According to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current territory of Turkey is far too small. He would like to revive Pan-Turanism and combine it with a neo-Ottomanism. A concept that the great founder of the state, Atatürk, of all people, had rejected.
Turkey’s desire to expand its territory is an old hat. The idea was first propagated by the Committee for Union and Progress, which was secretly founded in Istanbul in 1889 and wanted to build a Turkish unit called Turan on the ruins of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. According to the adherents of the Turanian ideology, the Turan region includes the territories between the Iranian Plateau and the Caspian Sea. Some proponents of Turanian nationalism claim that the Turkish people include populations from western China to Eastern Europe. According to her, the current Turkic peoples include the inhabitants of Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans.
Modern Turkish leaders have also advocated for a larger Turkish state. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by the “father” of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has put itself at the head of the project. More recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the main supporter of the project after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002. His focus is on the revival of Pan-Turanism in conjunction with Neo-Ottomanism – a concept that Ataturk had discarded.
Turkey is expanding its soft power
The Turkish leadership has been trying for years to forge alliances with other states with a Muslim majority population in order to increase Turkey’s sphere of influence. During his time as Prime Minister from 1989 to 1993, Turgut Özal tried to open a new chapter in Turkish relations with Arab and Muslim countries after years of strained relations under the CHP.
in 1997, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan founded the Organization for Economic Cooperation “Developing-8”, whose members also included Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. When the AKP came to power, the Foreign Minister introduced Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, which is aimed at minimizing tensions with other Middle Eastern states.
Turkey is also expanding its soft power in the South Caucasus. The greatest success was achieved in Azerbaijan, which benefited from Turkish support in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war against Armenia in 2020. In 2017, Turkey established a military base in Qatar after reports of plans to invade the country surfaced, and in 2019 it sent troops to Libya. Their military intervention broke the siege of Tripoli by the Libyan National Army in Tobruk.
Recently, Turkey signed an agreement on military cooperation with the Libyan unity government. And while it restored relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and expressed its readiness to settle its differences with Egypt, it escalated its dispute with Greece and Cyprus over its economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean.
Subdivision of the State of Aleppo
In 2016, the Turkish state media published a new map of the country, which expanded the internationally recognized borders of the country. It included some Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, as well as an area in northern Syria that stretched from Aleppo to the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. The publication of the map coincided with Erdogan’s speech on the need to amend the Lausanne Agreement of 1923, which established the borders of modern Turkey. He also criticized Ataturk for abandoning Mosul and Aleppo.
Ankara has long sought to protect the Turkish minorities living abroad. It refused to recognize the decision of France to divide Syria into five mandated territories in the early 1920s and created the autonomous Sanjak of Alexandretta, which was later renamed Hatay – as a subdivision of the state of Aleppo. In 1936, Turkey filed a complaint with the League of Nations, claiming that the Turkish residents in Hatay were victims of ill-treatment.
A month before Ataturk’s death in 1938, the French declared the creation of the provisional state of Hatay, which was jointly administered by France and Turkey, which violated the provisions of the Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence. In 1939, Turkey annexed the territory after a fake referendum showed that most of the inhabitants were in favor of unity with the Turkish Republic.
Invasion of Cyprus
When there were clashes with Greek Cypriots in 1963, Ankara became involved in the defense of ethnic Turks in Cyprus. Turkey deployed its air force and threatened an invasion before US President Lyndon Johnson warned them of such a move. in 1974, the Cypriot National Guard staged a coup ordered by the Greek junta, which was part of a plan to unite Cyprus with Greece. Turkey took advantage of Washington’s distraction over the Watergate scandal to invade Cyprus and take control of 40 percent of the island. The northern part of Cyprus later declared its independence and established the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983.
Last month, an explosion on Istiklal Street in the heart of Istanbul killed eight people and injured dozens. Erdogan vowed revenge and blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist group by Turkey, and its operations in Kobani, Syria, for the attack. The strategically important border town was taken by the Islamic State in 2014, but was recaptured in 2015 by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers the Syrian arm of the PKK, with the help of the United States.
IS was responsible for another explosion in Istanbul’s Istiklal Street in 2016, which was part of a whole series of terrorist attacks by the group. The predominantly Kurdish movement for a democratic society, which advocates for democratic self-government in northern and eastern Syria, opposed Ankara’s claim that the PKK/YPG was responsible for the explosion last month. The movement considers this accusation as a pretext to justify the Turkish operation “Claw Sword”, a large-scale military campaign against Kurdish targets in Iraq and Syria.
A buffer zone along the border
Ankara launched Operation “Claw Sword” on November 20, about three weeks ago, which includes airstrikes and a ground campaign against Kurdish positions from Aleppo to Erbil. Erdogan says he wants to build a security belt on the Syrian side of the border that is 30 kilometers deep and more than 900 kilometers long, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iraqi border.
This is the fourth operation that Turkey has been conducting in Syria since 2016. In all previous operations, Turkey has taken control of areas in northern Syria – part of Erdogan’s stated goal in 2015 to create a buffer zone along the border. He argues that this project will protect the national interests of Turkey and help to resettle one million of the total of 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
The US and major European countries do not support Erdogan’s plan. The YPG and the Women’s Protection Units, both of which Ankara also classifies as terrorist groups, are the most important components of the Syrian Democratic Forces, with which the United States is cooperating in the fight against the Islamic State. The other participants in the Astana peace process, namely Russia and Iran, also oppose a Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
However, Erdogan is trying to take advantage of his country’s increasingly influential role as a mediator in the Ukrainian war in order to gain control over a larger part of Syria. Ankara has reached separate agreements with Washington and Moscow to remove the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) from Tal Rifaat and Manbij, two strategic cities west of the Euphrates River, as well as from areas along the border.
The agreements would have given Turkey control of the international expressway known as the M4, but the Americans and the Russians did not abide by the agreements. Now, however, they are dependent on Erdogan’s cooperation in Ukraine. After all, Turkey has become an important link between Washington and Moscow, especially after it negotiated an agreement with Russia on the export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea. Erdogan hopes that this will ensure acceptance of the operation “Claw sword”.
More than 20 new Turkish military bases
The plan consists of two parts: the claw refers to targeted air strikes, the sword refers to a ground offensive. Turkey has received the tacit consent of Russia and the United States to launch the first phase of the operation. Erdogan said that Turkey will soon attack Kurdish forces with tanks and infantry in response to the bombing in Istanbul. However, it is doubtful that the US will approve a ground offensive against the SDF.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad has handed over control of parts of northern Syria to the YPG. Assad regarded the Kurds as allies of his government, which courted the PKK leader and had granted him refuge in Damascus for almost two decades during a tense period of Turkish-Syrian relations. The Kurds felt strengthened by the outbreak of the civil war, which fueled their dream of establishing a Kurdish state in Syria on the model of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The official Turkish position is that the Kurdish separatists in Iraqi Kurdistan determine the political orientation of the Syrian Kurds. There are more than 20 Turkish military bases in northern Iraq, mainly in Bashiqa near Mosul, the country’s second largest city after Baghdad. In addition, despite the protests of the Iraqi government, Turkey is expanding its base in the Metina region in the Dohuk governorate to make it the focus of its operations against the PKK. The Turkish Interior Minister has stated that his country will act in Iraq as in Syria, controlling new territories in the north of the country.
The bursting of the shackles
In 2020, Erdogan said that the reopening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul reminded the Turkish people of their strength and symbolized their resurrection and the bursting of the shackles on their feet. He promised to continue the course until Turkey reached its goal. He also expresses that in 2023, when the country celebrates the centenary of its foundation, it will be strong, independent and prosperous.
But his expectations are unrealistic given Turkey’s economic crisis, structural weakness and collapsing currency. Erdogan’s approval ratings are falling as the Turkish population struggles to make a living and is increasingly unimpressed by his adventurism abroad. Although the war in Ukraine has increased Turkey’s importance to NATO, the US can curb Erdogan’s foreign policy ambitions if he threatens its other regional allies. Erdogan’s plans for a greater Turkey are now in question.