Erdogan’s game-changing offensive overwhelms EU in disarray

Throughout 2020 we will watch Erdogan’s Turkey pushing the boundaries for irredentist adventures.
Sunday 05/01/2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a symposium in Ankara, January 2. (Reuters)
Insatiable appetite for control. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a symposium in Ankara, January 2. (Reuters)

The new year began with a bang. The drone attack that killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of al-Quds Force, the external wing of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will have far-reaching consequences in the Middle East and beyond, adding to the battle for influence in the region between Russia and the United States.

However, the strike does not change the situation created by Turkey’s convulsive moves in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya.

Initially underestimated and watched with measured anxiety by the European Union, the escalation reached a new level January 2 after the vote by Turkish parliament to allow Turkish troops to be dispatched to Libya, as Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed an accord for a 1,900km undersea pipeline deal in Athens.

Russia and Turkey are to sign the Turk Stream agreement, which would set up an accelerated power struggle as the countries in the region display axes being formed against each other, a dangerous development that is reminiscent of the times preceding two world wars in the 20th century.

Turkey’s policy choices have placed it in a massive vortex. In the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, it stands far closer to serving Russia’s long-term interests, while challenging the European Union and, to a great deal, the United States. As a consequence, the policies pursued by Ankara, contrary to what major European capitals seem to think, will have a determining effect on developments. The resolve of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his team in the pursuit of a high-stakes game should be better understood.

“The one who considers his own end can never become a hero,” Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay said before the vote in Turkish parliament.

What should be understood is that Ankara’s policies are designed by a solid group of adventurists circling around Erdogan, who, instead of standing up to his delusions of grandeur, seem to encourage him to pursue more daredevil gambling.

This is not without a rationale: the rudderless drift in Europe and the disarray in Washington provide a perfect setting for raising the stakes. Erdogan has long realised that, to have a say in a world in disorder, his government can and should cross the lines and do its best to benefit from fait accompli situations.

Syria was a fine example and now Ankara has its eyes set on Libya — no diplomatic bluffing there. A foothold in North Africa’s shoreline has less to do with neo-Ottoman dreams than with spreading Ikhwanism — Muslim Brotherhood ideology — having access to energy and politically winning over Africa.

“I don’t think there’s any thought of a re-establishing the Ottoman Empire with control over territory but there is a desire to establish Turkish influence throughout the former Ottoman area, which covers, of course, all of North Africa and extends into parts of sub-Saharan Africa,” said David Shinn, a former US ambassador now teaching international relations at George Washington University in an interview with Public Radio International.

“As a result, you’ve seen a major effort by Erdogan to re-establish Turkey’s interests throughout all of Africa, including those parts that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Ottoman Empire.

“A good indication of this is simply the fact that Turkey now has embassies in 42 of 54 of Africa’s countries. That’s an astounding number for an economy the size of Turkey. I think it’s an effort to establish not only a political presence but also political influence in as many countries as possible to ensure these countries’ support in forums such as the United Nations over issues like Cyprus, for example.”

Those observations are only part of a broader reality. What has united Turkey’s staunch nationalist, anti-Western circles with Erdogan was the will to recalibrate Turkish foreign policy as autonomous from American-European frameworks.

In Syria and in Libya, Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) still see an opportunity to help the Muslim Brotherhood regain the sphere of influence it lost there. The resolve with which Erdogan raises his stakes in tying his links is, in a way, an attempt to keep the AKP rule intact at home. Erdogan knows that Turkey, which he rules with the help of his Islamist circle of advisers, and his party are the last bastions of Ikhwanism — a fact often ignored by analysts.

Throughout 2020 we will watch Erdogan’s Turkey pushing the boundaries for irredentist adventures, backed by the notion that Erdogan will do his best to endorse US President Donald Trump, his only base of support in the West.

All this is fine with Russia, which sees this as its best chance for revenge after the fait accompli toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, after the adventurist move by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The stage is set for huge complications for Europe and its fragile democratic orders.

Erdogan is launching a game-changing offensive in the entire Eastern Mediterranean and he may succeed unless the European Union’s major actors master their courage and pre-empt his move. The odds of that happening are quite remote. Expect a storm ahead.