- Polemics: Will Turkey become a leader of the Middle East?
- Situation Report: Turkey’s growing assertiveness
- Review: “Erbakan, Kısakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey” by Svante E. Cornell
Polemics: Will Turkey become a leader of the Middle East?
In his book “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century” George Friedman predicts that Turkey will become a new world power by the end of this century. Indeed, under the AKP leadership, Turkey has reflected “a newly-acquired self-confidence” in its foreign policy. The regional power ambitions of the country were clearly visible, especially under prime minister Davutoğlu. He believed that Turkey’s unique geographical and historical characteristics define it as a “central country with multiple regional identities” and that Turkey should be a central player in its areas of influence. However, since the Arab spring, regional developments have indicated that Tukey might not be able to take advantage of its geographic and cultural predispositions and tap its full potential for various reasons. In this week’s polemics, we discuss if Turkey will or will not become the leader of the Middle East.
Turkey will become the leader of the Middle East
Turkey will become the leader of the Middle East because of a variety of positive predispositions. The country has a unique potential to serve as a bridge between East and West, stemming from two different features: the physical, or rather a geographical one, and the one of identity, which comes from the people.
Although only a small part of the Turkish territory lies on European soil, Turkey controls the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, arguably some of the most critical straits in the world. Because of that, the Black Sea is essentially a NATO lake, with Russia being the only non-NATO or non-Allied country in the region. Turkey, therefore, controls access to Russian warm water ports. Another advantage Turkey could use is its sheer size. It is a large and diverse country, with many opportunities for development that other Middle Eastern countries lack, even more so the arid ones.
The identity aspect might be even more important. Despite Turkey being a secular republic with cities like Izmir or Istanbul looking mostly European, 98% of its population are Muslims.
Turkish population carefully balances itself between the conservative Islamic tendencies and democratic, or even liberal values that we sometimes brand as “Western”. Again, if someone is qualified to understand the differences and the commonalities between the Western civilization and Islamic East – and use this understanding to their advantage in culture, business, politics, or even war – it is Turks.
Turkey has more than 80 million people, making it the 16th biggest population in the world and the 3rd biggest in the Middle East. In addition, it is quite educated, with more Turks having access to university education than ever before, in some instances of very good quality. But even more significant role than before might be played by the fact that half of the Turkish population, its women, is employable. This stems from two things. Historically, since the creation of the Turkish Republic, the role of women has changed significantly. Women now play a more prominent role in public life and politics than before. Currently, still, a lot of Turkish women stay at home and do not work. But there is a significant probability that the current generation of women aged 25-35 years, who attended universities and their life was more “westernized”, will not want to follow the life paths of their mothers. Compared to other more traditional Islamic societies Turkish population that actively participates in the economy and on the creation of wealth, is and will be much bigger.
Unlike other Middle Eastern countries, perhaps except Israel, Turkey has a relatively extensive manufacturing sector. Furthermore, what might be even more important, the country and its companies, both private and state-owned, are capable of independent research and development. This fact might be significant regarding armed forces and weapons development. Turkey currently has access to the state-of-the-art military technology and it will very likely continue the technological development. It is the only country in the region that could be in a matter of years completely independent of foreign weapons suppliers. Turkey is actively pursuing this path and is hoping to turn into an exporter.
Turkey has the chance to be a large and successful economy despite the lack of natural resources that other countries in the region possess. Moreover, strong economies that were developed on something else than natural resources are much more capable of sustaining their wealth.
The economic power combined with a sizeable population and readily available technology translates into a big and powerful military. Turkey still has, and in the foreseeable future will have, the second biggest armed forces in NATO. Besides being sizeable, they can project power independently – an increasingly rare capability among the armies of NATO – they are able to logistically sustain themselves, and they have operation experience upon which they can build. Unlike their Arab counterparts, perhaps except Jordan, the Turkish armed forces command respect and their only comparable counterpart in the region is much smaller Israel.
To sum up, Turkey has every predisposition to become the leader of the Middle East. Moreover, besides the physical features, demography, economy, and army, the Turkish Republic still hugely profits from a relatively manageable relationship with the West and membership in NATO. Although this relationship is now in something that we might brand as a “crisis”, the relations have been somewhat of a rollercoaster for the better part of the last 70 years and will most likely never deteriorate completely because of the mutual benefits shared between the West and Turkey.
Turkey will not become the leader of the Middle East
Turkey remains a declining power which is going to be prevented from becoming a leader of the Middle East by complex regional context, identity clash, and internal instability. Two contested concepts in international relations will help better understand the reasons behind this claim – the region and power.
The region of Middle East is historically a highly contested term. Most broadly, it is the area on the crossroads of the Arab population and Muslim faith. For this reason, Turkey is sometimes excluded from the region altogether, referred to as the “big brother”. Historically, Pan-Arabism has been the power ideology of aspiring leaders of the Middle East, like in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. Turkey, a Turkic nation, has a big deficit in trying to lead the Arab world. Moreover, nationalism is now on the rise globally and Turkish nationalism is still a basis of its power. But Arab nationalism has a strong connection to an Anti-Ottoman sentiment in the Arab nations of the Middle East, creating another obstacle to Erdogan’s regional aspirations.
With the resurgence of political Islam in Turkey, it could aspire to become the leader based on faith. Looking solely at the Middle East, it is hardly imaginable that Turkey could overcome regional sectarianism to unify all Muslims of the Middle East. There is hardly a void to fill for Turkey. In fact, there is been a ‘Cold War’ over the dominance in the Middle East and a leading role of the Muslims between Iran and Saudi Arabia since the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. Both countries are fighting proxy wars over influence on the region in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, and sectarianism is the backbone of their fight.
Taking power into account, simply from the materialist point of view, we have to focus on the economy, military, population, and politics. Economically, Turkey is indeed the strongest but is closely followed by Saudi Arabia and not so far ahead of Iran. Moreover, although the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has great plans for Turkey to rise, in PwC forecasts for 2030 and 2050 Turkey is not expected to pull away, quite the opposite. In military terms, similarly, Turkey is first based on the Global Firepower Index, but only a few places ahead of Iran and Egypt. Importantly, Turkey owes much of its military performance to NATO membership, a defensive alliance, members of which would frown upon any greater military adventures. In terms of population size, Turkey is also not exceptional, falling behind Pakistan, Egypt or Iran in the region. Lastly, a democratic system is considered an important political element for aspiring regional powers, providing legitimacy of leadership and political resilience to shocks. In this regard, Turkey has experienced a significant backslide, ultimately qualifying as not free in 2018 according to Freedom House.
Competing for influence in the Middle East are not only regional powers like Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia, but also external powers of various strength. Most recently, countries like Russia or China are not afraid to project their influence, further limiting the power potential of Turkey in the region. The Middle East has several unique characteristics which prevent the emergence of regional leaders and contribute to persistent struggles for power. Its oil resources, fuelling the global capitalist economy, together with key transport corridors and influential ideology raise the region’s importance to the global level. For these reasons, the United States as a global hegemon sought and will seek to prevent the emergence of any regional leader that could jeopardise its and global interests. Paradoxically, Turkey had a much greater change to seem like a leader of the Middle East when it was in good graces with the U.S. Within this alliance, it could play the role of its proxy.
Injecting itself into the role of mediator of regional disputes has been another strategy to raise Turkey’s importance. However, the outcome of Turkeys involvement and conditions it gave (like the ‘red line’ it drew at U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem) will be more harmful to its regional leadership since it lacks the power to uphold them.
Each of the arguments above can be extensively elaborated, but together they minimize the chances Ankara has at becoming a regional leader. However, Turkey’s rivals for the role are burdened by their own problems also preventing them from assuming the role. The most accurate claim, therefore, might be that Turkey will not become the leader of the Middle East, nor will anyone else.
Authors: Ondřej Zacha and Samuel Kolesár
Turkey’s growing assertiveness
For a long time, Turkey has been considered a reliable partner of the EU and an element of stability in the Middle East. But in recent years, as Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and the influence of nationalism and populism in Turkish politics grows, both features are fading. After securing his position at home, Turkey’s president chose to pursue an interventionist foreign policy towards both war-torn Syria and Europe.
After the Syrian Civil War broke out, Turkey provided considerable assistance to the opposition, including, as some sources say, jihadist groups and the so-called Islamic State (IS). But since 2016, Turkey has established a permanent military presence in Syria. In August 2016 it launched the Operation Euphrates Shield, a military intervention in northern Syria. The operation is coordinated with Syrian opposition groups against the IS, as well as against predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are tied to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a terrorist organization operating in Turkey. In October 2017, the Turkish army has established 12 observation outposts in the rebel-held territory of Idlib, a province in northwest Syria. These outposts form a defensive ring around it and thus prevent an assault by Assad’s forces. Finally, in January 2018, Turkey has launched the Operation Olive Branch against Kurdish-held Afrin. After its completion in March, the territory of Idlib was linked with the territory gained in the Euphrates Shield.
While these operations may have weakened the Syrian Kurds linked to PKK and secured the western portion of Turkish-Syrian border, in a long-term, it put Turkey on a collision course with the Syrian government. As their position deteriorated, Syrian Kurds quickly abandoned the idea of national liberation and begun negotiations with Assad. Subsequent clashes between Kurdish and Assad forces, however, suggest that the negotiations were not successful.
In Idlib, Turkish presence is clearly visible – Turkish flags hang in public offices and the Turkish language is taught at schools. But at the same time, the dominant rebel group in Idlib is the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS; former Jabhat al-Nusra). Moreover, in recent months thousands more jihadists were transported into the province from the enclaves in other parts of Syria (such as Ghouta or Douma) after they made a deal with the regime granting them safe passage in exchange for the territory. It is not in Turkish interest to let the Islamists take over the province completely or to retreat to Anatolia in case of a full-scale assault by the government forces.
Recently, intense negotiations between Turkey, Syria and Russia led to an agreement on establishing a horseshoe-shaped demilitarized zone (DMZ) copying the borders of rebel-held territory by 15 October. Turkish and Russian troops will be deployed in the DMZ. Islamist extremist groups are supposed to lay down their heavy weapons and move to northern parts of the province by November. However, it is questionable whether this agreement will prevent the Syrian offensive completely, or only postpone it. Not all rebel groups may accept the terms, especially the more radical ones. Even moderate rebels seem to be unwilling to give up any territory. Moreover, while Russia wants to keep Turkey on its side, its main ally in the region is still Assad who wishes to retake “every inch of Syria”. So the current deal should be seen as interim and the fate if Idlib remains unclear.
Turkey’s relations with Europe have also undergone a transformation. Criticism of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and tensions caused by Turkish attempts to spy on and intimidate members of the Gülen Movement residing in Western countries led to a deterioration of the relations between Turkey and the EU. In a case of non-EU members, Turkey chose even more drastic means to deal with the Güleninsts, for example, six Turkish nationals were kidnapped by Turkish intelligence service from Kosovo and transported into Turkey. In fact, as a result of Turkish pressure, individuals who are part of the movement in 15 countries (mostly non-European) were arrested or deported, sometimes without judicial proceedings. Many more countries shut down Gülenist schools.
Turkey also demanded extradition of the movement’s leader, Fethullah Gülen, from the United States. The Americans refused and after a U.S. pastor was arrested in Turkey for alleged ties to the movement, a diplomatic row begun between the two countries. Recently, the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey and halted the shipment of F-35 fighters.
Turkey’s aggressive pursuit of these three foreign policy goals – preventing Syrian Kurds from threatening Turkey, maintaining influence in northern Syria and suppressing the Gülen Movement – may be partially justified and bring some short-term benefits. However, in the long-term, it will push the country into an isolation. For now, the Turkish population supports Erdoğan’s policies due to his appeal to nationalism, but isolation combined with economic problems may lead to political instability.
Author: Martin Dudáš
Erbakan, Kısakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey
Svante E. Cornell
STRATPOL Brief Review
Turkey has been getting increasingly anti-Western. Even though there are many articles focusing on Turkish political Islam, the ideological background of the current Turkish elites is still a terra incognita. Svante A. Cornell, a Research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk road studies program (CACI) and a long-time specialist on Turkey, digs deep into the topic and unveils the extent of the influence of deeply anti-Western and anti-Semitic worldview on the top key figures in Turkish politics.
Cornell outlines the ongoing ideological and mental shift of Turkey away from the Euro-Atlantic sphere under the administration of president Erdoğan. He further develops this idea by trying to answer the question of how serious this development is and what are the motives behind it. At the core of his argument lie the ideologies of Necmettin Erbakan and Necip Fazıl Kısakürek. The former is considered a founder of Turkish political Islam and was the leader of the dominant Islamist movement, Milli Görüş (National View). The current Turkish president Erdoğan and many other members of the ruling AKP were originally members of Erbakan’s fundamentalist Welfare party that was later declared unconstitutional on the grounds of threatening the secularism of Turkey and was shut down by the Turkish constitutional court.
Erbakan’s ideological background stems from traditional Turkish Islamism but was also influenced by Arab Islam, specifically by Naqshbandi-Khalidi order and the Muslim Brotherhood. While Erbakan is presented as mostly a political figure, Kısakürek, whom Erdoğan and virtually the entire AKP leadership continue to glorify openly to this day, was primarily a poet and writer. He came up with the extensive ideological structure not only for Turkish Islamism but also right-wing nationalism in the country. His idea of Büyük Doğu, or “Great Orient” was based on an idea of an Islamic revolution resulting into the total reversal of Kemalism and the establishment of totalitarian Islamist regime led by the most exalted leader, the Başyüce. Both Erbakan and Kısakürek were also profoundly anti-Semitic and anti-Western as demonstrated by their publications cited by Cornell. Moreover, they spread many racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Western conspiracy theories that have gradually become a regular part of the Turkish political mainstream among both the Islamists and Kemalists during the AKP era.
The arguments presented by Cornell are indeed worrisome. He digs deeply into the ideologies of Erbakan and Kısakürek, and shows an extensive knowledge of Islamic thoughts, branches, and relations between them. In addition, he analyses the topic thoroughly and provides the reader with well-explained links and direct parallels between Erdoğan’s political decisions and the ideologies of Kısakürek and Erbakan. Unfortunately, there are only a few lines dedicated to other important AKP figures. Cornell focuses almost exclusively on the persona of Erdoğan despite his declared aim to unveil the ideological background of the broader group of Turkey’s current elites. On the other hand, he offers a scrutiny of his own statements by examining potential counter-arguments about Erdoğan being a pragmatist using the ideology instrumentally. Even though Cornell does not refuse such claims, he shows on concrete examples that Erdoğan’s ideological background has a direct impact on Turkish domestic and foreign policies.
Finally, Cornell sums up that the formative elements in the worldview of Turkey’s current leadership are Islamist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic in their nature. However, he correctly adds, Erdoğan’s ambition has led to a lot of unease within Turkey and even within the Islamic community itself. Even though Erdoğan was able to win the June 2018 early election, Cornell’s statement that “Turkey is [therefore] at a turning point, and the policies adopted by the United States and its European allies will play an important role in determining the outcome“ is still valid.
Author: Matúš Jevčák
Responsible editors: Ondřej Zacha and Matúš Jevčák
Images: Fausto Zonaro, Mehmed II Entering to Constantinople (1885) | Wikimedia Commons
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan | President of Russia
STRATPOL ViewPoints is a project which seeks to address the most important international politics and security affairs of today. In every issue, you can find a Polemics, a controversial thought that one author supports and the other opposes, a thought-provoking opinion piece and a Brief Review of a recent study from well-known research centers and think-tanks worldwide.