international analysis and commentary

Turkey’s imperial ambitions between dreams and reality


Recover the Ottoman Empire’s geopolitical space. Balance between ambitions and means. This is the paradigm that has driven Turkey’s foreign policy since its foundation in 1923. Ideology, Islam and secularism are mere tools at the service of the Turkish nation.

The transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was accompanied by the loss of all territories in the Middle East and the Balkans, except Eastern Thrace. Unlike the Muslim and multi-national Ottoman Empire, the Kemalist Republic was built on secularism, Turkish ethno-nationalism and a pro-Western stance.

Ataturk understood that to consolidate the new republic it was necessary to put human development before territorial expansion. This translated into his motto of “peace at home, peace in the world. However, it did not prevent him from leaving a revisionist testament, namely the mission of annexing Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, Cyprus, the Aegean islands and Western Thrace. Furthermore, although Kemalism did not explicitly pursue pan-Turkism – a political doctrine that aims at unifying Turkophone nations from the Caucasus to Central Asia – it did not oppose the pan-Turkish ideal.

After its neutrality in World War II, Turkey’s foreign policy continued to be inspired by a pro-Western posture. In 1952, it joined NATO and began to receive aid from the US. This allowed Ankara to build NATO’s second largest army. In 1963, it entered into an association agreement with the then European Economic Community.

The bipolar system of the Cold War made it impossible for Ankara to go beyond its geopolitical function of containment of the USSR in the Black Sea. However, Turkey did not miss the rare opportunities to challenge the status quo in the Eastern Mediterranean – as in the Greek-Turkish crises of 1964, 1996 and above all 1974, when it intervened in Cyprus and created the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

At the end of the 1980s, two events laid the ground for a re-orientation of its foreign policy. Firstly, the referendum lifting the ban on the party expression of Milli Gorus (National Vision), a movement championing political Islam, contributed to the dismantling of the Kemalist system and the adoption of a foreign policy more independent from the West.

Secondly, the fall of the Berlin Wall created the conditions for Turkey’s revisionism. However, in the 1990s Ankara was still pursuing a policy of full alignment with the West, as demonstrated by its application for EU membership in 1987 and the inauguration of a customs union with the EU in 1996.


Erdogan’s imperial ambitions

The rise to power in 2002 of Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a former Milli Gorus adept – and his Islamist and conservative Party of Justice and Development (AKP) accentuated the process of national-Islamic re-orientation. Divided by values, Ataturk and Erdogan are united by the same fervent nationalism.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at the seat of his party, under huge portraits of Kemal Ataturk and himself


The basic assumption of Turkish foreign policy, taken up by Ahmet Davutoglu, Foreign Minister from 2009 to 2014, is that Anatolia is a bridge between Europe, Africa and Asia, and therefore that Ankara’s geopolitical interests must be pursued through a strategic depth that spans the three continents.

This means that Anatolia’s security must be pursued in a macro-region from Sarajevo and Tripoli through Mykolajiv and Baghdad to Kabul, Mogadishu and Karachi.

Nevertheless, in the first decade of the century, the doctrine of strategic depth was applied through international economic integration, soft power and building a context of peace as expressed by the slogan “zero problems with neighbors”. Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism in his liberal version was meant to make Turkey the leader of the Middle East and gain credentials for its access to the EU. Indeed, after 9/11, efforts to credit Turkey as a model of moderate Islam received support from Washington and the European capitals.

The soft power exercised through Turkish schools and the success of Turkish television series contribute to creating a cultural humus favorable to Ankara’s penetration. Likewise, contracts to Turkish companies abroad and trade agreements are another pillar of Ankara’s foreign policy.

Pan-Turkism is pursued through the Turkic Council, which promotes cooperation between Turkish-speaking countries. Ankara’s goal is to expand the bond between Turkey and Azerbaijan, united by a mutual defense treaty, to the whole Central Asia including Pakistan – already a close ally – and Afghanistan.

The Balkans are another region where Turkey leverages on its historical presence and aims at opening its way to Europe through the Muslim corridor Macedonia-Albania-Kosovo-Novi Pazar-Bosnia. Erdogan openly intervenes in the electoral campaigns of the countries of the region by supporting pro-Turkey candidates.


Distancing from the West

The events of the 2010s led to Turkey’s repositioning. Western support of the coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi’s regime in Egypt, the anti-Erdogan protests of Gezi Park, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq, as well as the attempted coup in 2016 persuaded the Turkish leader that the West is not ready to back his policy.

These events led to three main developments. Firstly, the failed coup gave Erdogan the opportunity to marginalize the opposition and promote a constitutional referendum concentrating power to the president.

Secondly, Erdogan embraced precious loneliness, meaning advancing Turkey’s interests without obligations of loyalty to traditional allies. In other words, balancing NATO membership through cooperation with Russia, China, Iran and other states allergic to the US-led international order. Immediate effects were the decision to buy the Russian anti-aerial defense system S-400 and the launch of the Astana process with Moscow and Tehran on Syria.

Thirdly, Ankara complemented the strategic depth with the doctrine of the blue homeland, announced after the recognition by the EU of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This doctrine was created to provide a legal basis to Turkey’s claims on what it considers its liquid vital space. However, it projects Turkey’s ambitions westward to the Strait of Gibraltar and West Africa, and eastward through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Somali coast and the Indian Ocean, so as to rejoin the Turanic world through Pakistan. A necessary corollary for its implementation is the development of a navy up to the task.

The immediate effects of the adoption of the latter doctrine were the worsening of relations with Israel, the failure of the Crans Montana talks on the future of Cyprus and the establishment of the East Med Gas Forum – a consortium of Eastern Mediterranean gas producers without Ankara, with a leading role played by Italy.

But Turkey used the Libyan crisis to break the encirclement. In November 2019, Ankara asked Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to conclude an agreement for the delimitation of the respective EEZs. This agreement establishes a common border between Turkey’s EEZ and the one of Cyrenaica, allowing Turkish waters to wedge between the Greek-Cypriot ones and gain access to the open Mediterranean.

One month later, the GNA, threatened by the advance of the Russia-supported Libyan National Army (LNA), requested military aid from Turkey, which responded positively on the condition that Tripoli shall not denounce the Turkish-Libyan agreement if Libya is one day reunified.


Read also: Turkey’s moves in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean: ambitions and interests


Libya is also the terminal from which the strategic depth in Africa unravels. The Western line of expansion reaches the Atlantic coast through Algeria, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Gambia. The East African route reaches the Indian Ocean through Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. All these countries are linked to Turkey by close ties.

The second Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh allowed Turkey to reset the status quo in the Caucasus. Ankara’s military support was not only decisive for Baku’s victory, but also allowed Turkey to secure a direct link with Central Asia.

But in 2021 Ankara realized it was isolated.


The Ukrainian crisis and future prospects

The Ukraine war is another opportunity taken by Turkey to raise its bargaining power.

Keeping Russia far from the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits is a constant geopolitical imperative of Turkey. Russia’s attacks on Ukraine represent a setback for Ankara, which condemned Russia at the UN, closed the Straits and blocked its airspace to Russian planes bound for Syria. This explains why Turkey is helping Ukraine to resist, supplying it with drones and corvettes.


Read more: Turkey’s modern way of doing foreign policy: drone diplomacy


However, for Turkey, mediation is an obligatory choice to not be permanently ousted from the former Soviet republic. Furthermore, with the cut of Russian energy supplies along the North corridor, the collaboration with Putin allows Erdogan to make the most of the Anatolian corridor. For this reason, too, he did not approve the sanctions against Moscow.

Perhaps more importantly, although Turkey is Russia’s adversary in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, it needs to foster collaboration with Moscow in order to be able to raise the price of its loyalty to America. For Erdogan, the alliance with the US is functional “to Turkey’s business”. The mantra is to take advantage of America’s distraction to fill the vacuum left by the superpower or even play between Washington, Beijing and Moscow to get the most out of them all.

Erdogan’s success in stemming Russia in Syria, Libya, the Caucasus and Central Asia has led the US to be permissive with the new Sultan as demonstrated by Washington’s withdrawal of support to the EastMed pipeline project.

But Erdogan’s imperial ambitions are clashing against the economic reality. Plagued by an 80% inflation and a 50% devaluation of the Turkish lira, the Erdoganomics have not produced benefits yet.

Elections will be held next year. Consensus for the AKP is below 30%, a result that would challenge Erdogan’s power. His assertiveness on the international stage can be explained only partially as a diversion to distract his fellow citizens’ attention from economic problems. Turkey’s ambitions would not likely disappear with a change in leadership. The imbalance between ambitions and means will be the best guarantee against Turkey’s expansionism.