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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

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 other hand, does not have the necessary firepower to stand up for itself and so it has to resort to Greece for its own defense. Both countries can still benefit from France’s unquestionable support at EU summits, Paris seems to be the only actor sensitive to Athens and Nicosia’s concerns. Italy is acting, as usual, as an ambiguous actor and it seems completely unaware of the current situation. Rome used to be Serraj’s best ally (as you can see the Libyan crisis is so intricate that European powers don’t even support the same actor) but its inertia and indifference towards the whole crisis, as towards every geopolitical matter, allowed Ankara to easily take its place severely diminishing Italy’s influence in the “Mare Nostrum”. Moreover, the Turkish navy more than once bullied the Italian national oil corporation, ENI, by preventing its ships from accessing gas exploration areas in the Eastern Mediterranean. No one in Rome has ever even thought of sending military ships to protect operations fully legitimized by exploration rights granted by Cyprus, the sovereign nation responsible for the interested areas. Even at the EU tables Italy has never endorsed tougher measures. Germany and Turkey are fake friends, Berlin cannot abstain from having a close (not necessarily friendly) relationship with Ankara, not just because of their trade relations, but mainly due to demographic matters. The flawed “migrant deal” between the EU and Turkey of which Germany has been one of the main proposers has basically closed the Balkan migration route, which caused huge problems to Angela Merkel back in 2015. Most importantly, Germany is home to more than 4 million Turks (some say they are about 5 million, others more than 7) that represent a key asset for Ankara and a powerful mean of exerting pressure, since the majority of the Turkish community in Europe is more loyal to its motherland rather than to the host countries. Germany is not the only one with this kind of problem, the Netherlands and Austria also host within their borders a substantial Turkish minority. Both these countries together with the Teutonic nation have had a taste of Ankara’s influence over its European expats. Back in 2017 Erdogan’s campaign for the constitutional referendum reached the core of the Old Continent, the Sultan unleashed an aggressive Pan-Turkic rhetoric fueling anger against the EU countries who wouldn’t allow Turkey’s president to hold political rallies within their borders. The worst diplomatic incident happened in the Netherlands where a Turkish minister was almost arrested for violating Dutch borders to reach Erdogan’ supporters in Rotterdam. In the end, the landslide electoral victories among Europe’s Turks, both in the referendum and the subsequent elections, proved their unquestionable loyalty to the Reis. Yet, while Austria and Netherlands can easily be considered as hardliners, Germany seems to be too afraid of the consequences to openly challenge Turkey.

Europe appears once again weak and fractionated in facing a challenge that directly concerns its own security, but maybe the Member States are finally coming to a common point. After the bitter row with the Islamic world following the infamous terrorist attacks in France, Erdogan’ self-proclaimed archnemesis Macron is anxious to counterattack and he may just have the opportunity to involve the rest of the Union as well. In November a German warship on behalf of a European joint operation blocked a Turkish cargo vessel suspected of breaching the UN arm embargo on Libya. The Italian navy is in charge of the international mission, this means that Rome authorized the seizure and the subsequent inspection of the abovementioned ship which triggered the ire of Ankara. In the end no weapons were found on board and the vessel was released but now both Germany and Italy have said to be ready to finally support sanctions against Turkey. Sanctions will never be enough, if the EU seriously wants to restrain the growing Turkish influence it will need a well delineated strategy and a coordinated effort from all of its Member States. Biden is not fond of Erdogan either so his administration may help, but the US would never want to lose a key ally like Turkey, therefore Europe has to take the matter into its own hands because no one will come to its rescue.


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