Turkey at Crossroads: Between Islamic Power Projection and International Isolationism

The recent Turkish assertiveness in Cypriot Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), defied the United States (US) and the European Union’s (EU) objections to mining in a region of Cyprus´ sovereign rights, as defined by International Law, and threatens to initiate a conflict with more countries involved. The island of Cyprus is at the centre of the oil and trade routes in the Eastern Mediterranean, marking it of vital importance to the economic interests of multiple actors in the region for the exploitation of the energy reserves, whether discovered or not. The drilling issue has once again become a thorn between Turkey and Cyprus, which has severed their diplomatic ties since the 1974 war on the island and further complicates the regional security system. According to Walker “Turkey’s overall approach to its neighbours was characterised by confrontation, mistrust, and the use of threats and force” (2011, p. 6).


Maria (Mary) Papageorgiou


Political Reflection Magazine – Issue 22

The energy resources, particularly natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, have constituted a central issue in Turkish foreign policy, and along with the country’s burgeoning economy makes President Erdogan’s interest in natural resources in the Aegean more urgent. Turkey is highly dependent on fuel imports and certainly the ability to cover much of its needs would be a tremendous financial boost to its already crumbling economy. Turkey is aware of the significant role of natural gas for the country from different aspects: such as its environmental friendliness compared to fossil fuels, but its economic advantages in supporting the rise of urbanisation, industrialisation and transportation throughout the country. However, Turkey’s primary concern is to safeguard its position as a transit hub for the EU oil and gas supplies and not to be excluded from future agreements in the region. The Turkish assertiveness in the region, except a direct threat to the sovereignty of Cyprus, once more creates tensions with Turkey’s long-feuding neighbour and NATO ally Greece, creating instability in regional relations and a blow to trade and economic activities among countries through the Aegean Sea while posing strains to the strategic alliance fermentations between the neighbouring countries in the region geopolitically important for the US, the EU, China and Russia. The dispute over drilling poses several internal and external challenges to Erdogan’s policies. The latest development with the agreement between Turkey and Libya, which demarcates an 18.6-nautical mile (35-kilometre) line as the maritime boundary between the two countries’ respective exclusive economic zones, presents a clear political message. Turkey moves away from multilateralism to enhancing bilateral relations with similar regimes in an attempt to project its power in the region and its dominance in the contested waters that have risen concerns to Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt.

Domestic Policy

2016 has been a critical year for Turkey’s democratic orientation, mainly due to the resignation of ”moderate” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the failed military coup against Erdogan, that led the country to a three-month state of emergency and a series of measures that restricted or suspended rights and freedoms. Upon  Erdogan´s return in the country, the “witch hunt” of his opponents was initiated by marginalising opposition forces, arresting and replacing officers in the army, policy, educational institutions and the public service, which also resulted in violations against journalists. The new transformation of the domestic structure was built upon a subservient press and judicial system. The government also decided to suspend its adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights temporarily during the period of the “purge”, causing outrage in the EU and national NGOs. More importantly, the shift from a parliamentarian to a presidential system gave Erdogan full control in the executive system and legislature manoeuvres, resembling similarities with the theocratic regimes of Iran and bearing a stronger ‘Islamicization’ on his proclaims about the forms to be adopted. For some analysts and scholars, this turn was perceived as the “de-democratisation” (Somer, 2016) of Turkey and is also depicted in Freedom House annual report which moved Turkey from “partly free” to “not free” category in 2018.

The economy of the country during that period started facing a downturn mainly due to uncertainties caused by the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis, the slowdown in tourism due to the coup, unsuccessful internal economic policies and tighter control of the economy. The devaluation of the lira and soaring inflation has discouraged investments in the country. Under this background and despite Erdogan’s win in the presidential elections in June 2018, his appeal to the public seemed to be diminishing, especially after losing two big cities of Ankara and Istanbul in the local elections of March 2019. Despite using every possible means to support his preferred candidates and calling for a new election, the result remained the same. Still, the popularity of Erdogan remains high due to his past achievements in the economy but also in certain segments of Turkey’s population that favour the presence of religion to politics. His rhetoric has strong nationalistic and religious discourse command, serving as an antidote to a beleaguered economy in a recession, high unemployment and as a cover-up to the steady turn in an increasingly authoritarian system.

New turn on foreign policy

Turkey’s stands between two continents: the Middle East and Europe with different security environments, political systems and cultural traits (Kizner, 2001). Its geopolitical place established Turkey as a valuable ally not only due to controlling the maritime trade routes or being a major energy transit corridor but also for the security of Europe and the US’s interests in the Middle East.

Erdogan’s offensive foreign policy in Cyprus and interventionism in Syria are parts of a foreign policy agenda that has been formulated under the “neo-Ottoman dogma”, and continuously evolving under the rapidly shifting geopolitical circumstances and signifies an apparent return to power politics in the international system (Haugom, 2019).

Therefore, this newly Turkish assertiveness has posed difficulties in key Western foreign policy plans. On the European front, Turkey has created tensions with European countries, such as Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. It escalated in 2017 because of Ankara’s hawkish rhetoric and provocations, especially on the refugee crisis making the prospects of accession to the EU extremely difficult. Turkey has also created an estranged relationship with the US both due to its involvement in Syria and its pro-Russian stance that was made even worse with the possible buyout of S-400, leading to Turkey’s latest international isolation and loss of the “favourite ally” position in the Mediterranean. US-Turkey relations have been strained significantly in the last year, particularly for contention points that include the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the detainment of American Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and delays in his release, the violation of American sanctions posed against Iran,  US involvement in Syria, the ongoing US effort to weaponise the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the recognition of the Armenian genocide by US Congress. The US has threatened sanctions in many of the latest crises, but the geopolitical importance of Turkey has made it a reluctant choice. Thus, despite the longstanding and ‘strategic’ nature of Ankara and Washington bilateral relations, it can no longer be taken for granted as it does not adhere to Western values and core principles showing that it is moving away from the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and further approaching absolutism—and Russia. Still, the tactical cooperation between Turkey and Russia is enriched with mistrust due to the downing of a Russian fighter plane in November 2015, the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara in December 2016 and the clashing interests in Syria. Turkish-Russian ”marriage of convenience” is, however, mostly an expression of Turkey’s bargaining power vis-á-vis the West to gain concessions (Yegin, 2019; Demiryol, 2018) than a close alignment.

Despite considerations of Erdogan’s unpredicted foreign policy by examining the transitioning international system and the emergence of new power politics, it is observable that he is wedded to a realist-based, independent foreign policy, perceiving national independence and national interests over cooperation (Taspinar, 2011). Turkey’s foreign policy actions serve a double purpose: the so-call perceived hegemonic ambitions and power projection of Turkey as both a regional power and “protector” of the Muslim minorities. However, this quest for more strategic autonomy and regional leadership makes the country an uncertain ally advancing its Western isolationism (Phillips, 2017).

Nonetheless, it is evident that Turkey is faced with a delicate balancing act as being trapped not between Moscow and Washington since its position does not coincide with either, but on what role to continue to play: the pro-Western faithful ally or an independent regional power in the making in the search for the “Blue Homeland”.


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