Erdogan in the center
Niccolò Machiavelli used to say that “the blow that is proposed to the enemy must be such that it is impossible for him to take revenge.”
In July 2016, after 14 years of rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP, for its acronym in Turkish), there was an attempted coup by some factions of the Armed Forces that failed. From that day on, Recep Tayyip Erdogan accumulated much more power domestically and prevailed against his rivals in domestic politics through purges and imprisonment.
One of the first implications of that frustrated coup attempt was the holding of a referendum on April 16, 2017. With a Yes victory by 51% to 48%, Turkey adopted a presidential system and eliminated the figure of the Prime Minister, among other reforms. Since that day, Erdogan has concentrated the political power of the Executive and occupies the center of the political scene in Turkey.
Despite being an Islamic country and ethnically different from the rest of Europe, Turkey was a traditional ally of the West. It has been a member of NATO for decades, the military alliance commanded by the United States since the time of the Cold War. But also, he applied to join the European Union, which was postponed indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the unending Syrian civil war and territorial conflicts in the Kurdistan area prompted Turkey to update its defense policy and increase military spending. Of the 1.8% of GDP they spent in 2015, in 2018 that percentage rose to 2.5%. In addition to the strong increase in the Defense budget, Turkey began to delineate other types of alliances. The Syrian conflict placed him as a direct interlocutor for Russia, the other intervening power in the Arab country. The so-called “Astana Process” allowed Erdogan and Putin to collaborate closely in the search for a negotiated solution between the government and the Syrian opposition. Europe appeared increasingly remote from Ankara.
Likewise, a government guideline based on the idea of ”The New Turkey” began to be outlined. Through this principle, Erdogan began to test stronger ideological foundations towards the East, without discarding his membership in the NATO military alliance, endowing his relationship with the West with pragmatism. From this, the AKP raised its Islamist profile and initiated a mixture between messianism, foreign policy, and religion that differed significantly from the traditional precepts of politics in Turkey, a secular country since its foundation, the work of the ‘father of the Nation ‘Mustafá Kemal Atatürk, in the 20’s’.
The Erdogan government is not without its problems. In 2018, there was a significant collapse of the Turkish lira that we Argentines remember well, due to the fact that the national authorities located this fact as a factor that influenced the Argentine economic crisis. However, Erdogan maintained the initiative and Turkey’s foreign policy continued to maintain a high profile with support for certain Islamic sectors in the region and participation on different boards.
In addition, its role as a country of passage between Asia and Europe gave it an important card to negotiate with the European Union: migrants. Turkey is the first stop for displaced people, numbered by the thousands since the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”, on their long journey to Europe. In that sense, the management of the refugee and migrant issue was a common bargaining chip in relations between Ankara and Brussels.
However, it was in this pandemic year that Turkey decided to make its international expansion more serious.
Turkey is perceived as the direct heir to the Ottoman Empire which, in its period of glory, came to rule from Mesopotamia to North Africa, passing through the Balkans.
In recent years, the Erdogan government radically changed its strategy internationally. Turkey would go from being a country of Muslims who asked to enter the European club by negotiating with migratory flows, to being a middle power with a vocation for influence and expansion throughout its neighborhood.
The civil war in Libya, unleashed after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, had Turkey as a key player. The government recognized by the international community chaired by Fayez al-Serraj was cornered for months in its combats against the Libyan National Army, commanded by Jalifa Hafter. However, the armistice signed this year was possible because the Libyan government recovered several positions in the field thanks, mainly, to the military support of Turkey and its shipments of weapons, despite the fact that there was an embargo on the latter aspect.
While Turkey has a privileged place in the current negotiations in the country with the most oil reserves in Africa, in the eastern Mediterranean area its navy began to explore possible gas fields. Turkish ships entered waters that are claimed by Cyprus and Greece on several occasions, putting a strain on the relationship with the European Union. The expectation of having their own energy resources in the area was worth enough to suspend possible EU membership and stand face to face with European leaders.
With a strengthened presence on the southern shore of the Mediterranean and in the eastern part of the same sea, in recent weeks Turkey opened the game to another board in its area of influence: the Caucasus. Erdogan expressed from the first moment his support for the government of Azerbaijan, which reactivated a historical and latent conflict for decades with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. This small mountainous region is formally recognized as part of the Azerbaijani territory, but is inhabited by Armenians, who consider it an independent state known as the Republic of Artsakh. The nature of the actions that put the war machine back on track were initiated by Azerbaijan, jointly with Turkey.
In the weeks that the first post-pandemic war lasted, Azerbaijan and Armenia exchanged attacks while the powers in the area took a different attitude. The Azeris had strong, explicit and multidimensional support from Turkey, while Russia, the other power with influence in the area, took an ambiguous position. Moscow has a defense treaty with Armenia, but at the same time it sells weapons to Azerbaijan. Putin balanced and sentenced: we will not help Armenia unless it is attacked on its territory.
As days went by, the Azeri advance forced the Armenians to sign a ‘ceasefire’, with the intervention of Russia. Azerbaijan achieved victory and control of a large part of Nagorno Karabakh, and Armenia entered a serious political crisis due to widespread discontent against its government. Turkey will be the observer of compliance with the conditions of the agreement together with Russia, which now sees another power taking a seat at the table where the destinies of the Caucasus are settled.
In less than a year, Libya, the Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean have Turkey as an integral part of their future, along with the already existing presence on other boards, such as Syria. All this, supported by a religious component that grows in the official speeches of the Turkish government. The historic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was converted into a mosque this year by Erdogan, after 100 years of being declared a museum. Islamic spirituality and the expansion of foreign policy in Turkey, a non-Arab country, refer to the old days of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey enters the second decade of the 20th century without neglecting its membership of NATO, away from the European Union, and negotiating with Russia and the powers of the Middle East such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel the destinations of the most conflictive area of the last years. One thing is clear: their power and influence in the region increased considerably.
The failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party, the AKP, allowed the concentration of power in their hands. Turkey, a country that strategically configures the passage between two continents, went from being a marginal actor in the concert of nations to a mandatory interlocutor for those who seek to play a role in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Caucasus.
The consequences can be multiple. Some argue that Turkey’s active policy could end up pushing the EU closer to Russia, after years of mistrust and tension stemming from various reasons, such as the annexation of Crimea. The country chaired by Putin before was not supposed to deal with Erdogan, and now it cannot ignore him from any point of view.
On the other side is the West. Turkey continues to host the Incirlik base, where US forces plan and launch operations in the Middle East. In addition, it continues to be part of NATO, the transatlantic military alliance led by the United States and which is home to much of the EU. However, his pragmatic actions, his close relationship with Russia (from whom he has recently bought weapons), and his haughty profile in the region make him a distrustful actor for the West, something fueled by the historical prejudice that our hemisphere has of the countries. Muslims and the Islamic world in general.
In many parts of the world the board is moving, after a very particular year where some trends accelerated and others experienced a brake. Among the first, we find a Turkey that considers itself Islamic, heir to an Empire and with all the right to fight for what it considers its own.
We will have to wait what consequences this entails for the international system.