Erdoğan's Turkey: a new great power?
Anton Rovenskyy, Master of International Relations, International Political Scientist
Under the rule of Reçep Taïp Erdoğan Turkey has become one of the most active geopolitical actors in the recent years. Its interests stretch throughout the whole Eurasia, and its agenda is of great interest for the states and nations in the Turkish sphere of interests. Let's focus on the main ambitions and interests of Turkey on the geopolitical chessboard.
Syria and the Middle East
Since the start of the Arab Spring uprisings in Syria, Reçep Taïp Erdoğan has not achieved all the goals, but definitely has become one of the winners of the campaign. De facto, North Syria is now under effective control of Turkey, while the Kurds are blocked in their activities and do not possess any serious threat. Turkey is an important party in the process of negotiations on Syria. By now, any strategic decision on the settlement of the conflict сannot be reached without Turkey.
Moreover, Syrian refugee camps on Turkish territory has become a new source of money from the European Union for Erdoğan. The EU is reluctant to repeat the situation of 2015, when the simultaneous migration of over 1 million refugees has messed up the work of the European customs and migration services, as well as significantly increased social risks.
When we talk about Turkish interests in the Middle East, one should point out, in recent years the official Ankara has established a firm basis to counter the political, cultural and religious influence of Saudi Arabia in the region. Meanwhile, Turkey also tries to build a reliable partnership with the strategic counterpart of the Saudis, Qatar. With the help of Qatar, Turkey effectively blocks Israel in the region and increases its support for Palestine.
The Turkish military expedition to Libya in 2020 to support Fayez al-Sarraj and the Government of National Accord (GNA) has signaled a significant shift in the ongoing Libyan national conflict. The GNA has maintained its positions and also succeeded in reducing the claims of the Libyan National Army under Khalifa Haftar.
The range of Turkish interests in Libya is wide. It encompasses maritime transport corridors in the Southern Mediterranean, oil and gas fields, as well as creating a constant threat of new refugees for Europe. It may also help to negotiate with the Gulf monarchies, France, Egypt and Russia.
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, active in Switzerland from 1 to 5 February 2021, has selected the Prime Minister of the United Libyan Government, as well as 3 members of the Presidential Council, ruled by Mohamed al-Menfi. The main purpose of the Government is to hold nationwide elections on December 24. Without any doubt, Turkey is going to be one of the most prominent actors of the Libyan political crisis settlement which ensures its stake in the public and economic life of the nation after the conflict.
Enough was said on the Turkish support of Azerbaijan during its military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh last year, as well as on the successful transformation of those victorious battles into a distinct political result. Turkey grips in Transcaucasia, transforming from a distant viewer into an active player.
One more important issue without proper public attention is joint Turkish-Azerbaijani gas projects. The gas supplies from Azerbaijan to Turkey via TANAP pipeline have been launched by the end of 2020. In the near future, the project will develop rapidly, which will reinforce Turkey as a powerful gas hub in Southern Europe.
In addition to Azerbaijan, Turkey also increases its influence in Georgia, another Caucasian nation. The process is distinctly clear in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara. The reason lies not only in the matters of ethnicity or religion (Wikipedia states, Adjarians are the ethnographic group of Georgians, some part of who was under heavy Islamisation since the Arab conquers), but also in the active invasion of the Turkish money into the region. One may especially notice the process in the spheres of development, tourism, mining industry, which form the basis for the Adjarian and Georgian economy respectively.
The current political crisis in Georgia, followed by the resignation of Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia and an ongoing confrontation of the two main national parties, Georgian Dream and United National Movement, provides more options for political manoeuvres for the official Ankara in this particular direction, as well as in the region itself. One should wait for the next steps of Erdoğan in this situation.
The official Ankara tries not only to strengthen its positions in Azerbaijan and Turkey, but also to create a reliable base in order to increase its influence in the region, particularly in the Russian republics of North Caucasus and Central Asian nations.
Turkey consistently strengthens relations with the establishment of Central Asia by means of the Turkic Council, an international organization established in 2009, which unites all the modern Turkic states. Having in mind the increasing economic, military, political and humanitarian influence of the official Ankara, the ruling families of Central Asian republics may seriously begin to assume Turkey as an alternative to the traditional Chinese and Russian influence in the region. One should point out, Turkey is much closer in both ethnic and religious ways.
Moreover, in the coming decades Turkey, which closes Southern European gas corridors on itself, may get access to new Central Asian gas fields and gas distributing infrastructure, which provides a possibility to transit Central Asian fuel to Europe. Without any doubt, it is a long-term and expensive project, which much depends on the decisions of the Caspian Five (Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan) considering the legal status of the Caspian Sea.
Traditionally, the Balkans used to be the crossroad for the interests of big geopolitical actors; this position remains nowadays. One should notice, Turkish interests in the region are rather pragmatic: alongside with a bunch of traditional matters, such as gas or fuel transportation, Turkey considers the Balkans as a lever of pressure on Western Europe. The fact is, one of the main Middle East and African refugee routes lies through the region.
The growing influence of Turkey in Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova, is also worth mentioning. The Gagauz people are both Orthodox and Turkic, which forms the basis for the Turkish interest in the region. By the way, Erdoğan was one of the few world leaders who met Moldovan ex-president Igor Dodon on a regular basis. In October 2018 Erdoğan and Dodon signed a Joint Declaration on the strategic partnership between Turkey and Moldova. ‘Turkey is a strategic partner of Moldova, and it has been consistent in its support of the Moldovan sovereignty’, stated Dodon back in 2018. Nevertheless, now it is rather unclear whether the level of interstate relations between Turkey and Moldova under Maia Sandu’s presidency will remain.
The main focus is on the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region (XUAR) on the Northwest of the PRC. A half of its 10 million population are the Uyghurs, Muslims of Turkic origin, who now face all the power of the Chinese state machine. Considering the strategic role of the region for the development of the New Silk Way land route and Erdoğan’s protector role to all the Turkic nations, the Uyghur issue may become a bargaining chip in the relations with the official Beijing in order to achieve some kind of political or economic preferences.
With the tightening of the Chinese sea export by the US, Japan and South Korea, the role of the New Silk Way land route is going to increase. Consequently, the weight of the Uyghur issue will only become larger, which is within the Turkish logic of interests.