Turkey's Neo-Ottoman resurgence

Brodie McLaughlin

Across the last decade, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has utilised all political mechanisms at his disposal–including a constitutional referendum–to enhance his authoritarian grasp over Turkey. Recently, Erdoğan's domestic reformation has been accompanied by an increased regional resurgence, as he reasserts Turkey's presence on the global stage. Erdoğan draws these regional ambitions from his belief that Turkey is the natural descendant of the former Ottoman Empire. An empire which ruled over large portions of the Middle East, northern Africa, and South-East Europe. Erdoğan strives to draw upon this "sense of greatness" to "craft a Turkey that bestrides the world."

Erdoğan's ambition for greater regional significance has unironically led Turkey's foreign policy into many of the domains once controlled by the former Ottoman empire. One of the most publicised examples of Turkey's increased regional presence is their continual role in the nine-year-long civil war in Syria. Turkey has manoeuvred its way into becoming one of the chief negotiating powers in the conflict alongside Russia, and the only real representative of the anti-government side.


Turkey has shown its interest in worn-torn Syria, launching several military incursion against the Kurdistan YPG–whom Turkey views to be an extension of the domestic PKK insurgent group. This intervention led to the creation of a Turkish controlled 'safe-zone' in northern Syria. This safe zone carves out greater territory for Turkish state control and allows Erdoğan to project Turkish power into Syria. This agreement also creates a larger buffer zone between the instability within Syria and the Turkish border.


Turkey's influence in Syria has also led to the demilitarisation of the Idlib region; in an attempt to stem the bloodshed, providing Turkish-backed rebel soldiers with a safe haven from the Syrian military. However, there has been strong disputes between the Turkish and Russian governments over the application of this agreement. Both sides have accused the other of violating the terms of the deal. The break-down has resulted in several devastating Syrian offensives, which has, in turn, prompted a series of Turkish military responses. Overall, the Syrian civil war continues to provide opportunities for Erdoğan to flex Turkey's muscles and advertise his willingness to use the Turkish military in the region.


Another arena to observe Turkey's growing regional ambition is in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has initiated a two-pronged approach to Libya–also in the grips of a civil war –which threatens to have resounding implications for the region as a whole. Firstly, Turkey's financial and military support for the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has helped counteract the anti-government offensive led by General Khalifa Haftar. The anti-government forces are supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and France. Similarly to Syria, this has rendered Turkey a prominent power broker in the ongoing dispute.


However, more importantly, this assistance to the GNA has prompted the creation of a maritime agreement that establishes a Libya-Turkey exclusive economic zone between their two coasts. The exploration of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean has been a long-standing geopolitical issue between coastal states. This deal, not only works to expand Turkey's claims over disputed oil and exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also furthers Turkey's ability to project its power in the region. This is due to the implications of this deal on proposed energy projects led by the coalition of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Greece. The coalition has planned to establish $7-9 billion worth of gas pipelines through the Eastern Mediterranean in a bid to export gas into the European energy network through Greece. However, this exclusive economic zone would potentially impede such projects, forcing Turkey into future negotiations surrounding eastern Mediterranean energy development. This multifaceted move by Turkey seeks to expand its regional power and help maintain its position as a self-proclaimed energy hub.


The final example of Turkey's regional significance is its bargaining power over the European Union (EU) concerning migration. The EU is deeply reliant on Turkey to stem the flow of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa into Europe. During the 2015 migrant crisis, the world already witnessed the social and political effects of unchecked immigration into Europe; with the issue becoming a flashpoint for many European states across the last few years.


There are growing fears of another looming migrant crisis of potentially greater proportion. Erdoğan has threatened to maintain an 'open-door' policy, contradicting the 2016 agreement with the EU to stem the flow of migrants. This follows a mass exodus from Syria's Idlib region, where at least 900,000 people are fleeing towards Turkey, which already hosts approximately 3.7 million Syria refugees. Erdoğan is leveraging the flow of migrants to push for greater EU compensation for housing refugees and more support for his various geopolitical ambitions. The influence that Turkey wields over Europe is regularly undervalued, with Turkey holding the potential to disrupt European societies and politics by allowing the unregulated flow of migrants into the EU.


Although the morality of Turkey's various regional assertions is often questionable, Erdoğan's ambitions for a regionally dominant Turkey is undeniable. In the future, we will likely continue to witness an increasingly unrestrained Turkey, as Erdoğan strives for greater regional and global significance in the old Ottoman backyard.


Brodie McLaughlin was the recipient of the 2019 International Studies award following the completion of his honours in International Studies. He is currently undertaking a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

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