In the past few months, Erdogan’s boisterous efforts to revivify the glory of the Ottoman Empire have dominated national and international headlines. The combination between the desire to form a strengthened and more assertive Turkey bearing the glory of its empire years has been termed “neo-Ottomanism”. Once one of the strongest and heavily multi-ethnic empires, stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the heart of the Middle East, Turkey has recently commemorated a new turn in its foreign policy, one seeking the glory and security of the past.
In August, Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed the unimaginable: he upturned centuries of accepted traditions all in a few days by converting the fabled Hagia Sophia, a museum and symbol of Christianity for the western world, into a mosque. Apart from the military developments near Cyprus’ oil fields, which have led to several confrontations over the past years, and the political taunting games initiated with Europe, Erdogan has pursued a series of moves to remake the country’s image from a staunchly secular, pro-western nation into a devout Islamic state.
Presiding over the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan has been in power for the past 16 years, but it hasn’t made him immune to political threats from the opposition. Though he suppressed an attempted coup d’état by his military in 2016 and introduced the executive presidential system in 2018, which considerably reduced the authority of the judiciary and parliament, he still managed to lose the heart of Turkey, Istanbul, twice to his opponent. The fatigue of the Turkish masses with the Erdogan rule was especially showcased in the Istanbul mayoral elections in 2019, when Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republic People’s Party (CHP) trounced the AKP candidate twice, after Erdogan called for a rerun.
And so began the downfall. Despite being regarded by many as an invincible Titan in the heart of the Middle East, this historic defeat marked the precariousness of his current political position, making him more exposed to the challenges that were to come.
Having faced a severe economic crisis for a long time and living in a regime that inhibits the circulation of information, few really grasp the immensity of the importance of Erdogan’s foreign policy moves. From the challenges issued against Greece, to the ongoing provocations against Cyprus, to the bipolar policy towards the European Union, a pattern emerges: slowly yet steadily over the past years, Erdogan has tried to revivify the glory of the disintegrated Ottoman empire and return the glory of the five-hundred-year rule over the Mediterranean. Seeking to exploit the opportunities offered by his neighbours and grasping at the way developments in Europe unfold, he has turned Turkey into an aggressive regional player, that attends negotiations and conferences, but deep down is unwilling to give in to any demands for greater stability.
Seeking to achieve regional supremacy, Erdogan has focused his attention to his historically perceived rival state, Greece. The turbulence that characterizes the bilateral relationship of the two countries has been intensified over the past years and especially over the course of 2019. From questioning the sovereignty of Greek islands, most prominently the island of Kastelorizo, to doubting the legitimacy of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regarding maritime delimitation, Erdogan has set out to redefine the status quo in the Mediterranean. Antagonizing the EU over Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) he seeks to secure the economic aspirations in the country’s coast and redefine the existing political order. Questioning the legitimacy of the Treaty of Sevres and the Treaty of Lausanne, he is trying to assert himself over the Mediterranean by destabilizing an already fragile region. And to make matters more intense, the presence of the Oruc Reis seismic research vessel in the Greek continental shelf predisposes both sides negatively towards a peaceful settlement of the crisis.
Erdogan operates in a climate of provocations and challenges which have, however, not directed exclusively towards the Greek side. His intervention in Libya is a case in point which emphasises his strategic interests in the broader region. Deploying the Turkish army and mercenaries from Syria to prop-up the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, he seeks to secure the regime which granted him access to the oil and gas reserves in Libyan shores. The maritime boundary treaty signed in November seeks to establish an EEZ in the Mediterranean Sea, which would allow both countries to claim right to ocean bed resources, paying no attention to previously dictated maritime borders and agreements.
For good measure, the engagement in Syria has brought Turkey in the crosshairs of the oil-rich Gulf monarchies as well. The feud between Turkey and the Gulf monarchies dates to the Arab Spring in 2011, when Ankara was actively supporting the protests in favour of the blossoming of moderate Islamist groups and their entry into politics against long-reigning Arab monarchies. Portraying Turkey as a model of political Islam which was compatible with democracy, Erdogan was disappointed when the Arab Spring revolts didn’t bring in the expected results.
But many wonder why this behaviour dominates the headlines now, pondering at the course of Turkish foreign policy that is yet to come. The question that most people find themselves asking is why now? And what is Erdogan trying to gain?
For the past centuries, borders have been systematically been drawn across continents and territories, separating and uniting countries, cultures and populations. Since the Renaissance, humans have carved up their own living space in a very complex context. Borders lay out not only national territory and geographical spaces, but the flow of ideas and the convergence of political regimes. What is at stake isn’t only the determination of some geographical space; it is the specification of political, economic and social movements that countries are able to make within the international system. They dictate the accepted courses of action and the responses that follow should these be out of line. And with the borders, both at land and in the sea, zones of dominance and established.
In the decades following the Second Word War, the importance of sea borders became increasingly more important, especially when it comes to natural resources found largely at sea and in the regions surround landmasses. The concepts of continental shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and high seas became less of jargon and more of everyday language in the game of politics. And with their existence comes a myriad of reclassification issues, as is the most prominent case between Turkey and Greece, with Cyprus being caught up in the middle of it all. Competition on the determination of territories can seldomly be resolved through international law and treaties for the simple reason that there is too much at stake for both sides. The phenomenon of territorialization is here to stay, and with it the zones of influence that each side is struggling to secure.
The state-centric focus of Erdogan’s foreign policy has been focusing on acquiring breathing space for Turkey in an increasingly more competitive world. Yet the practise of territorialization and aggressive foreign policy demands have done him no good. Questioning the existence of international treaties, as is the case for the Treaty of Lausanne and the Treaty of Sevres, of doubting the sovereignty of Aegean Islands does serve him good when it comes to distracting domestic attention from the severe economic crisis, but it brings him at a clash with the international community. The legitimacy of land and sea borders has been laid out, accepted and legalized by the majority of the players of the game Erdogan is struggling to win. And the ploys he puts in place will do him more harm than good in the long run.
Wishing to redefine the existing world order and set out favourable conditions to the current leadership, Turkish foreign policy has managed to shake up the existing world order and bring unease over the neighbouring states. Seeking to distract from domestic political and economic setbacks, Erdogan is once more rolling the dice.