dominated by the Salafists.
The formation of these umbrella organizations still proved to be insufficient in holding back Syrian troops and Russian bombs. Many of the fighters involved in battles and sieges happening all across Syria ended up surrendering and this time, were given a one-way bus ride to Idlib in northwest Syria.
Predictably, putting all these extremists in one place immediately turned into a bloodbath from the jihadist infighting to claim the leadership over Idlib. This mess was only cleaned up following agreements by Russia and Turkey thanks to Ankara’s ties to all these groups. Turkey, now acting as the negotiator for the Syrian “opposition,” agreed to establish ceasefires and observation posts to be manned by Turkish troops. The Turks were also supposed to participate in joint patrols with Russians to make sure the de-escalation agreements were enforced.
Idlib & the birth of the SNA
Like any good ceasefire with a non-state actor, the Syrian agreements did not hold up long.
Instead, this increased Turkish presence around Idlib became a force for organizing the jihadists. The jihadists now no longer had a reason to fight to decide who would be the temporary kings of Idlib but instead started to fight for influence with Turkey. This access to Idlib granted to Turkey suddenly made them the top power-broker in the Syrian opposition, edging out the previous control exerted by more traditional terror funders like the Saudis and Emiratis. In this perfect storm, the jihadists were reformed yet again into a bastardized, fully Turkish controlled, version of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which was now called the Syrian National Army (SNA). Unsurprisingly the SNA has the same membership all these groups in Idlib had going back to their arrival and have effectively become the shock troops and colonizing force for the Turkish army in Syria.
The evolution of the SNA: Shock Troops to Ethnic Cleansers
This new role for the SNA has been on display in every operation by Turkey in northern Syria, with the rebels carrying out attacks on the Syrian army, Russians, and even the US while Turkish troops happen to “look the other way.” The rebels’ first use in this manner was in the mostly-Kurdish city of Afrin, which had become a power-base for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization deemed terrorists by NATO. While the Turkish military supplied logistical and artillery support for the Afrin operation, it was the SNA that did most of the actual fighting in the streets. As the operation evolved, so did the SNA, growing into an occupation force, working as police officers, teaching in Turkish schools, stealing Kurdish homes, and working for Turkish government offices that have sprung up across Syria.
This strategy of occupation and ethnic cleansing repeated every time a new Turkish operation was launched into Syria and is the current situation in Idlib, where Turkey is financing major construction projects.
According to Ankara, the purpose of these operations has been to create a PKK-free safe-zone in northern Syria to eliminate the threat of the terrorists gaining even more of a foothold in the area. While this is all true, much like with everything Erdogan does, there were also domestic motivations for these operations to play to the AKP’s base at home.
The Turkish Nationalism Driving Syria Policy
Nationalist sentiments have always played a large role in Turkish governance and when you add in the AKP’s Islamism the projects in Syria were seen as positives by voters in Turkey who already held anti-Kurdish sentiments. Erdogan’s Syria strategy was also built upon the neo-Ottomanism and its obsession with the historical shame of the empire’s fall. This is how Erdogan has effectively folded many of the other far-right nationalists into the AKP coalition.
The only problem for Erdogan is that when you base your electoral success at home on adventures abroad, those adventures should also be successful. While Erdogan does occasionally still talk about the imaginary goal of removing Assad to domestic audiences and of victories against the PKK, it has to be pretty clear to even the most loyal Erdogan supporters that Idlib will not be appearing on any official maps of Turkey anytime soon. When an operation by a NATO member goes so far south that even the US is complaining about abuses by Turkish proxies, the writing on the wall becomes increasingly clear.
The Significance of Libya
With the Syria invasion a fading dream, Turkey has had to look for other places to show off their carefully manufactured image as a regional power. This started small, with moves by the Turks like building a new military base in Somalia, but the real target of expanding Turkish ambitions quickly proved to be Libya.
Unlike Syria, in Libya, Erdogan is actually on the side of the Western-backed forces but as with all things Erdogan, he’s still managed to anger everyone. Despite western support for Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), Turkey took NATO involvement a step further by violating an arms embargo, putting a heavy Turkish finger on the scales of the war for Libya in an effort to secure the nation’s vast oil wealth.
How Erdogan Revved Up the Libyan Conflict and the Fight for Oil
In a matter of weeks, Erdogan managed to restart a full-blown war in Libya, backing the forces of the GNA in the battle for Tripoli against Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA). This is when the flow of Turkish support escalated and was then universally denounced by the international community. This hasn’t stopped Erdogan, who has only increased Turkish involvement in Libya and found it to be the perfect place to transfer the rebels of the failed Syrian war to a new theater.
The fight in Libya is one waged over control of the vast oil resources and a battleground for the current Sunni-split that has seen Turkey acting as an extremist counterweight to the other radicals in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Egypt, and their new pal Israel. It is impossible to predict what will happen in Libya as Turkey expands their presence there but the victory in Tripoli and the growing rebel propaganda from Libya is likely playing well to AKP voters.
Gas Wars: Reigniting the Fight With Greece and Cyprus
Turkey isn’t just exerting this new expansionist policy to the south, but Erdogan has also managed to reignite the historic tensions between Greeks and Turks. This is being done primarily through gas politics as Turkey continues to issue contradictory statements about drilling in the Mediterranean sea.
Initially, Turkey planned to start drilling for natural gas off the coast of Cyprus in mid-July but after yet another uproar with the EU, Erdogan temporarily delayed the exploration and drilling projects. At the same time, Erdogan was making these promises to hold off on the controversial drilling project, the Trump regime ended up making things worse by ending a decades-long arms embargo on Cyprus ad agreeing to joint training exercises with Cypriot security forces. As of August seventh, Turkey announced the resumption of drilling off Cyprus but is also claiming there are no grounds for a legal dispute since the territorial water agreements between Greece and Egypt actually infringes on Turkey’s continental shelf so therefore the drilling is completely legal as long as you’re high enough on the fumes of Ottoman revisionism.
Hagia Sophia: Leading the Ummah and the Erasure of the Secular Republic
And speaking of those fumes of Ottoman revisionist glory, another recent and major nod to Erdogan’s base was the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum back into an active mosque. There are arguments to be made that since the iconic building was a mosque before, and that it is Turkish state property they can do what they want, but even this power to convert the building’s purpose was granted to Erdogan’s office through constitutional and administrative changes within the last year.
Yet none of these legal arguments that dominate most media coverage of Hagia Sophia’s status adequately cover the motivations for the change. Much like the grand imperial adventures, the conversion of Hagia Sophia is yet another move by Erdogan to throw red meat to his base while simultaneously continuing his obsession with erasing the legacy the secular republic and Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), the AKP’s main opposition previously in charge of Turkey for the majority of its existence.
Hagia Sophia’s Modern Legacy and the Islamists Today
It was Ataturk who originally ended Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque and converted it into a museum as a part of the massive state efforts post-World War One to secularize and westernize the country by force. Ataturk was an admirer of some of the ideas of the western enlightenment as far as interpreting religion as a reactionary force impeding progress. Which led to the contracting of European architects and city planners to erase the legacies attached to important Ottoman historical sites.
To the AKP, this erasure of Ottoman glory is the real insult and historical mistake. The Islamists view the history of secularization as a direct attack on their religion and their identity tied to a shared imperial heritage. This is why the conversion of Hagia Sophia is domestically a political win for Erdogan. Not only can he point to the mosque as a return to the true Turkish heritage, but he can also point to the international backlash as further evidence the Turks are hated by a West inherently hostile to Islam.
What makes the conversion of Hagia Sophia unique is that this is the largest overture to Ottoman revisionists so far in his time in power but it is far from the first controversy over the conversion of sites previously repurposed or demolished by Ataturk. Even the first signs of the AKP’s hostility to this legacy have been public knowledge for years.
Descent into Authoritarianism
In fact, one of Erdogan’s first displays of his hostility towards democracy and penchant for authoritarianism was during the 2013 Gezi Park protests that were sparked when Istanbul authorities announced they’d be demolishing one of the city’s few remaining parks to build on the location. One proposed part of the construction for the site included a plan to rebuild part of the site in the original style of the Ottoman-era barracks that used to occupy the park.
Moves like these as well as the international condemnations of the ensuing crackdowns to inevitable domestic protests in Turkey all play right into Erdogan’s hands. The Turkish President’s obsession with the past is the perfect tool to constantly frame Turkish Muslims as the global victim, wrongfully punished simply for having pride.
All of these outside factors of Turkish policy still manage to play a large role at home and are often tools of Erdogan’s domestic bluster. Whether it is is the old feuds with Europe or the shame of losing one of the world’s longest-standing empires, Turkey has centuries of perceived embarrassment to make up for. While sometimes that is done abroad, tomorrow we will cover some of the ramifications of what Turkey’s foreign adventures have done to the homefront.