Are Erdogan’s ambitions for a new Ottoman Empire becoming too big for NATO?

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NATO is the most powerful military organization in the world, primarily because it manages to exhibit force globally, but also because – alongside its military capacity – NATO generates stability for its members.

Turkey has long been the only Muslim nation in NATO, and for this reason, it is one of the most stable Islamic nations in the world. Following the September 11 attacks, Turkey’s entire geopolitical role was reassigned.

Ankara became an essential pivot for NATO, but especially for the United States. Since 2004, Turkey has become the second-largest state – in terms of military engagement – in the Alliance’s operations, trailing only the United States. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later in disagreements with Russia, brought Turkey to the forefront of foreign policy decisions, and the Turkish secret services became key players in the Black Sea area and in the Middle East.

Relations between Ankara and Washington, however, suffered a sharp downturn after the failed July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. Erdogan directly blamed the CIA for being involved in the bungled attempt to overthrow him. Erdogan then began a diplomatic war with the United States over the expulsion of his arch-enemy, the exiled cleric, and former Erdogan ally, Fethullah Gulen.


This was followed by Turkey’s strengthening of relations with Russia and the acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems. In addition to its buddling relationship with Moscow, Turkey has continued to exploit older conflicts with Greece and France, both of which are fellow NATO members.

The Mediterranean – casus belli

The rivalry between Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslim Turks dates back nearly a 1,000 year when the Turkic tribes of Central Asia began to attack the Byzantine Empire. The current borders between the two countries were established by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

A turning point in Greek-Turkish relations came during the invasion of Cyprus by Turkish troops in 1974. To maintain the appearance of the Treaty of Lausanne, Ankara did not annex Northern Cyprus, but instead forced the establishment of a Turkish Cypriot puppet state. Turkey is, to date, the sole country to recognize the so-called ‘Turkish Republic of North Cyprus’. This wound has never been closed, and the bitter tensions between Ankara and Athens have been both constant and have worsened over the last four-plus decades.

Having consolidated his power, Erdogan’s Turkey has taken on an increasingly bellicose and irredentist tone in the Easter  Mediterranean, particularly over energy resources with Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey has already sent oil and gas drilling vessels off the coast of Cyprus that were accompanied by combat vessels from the Turkish Navy. In domestic propaganda, Erdogan boasts about his aggressive approach, including his claim to waters that are 320 kilometers off Turkey coast, a ridiculous stance that violates the recognized international law on ownership of a part of the Mediterranean that falls within the exclusive economic zone of the Greek state.

Greece is economically and militarily incapable of having a an all-out war with Turkey as it relies on the support of the EU and other NATO states – most notably the US and France. Thus, every incursion of Turkish planes into Greek airspace is accompanied by protests in Athens.

Turkish doctrine in the Mediterranean has recently been tempered by France, a major player in both the EU and the region. Paris is increasingly disturbed by Ankara’s claims and Erdogan’s military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

After the UK officially left the EU, France remained the only nuclear-armed power in the European Union. Paris now believes that if Germany wants to claim the title of “Europe’s engine”, France should be the “gendarme of Europe.” As a result, the Mediterranean has become a key foreign policy point for Elysee decision-makers.

Turkey, a regional power

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One must never forget that Turkey is the successor-state to the Ottoman Empire, and that in a unipolar or bipolar world, Turkey would be considered a good regional power that depends technologically and financially on the center. But in the current multi-polar world, Ankara wants to play all its cards.

Turkey’s geographical position places it in a keyspace as a gateway to the East that is physically connected to Europe. It is an entry and exit point for both the Mediterranean and Black seas. It has a population of over 85 million, the 18th largest economy in the world and the second-largest NATO army. Furthermore, it is also home to an American nuclear arsenal at Incirlik Air Base. All of these details cannot be overlooked. 

It is important to note that Turkey has been under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian rule since 2003. In the 18 years that he has been in power, he has led the modern Turkish state with an iron fist. Turkey’s prisons are full of political opponents and journalists who have criticized Erdogan, especially after the 2016 failed coup.

Under Erdogan, Turkey has moved away from any semblance of adhering to Western democratic values and has, instead, enthusiastically embraced Erdogan’s religious-based imperial ambitions in the Balkans, Caucasus, and the Middle East

Turkey’s web of interests 

Erdogan understood early in his rule that Turkey would never join the European Union. He saw that opposition to Turkey’s potential ascension to the EU was too strong from several European countries, particularly Greece and France. Furthermore, Erdogan, almost from the start, began to view the EU as an adversary who could later be blackmailed with the threat of waves of migrants from other Muslim nations and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the Balkans, Erdogan is well aware that Turkey has the strongest NATO presence outside those of NATO members from the former Yugoslavia and Albania. He is also conscious of the fact that Turkey is the only real counterweight to the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. In the Caucasus and the Middle East, Erdogan has positioned Turkey directly against American interests.

Knowing this, Erdogan has played a very dangerous game of balancing between the US and Russia.

Although the Turkish lira has lost most of its value and the economy has cratered as a result of the COVID-19 health crisis, Turkey continues to launch increasingly ambitious projects. Erdogan is now proposing a project that he calls “The Platform of the Six Countries”, which will be an unspecified collaboration area that will involve Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Iran. It accepts Chinese money and announces large infrastructure projects, especially in Istanbul, and exponentially increases armament costs.

On the domestic policy front, Erdogan radically changed his approach to the Kurdish issue by becoming far more aggressive and dictatorial. In recent years, Turkey has launched massive ground and air operations against Kurdish positions in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Some reports have even suggested that the Turkish secret services collaborated with ISIS to combat the Kurds.

Virtually all of Ankara’s strategy in relation to the Middle East has changed. Erdogan still dreams of reconstituting the former Ottoman Empire throughout the Near East. In this way, Turkey has become an active player in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and, more recently, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the case of the latter, Turkey’s open embrace of the terrorist group Hamas, which rules over the Gaza Strip, is meant as a signal to the entire Muslim world that Ankara is ready to fight for the Palestinian cause.

Erdogan’s game in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, in addition to the PR component, an important economic variable – he wants access to oil in the Eastern Mediterranean without the involvement of Israel, Egypt, Greece or Cyprus.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the Turkish-Palestinian corridor is intended to be a major step towards the exclusion of Israel from the exploitation of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara specifically wants to try to export the same corridor model that it is signed with the Turkey-aligned Government of National Accord in Libya. Erdogan wants an agreement with Gaza, meaning with Hamas, to have access to water and energy rights off the coast of Israel. Hamas’ leaders have already indicated that they will gladly give up any claims of energy resource exploitation in exchange for military aid from the Turks.

A security pact between Turkey and the Palestinian Authority was signed by Erdogan and the PA in 2018 and approved on June 8, 2021, by the National Security Council. This agreement grants Palestinian militants access to training at Turkey’s Academy of Gendarmerie and Coast Guard. 

Although the Turkish plan has been condemned by Israel, the US and EU, Erdogan still has powerful allies in Iran and Qatar that back his vision for Turkish support of the Palestinians.

Is there any room for Turkey within NATO when considering Erdogan’s ambitions?

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Turkey’s interests have for years ceased to coincide with the interests of the West, particularly those of NATO. From Erdogan’s geopolitical games to the rapid departure from the values ​​of democracy, it is clear that Ankara is taking another path.

Following the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile systems, Turkey is no longer seen as a trusted member of NATO. If the brewing conflict with Greece, could be overcome, the US would struggle to overcome its distrust of Ankara’s relations with Moscow. 

The Biden administration will act more forcefully with Turkey than Donald Trump, who enjoyed a close personal connection to Erdogan. For his part, Erdogan cannot assume that a withdrawal of the S-400s would be politically possible, so he will continue to install the missile systems.

Ultimately, NATO cannot under any circumstances integrate the S-400s into the united NATO defence umbrella; this will fully affect the relationship between the Alliance and Ankara.

Erdogan’s Turkey seems or wants to look ready for the next step. It wants to play a much stronger game in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East. NATO membership, according to Erdogan’s view, hinders that plan.

There has been talk of moving the US nuclear arsenal from Turkey to other NATO countries in Eastern Europe. If this happens, it will be a signal that Turkey, for all intents and purposes, is no longer a part of NATO.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and President Ilham Aliyev (R) of Azerbaijan attend a military parade dedicated to the two countries’ victory in the most recent Karabakh War. EPA-EFE//ROMAN ISMAYILOV

However, one must consider that Turkey is interesting for all the countries where it has natural assets precisely because it is a member of NATO. Russia, for example, would not be so inclined to push for Turkish favors if Turkey were to permanently renounce its membership in NATO. Moreover, Moscow would quickly pounce on the opportunity to crush Turkey’s interests in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, areas where the two are historical and natural enemies.

Turkey’s game is not just a mere proposition of ego or a result of multipolarity. On this complex board of interests, movements, diplomacy and economy, Turkey must consider an element that all empires are bound to – its geographical position. Regardless of the nature of the regime, or the brute force surrounding its speech, this version of Turkey is most likely evolving away from the Western democratic ideals, but the country is stuck to its current predicament – being forced to simultaneously shape its politics to Asia and Europe. 

Turkey may be too big for Europe, but is, and will remain in the foreseeable future, too small for Asia. The ultimate result in the years to come will be that the uncomfortable marriage with NATO, which Ankara so publicly and eagerly denounces, is a must.

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