During the last few months, the Eastern Mediterranean Sea became a particularly troubled hot spot with Turkey, Greece, and France being the main conflicting players. On one side we see Turkey, trying to assert its interests as well as those of Turkish-Cypriots. On the other, Greece, together with the strong support of France and of the Republic of Cyprus.
Despite the ongoing disputes with Greece, the situation began to worsen with the signature of the Libyan-Turkish agreement on 27th November 2019, providing Tripoli with military support if explicitly asked by the GNA and redesigning the EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zone) of both Libya and Turkey. This EEZ redesign was strongly opposed by EU institutions and other Mediterranean countries – especially by Greece – arguing that in this way Turkey was seizing an area which was conversely exclusive to the Hellenic country. In response to this, on 6th August 2020, Greece signed a deal with Egypt over EEZs. It is crucial to remember that Egypt is a very hostile opponent of Turkey in the Muslim world, as they propose two different and opposite visions on governance structure.
It is sometimes argued that the particular pugnacity Turkey displayed in the last few years – beginning with its several interventions in Syrian civil war up until these last disputes with Greece over EEZs and Kastellorizo – was mainly driven by Erdogan’s vision for Turkey and its role in the area. The mainly shared opinion is thus that the recent aggressive assertiveness of Turkey in defending its interests is fundamentally based on AKP’s ideology and, consequently, as something contingent to this specific historical and political moment.
While this may be partially true, it is, indeed, not entirely true. What may be hence particularly interesting is to understand the underlying reasons for Turkish geopolitical behaviour, which is clearly much more entrenched with geography and history rather than with contemporary politics. Therefore, in order to grasp the geopolitical reasons guiding the Anatolian country we need to step back from the political fight, and first examine its geography.
Turkey is situated in a very peculiar geographic position, being at the crossroad of Europe and Asia and being able to control the access to both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It thus benefits from being at the centre of both the East-West and North-South routes. From this position, access to the Balkans, Caucasus and even Africa is fairly easy to achieve.
This brief geographical understanding of Turkey can now guide us through the first of the two theoretical frameworks within which Ankara’s foreign policy developed during the 21st century. The concept of Strategic Depth was laid down by Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of International Relations who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009-14) and Prime Minister (2014-16). At the time he was a member of AKP – Erdogan’s party. His ideas proceeded and developed into the path already traced by Turgut Özal, President of Turkey from 1989 to 1993. It is important to note this since Özal played a fundamental role in the re-positioning of Turkey after the end of the Cold War; the dissolution of the USSR called for new economic and strategical possibilities, freeing from the soviet rule all those Turkic countries and thus reinvigorating any pan-Turk project. Furthermore, the strategic and defensive role Turkey had before against the USSR was now very likely to – at least – fade.
The international and local environment had thus rapidly and largely changed during those years and a new foreign policy approach was needed. Özal, though, did not opt for hard power; conversely, he leveraged on the cultural and economic bonds Turkey had with those countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire. In this way, Ankara could keep its good relations with Western countries and develop its ties with the nearby nations. However, despite the search for a more independent and more assertive foreign policy, Turkey was still very much tied to the methods developed in the past 40 years, more cautious and diplomatic.
Hence, Davutoğlu tried to step up the diplomatic activity, allowing for a more assertive Turkey in the international field. The professor designed an equation at the basis of his doctrine, where power was a function of some geographical, historical, and cultural features multiplied by the available capabilities and strategical/political will. Therefore, early 2000s Turkey had a very strong basis as for the geographical, historical, and cultural variables, as well as a ramping economy; it needed, however, to develop those strategic capabilities that got partially lost in the decades before. While the global environment of the Cold War forced the country to be into the Western sphere of influence, the new environment developed between the 90s and the 00s called for the creation of a Turk sphere of influence. But such a creation could be done only through a newly assertive foreign policy and the nurturing of a new strategic vision.
The building of Turkey’s hinterland could only be achieved through the reinforcement of the nation’s identity and the downgrading of the disputes with neighbours. Indeed, the unresolved conflict with Greece, the several tensions with Caucasian states, and the frictions emerged with other Muslim countries during the Cold War were posing a high threat to the project of Turkey as a global influencer. The strengthened economic and cultural ties with nearby countries would have thus allowed Turkey to improve its international positioning, by making it a commercial and energetic hub – being at the crossroad of the four cardinal points.
The first decade of the 21st century saw the successful implementation of these new policies, leading to many criticisms from Western countries, reproaching Turkey for the application of a “Neo-Ottoman” policy. However, during the second decade of the 21st century, this doctrine saw its decline, mainly due to the many disruptive factors that emerged.
A fundamental turning point can be considered the Syrian civil war. In line with Davutoğlu’s doctrine, pre-war Syria was becoming a safe ally, also through the creation of “Samgen”, ideally a Middle East economic and commercial union. But eventually, Turkey lacked the needed influence over the Assad regime and any regime-change plan failed. This led to the recognition of the need for hard power: the menace of military intervention – and the intervention itself – will be from now on a much-used tool for Turkish external projection. It was probably not entirely coincidental that Davutoğlu resigned as Prime Minister in May 2016 and Turkey’s armed forces started Operation Euphrates Shield on August 2016.
From 2016 on, the geopolitical approach evolves but it is – indeed – still deeply entrenched in the geographical constraints as well as imposed by the macro-economic global environment. There are two main differences with respect to the early 00s: the economic power has been greatly reduced by the many years of global economic crisis and the Middle East/Mediterranean area is now much more chaotic than before. This chaos is however not governed by the USA – increasingly disengaged with the area – and only partially by Russia. This implies that Turkey, rather than acquiring influence through to its means only, can now acquire it by filling that void – such as in Libya. The apparatus further recognized the relevance of the Navy, an essential power agent since the 20th century, as well as being at the foundations of American power globally.
Hence, these new circumstances called for the application of a new doctrine: the new mantra becomes Blue Homeland, a concept elaborated by Turkish admiral Cem Gürdeniz. This doctrine aims at making Turkey a maritime State, where the Navy is the main force to assert and defend Turkish interests. This is also because during the recent years there has been the presence of huge gas reserves estimated in the Eastern Mediterranean. By taking part in the extraction process Turkey could both reduce its dependence over Russia and reinforce its position as a local hub for energy, but the main actors of the area – Greece, Republic of Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and Italy – coalesced into the EastMed pipeline project with the support of the USA, leaving Turkey aside.
It is definitely interesting to note how the new doctrine is thus put into practice: the abandoning of soft power in favour of a more assertive and aggressive approach both in sea and on land, leaving behind the concept of good relationships with neighbouring countries outlined by Davutoğlu’s Strategic Depth. We can indeed see this in the almost daily confrontations with Greece, in the current support of Azerbaijan against Armenia, in the fight against Syrian Kurds, and in the military support of the GNA in Libya.
Finally, what is worth underlining, is that despite the ruling political party, these two different doctrines were very much due to their times and inherently tied to the geographical and economic constraints Turkey faced in that specific historical moment.