Knock knock, it's Turkey

“Belligerents and Participants in World War One: The Ottoman Empire (Turkey)” available at

Geopolitics of the EU n.3

In recent years we have witnessed a renewed Turkish activism on the international arena. Its intervention in the Syrian and Libyan crises, the support given to Azerbaijan against Armenia and the drilling operations off the coasts of Greece and Cyprus have raised the fear in Europe that the long-time NATO ally may soon turn into an enemy. Many resort to the simplistic assumption that the head of the Turkish State, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the main cause both of the country’s interventionism as well as of its authoritarian nature, but this explanation overlooks the big picture, completely ignores Turkey’s history and ultimately fails to address the matter properly. In order to have a better understanding of the current situation let’s take a look at what are Turkey’s intentions, its motives and how Europeans have responded and should respond.

The Ottoman empire is not back, it never left

“The Turkish National Pact of 1920 was intended to give to the newly founded Republic of Turkey more land than what was ultimately agreed” credit to The European Post

Erdogan is an islamist conservative and as such, he has been committed to giving religion a stronger role in Turkish society, disrupting the Republic of Turkey’s historic secularism. This drew accusations from the president’s political opponents of wanting to destroy the legacy of the Republic’s founding father: Mustafa Kemal Pasha, commonly known as “Atatürk” (“Father of the Turks”), who led the nation in the war of independence and laid the foundations of a modern secular state. Notwithstanding the ideological differences, Atatürk and Erdogan as well as their Ottoman predecessors share the same geopolitical goals, as they all used to be in charge of the same geopolitical power. And so as the Sultans expanded the Empire’s territory pushing the borders further away from the Anatolian Peninsula, the very core of the Turkish Nation, in the same way the Republic’s leaders try to recover the security lost with the fall of the monarchy. In 1923 Atatürk expelled the Western powers out of Anatolia and, had he had the opportunity, he would have gone much further (see the map at the beginning of the paragraph). In 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus to prevent the union of the island with Greece, following the same logic that brought the US to impose an embargo on Cuba and that caused the Russian annexation of Crimea. Now Erdogan is in charge. When he first came to power in 2003 the West saluted him as a progressive leader who would have finally turned his country into a full liberal democracy. But the Reis had other plans, Erdogan consolidated his power wiping out the powerful groups who wanted him out (the Gulenists, former allies of the president) and securing the loyalty of the Turkish deep state. Now, for the first time in a century the entire state stands behind the president and this has allowed Erdogan to pursue his geopolitical agenda. At the beginning of the century the Turkish leader had hoped he could seduce the West and persuade it into supporting him in his future maneuvers, his hopes soon faded away. After the Americans started supporting the Kurdish armed groups in the Syrian civil war, the Sultan decided it was time to act on his own: the Turkish army stormed into the Mesopotamian region gaining enormous influence into Syrian affairs. Putin intervened by approaching Turkey, who accepted the Russian courtship to make Washington jealous, the latter would in fact make important concessions to Ankara not to lose a key ally. Erdogan then turned his attention to Libya where he could directly counter the Saudi-Emirati influence over general Haftar by saving his main opponent, the prime minister Sarraj, from certain defeat. The alliance with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) brought about the stipulation of a maritime boundary treaty which made explicit the Turkish claims over parts of Greek and Cypriot waters. These claims were already carried on by the navy and its new strategy, the “Blue Homeland”, which triggered multiple diplomatic and military incidents with the Greek authorities. The last but not final act of the show took place in the Caucasus region where the decisive victory of Azerbaijan over Armenia granted Turkey a “boots on the ground” presence right in the Russian backyard. This wild ride has forced several powers to stay on alert, Europe too started raising its level of concern and it may now be delineating a proper response.

Cyprus will not be the next Lepanto

"Naval Battle of Lepanto" by National Maritime Museum of London licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Among European powers, different approaches have been adopted with their hot-tempered neighbor; the EU countries can be divided between hardliners and those who have so far taken a more moderate stance. Paris is with no doubt the leading hardliner. France is the second most important supporter of the Kurdish fighters, right after Washington, it strongly condemned (further actions were unfeasible, unrealistic at best) last year‘s Turkish offensive, which was made possible by the American disengagement. France is also a longtime supporter of the Libyan strongman Haftar, despite repeated denials from the Elysée, and it’s certainly not happy of the Turkish support to the opposing side. Macron even provoked Turkey during the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, when he slammed its support for Azerbaijan, but was once again unable to perpetrate more concrete actions. Greece and Cyprus are on the frontline in the Eastern Mediterranean region, they feel under attack by the Turkish claims and military activities in the area. Athens has so far tried to discourage the rival by getting closer to Washington and signing a maritime agreement with Egypt diametrically opposite to the one signed between Ankara and the Libyan GNA. Cyprus, on the othe