Soli Özel is a senior lecturer at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, Turkey. He has guest lectured at a variety of universities, including Georgetown, Harvard, Tufts, and has taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the University of Washington. Widely published as an analyst, Özel agreed to an interview with Diwan in mid-July to discuss Turkey’s regional ambitions, what lies ahead in the country’s relationships with powerful states on the Arab periphery such as Iran and Israel, and prospects for Turkish relations with NATO.
Michael Young: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to want to revive Turkey’s role as a major power in the Middle East and North Africa—even describing this power as “unstoppable.” Can you explain what the president’s ultimate objective is?
Soli Özel: For quite some time, even before Turkey switched to a presidential system, the goal of the Erdoğan government was to turn the country into a hegemonic regional power. Ahmet Davutoğlu, the theoretician behind the foreign policy of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), frequently spoke of Turkey as a regional power with a global reach, particularly after becoming foreign minister in 2009 and then prime minister in 2014. Whereas, earlier, the emphasis was on Turkey’s soft power to project influence, after the Arab uprisings and particularly after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, hard power became the instrument of choice.
The strategic ambitions of Turkey were not just the brainchild of AKP governments. Different schools of thought in the country since the end of the Cold War pushed for a more expansive view of Turkish strategic interests. Today, the more Islamically oriented strategic vision of the AKP and the more nationalistic and decidedly anti-Western strategic visions of civilian and military elites, some belonging to the Eurasianist school of thought, appear to have merged in supporting policies that favor power projection, military bases, maritime rights, and a wide autonomous space to pursue Turkish interests. A doctrine known as the “Blue Homeland” guides Erdoğan’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. This doctrine was developed by secular nationalist officers.
For Erdoğan there is also an ideological component that relates to the geopolitical and ideological rivalry with the Gulf countries and their ally Egypt for leadership of the Sunni Muslim world. To that end the campaign to build mosques throughout the world, giving protection to the Muslim Brotherhood, and championing the cause of Muslims everywhere, continues unabated—unless that campaign disrupts economic or geopolitical interests. The latter has been evident in Turkey’s deafening silence toward China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
Yet, an arguably overstretched Turkey relies on at least tacit U.S. support in Libya. Erdoğan is the most frequent caller of President Donald Trump, according to many news reports and the memoirs of the former U.S. national security advisor, John Bolton. So, the American dimension cannot be underestimated in Turkey’s activism
MY: What to do you see as the pillars of this projection of Turkish power regionally, and how does Erdoğan’s recent decision to reopen Hagia Sophia as a mosque play into this?
SÖ: The decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque was a function mainly of domestic considerations, but it also served Erdoğan’s claim to leadership of the Sunni world. The Arabic version of the announcement by the presidency mentioned the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The act fulfilled one of the most important political ambitions of Turkish political Islam and was presented first and foremost as a sovereign act, which it was. Erdoğan may have anticipated strong reactions from the West, but in the event the reactions were mainly muted. With the move, Turkey’s sovereignty and guardianship of its Muslim heritage were presumably reasserted. The West’s lame reaction in turn fed the image of the unstoppable nature of a country that leads an Islamic civilization on the rise.
MY: What dynamics have driven Erdoğan to project himself as a strong Sunni leader for the societies of the Arab world, and what does this tell us about the Gulf states, the traditional Sunni representatives, which themselves have shown undue assertiveness in recent years?
SÖ: A long time ago Erdoğan forged a close alliance with Qatar. Turkey also sought good relations with Saudi Arabia, and until the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power as a result of the Arab uprisings, these relations remained by and large cordial. In fact, in the initial stages of the Syrian uprising Ankara and Riyadh worked in tandem. In the wake of the coup in Egypt in July 2013 that deposed then-president Mohammed Morsi, the relations soured. However, after the death of King ‘Abdullah in January 2015, Erdoğan initiated a new relationship with King Salman to push for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. That effort failed for a variety of reasons, most notably because Russia intervened in full force in the war and helped save the regime.
Since then, Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which align with Egypt, have greatly deteriorated. Turkey sided with Qatar, where it has a military base, when the Gulf Cooperation Council imposed an embargo on Doha, and it deployed a small military contingent to help the emirate. Erdoğan continued to criticize the regime of President ‘Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the murder of a prominent Saudi journalist in Istanbul. And the UAE and Egypt are Turkey’s bitter rivals in the Libyan civil war.
From Erdoğan’s standpoint this is all related to the leadership contest for the Sunni Muslim world. The Gulf states are not keen to let him become such a leader.
MY: How do you foresee Turkey’s relations with the two other non-Arab peripheral powers in the Middle East, namely Iran and Israel, in the future?
SÖ: Turkey does not share Saudi or Israeli hysteria when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, although it has concerns and reservations about the program, Tehran’s regional ambitions, and the so-called Shi‘a Crescent. Ankara has always opposed the sanctions regime against Iran, received exemptions, and helped in undermining it. However, this time around it ceased buying oil from its neighbor. Ankara and Tehran have cooperated in the Astana process over Syria, with Russia, although their endgames and aspirations are mostly diametrically opposed in Iraq and Syria. Both claim to be champions of the Palestinians, but Turkey has diplomatic ties with Israel.
There are indications that intelligence cooperation may be continuing between Israel and Turkey despite their estrangement and the personal animosity between Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s closeness and cooperation on Eastern Mediterranean energy issues with Egypt, Greece, and the Greek administration in Cyprus has led many to believe that it would be impossible to put the relations with Turkey back on track. A significant warming of relations is not expected in the immediate future but the strategic imperative that ties Israel and Turkey still exists. In fact, when Israel’s partners in the EastMed pipeline project and the UAE issued a joint declaration on May 11 that harshly criticized Turkey and its actions, Israel chose not to be a part of it. Nor did Netanyahu respond positively to the alarmist messages of his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis about Turkey during Mitsotakis’ visit to Israel in June. Finally, if Israel starts annexing part of the West Bank, Turkey both as a nation and as current president of the Islamic Organization Conference will respond strongly, but this will probably remain limited to a rhetorical response.
MY: What are the risks inherent in Erdoğan’s newfound assertiveness, and can the Turkish economy sustain such an approach?
SÖ: In a limited way in Syria, where Turkey is unlikely to leave areas where it has intervened since August 2016, effectively creating a partial version of its desired security zone, Turkey has been successful. Although Ankara’s ambition to change the Syrian regime was thwarted, its geography, military presence, and strategic assets secured her place as a relevant actor in the post-conflict period.
In Libya, Turkey militarily turned the tide against General Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, France, and Russia, and asserted itself as a player to be reckoned with. It now has to turn the military advantage it gained into a diplomatic process since the Turkish economy in its current state is unlikely to sustain such ambitious foreign policy ventures indefinitely.
MY: Does the new Turkish attitude threaten the country’s presence in the NATO alliance? If so, how?
SÖ: At the Nineteenth Doha Forum last December, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar answered a question about Turkey’s relation with NATO in this way: “We are at the center of NATO. We are not going anywhere, we are in NATO.” Despite the purchase of Russian S-400s by Turkey, Ankara’s intimate strategic relations with Russia, deep-seated resentment toward the NATO allies for their lack of solidarity with the elected government during the botched coup attempt, and frequent pronouncements by many pundits that Turkey does not belong in NATO, Turkey remains in the organization. Ankara relies on the alliance, albeit seeking a high degree of autonomy, for its security and participates in NATO exercises even in regions that are not traditionally within Turkey’s sphere of interest. The limits of its affection for Russia were demonstrated last May when two U.S. B-1 Lancer aircraft were refueled in Turkish airspace over the Black Sea. Given that since the end of the Cold War Turkey, along with Russia, had tried to keep the Black Sea off limits to the United States and NATO, this was pretty significant.