A Turkish foreign policy treading on Ottoman footprints

Ankara could soon realise that domestic divisions and economic fragility are what will determine its regional influence

Updated - October 18, 2021 01:03 am IST

Published - October 18, 2021 12:02 am IST

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey October 11, 2021. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE./File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey October 11, 2021. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE./File Photo

All across the former Ottoman realm, there is today a Turkish presence — diplomatic, economic and even military — as the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seeks to reshape his modern nation with the imprint of its earlier Islamic and military glory. Turkish troops have penetrated deep into Iraq and Syria. Turkish officers are advising the Islamist faction in Libya and supporting it with mercenaries from Syrian militia. Turkey’s navy has become an aggressive presence in the East Mediterranean and is asserting control over gas reserves that Greece and Cyprus claim as their own.

Military, diplomatic moves

Turkey is also a military player in the south Caucasus; last year, it supported Azerbaijan against its arch-rival, Armenia, and secured a victory for its protégé that gave it a large part of the territory it claimed from its neighbour. And, as the modern-day sultan claims the Islamic heritage of the Ottomans, he has been confronting till recently the opponents of political Islam in the region — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.


These robust initiatives have created concerns among regional players — the Ottomans’ traditional rivals, Iran and Russia, and the contemporary superpower, the United States. With them, Turkey is engaged in complex brinkmanship, in turn confrontationist and accommodative, that imparts tension and uncertainty to these important relationships.

Turkey’s military forays into Syria and Iraq have a contemporary urgency — the aspirations of the Kurds for autonomy, if not independence.

In Iraq, Turkey regularly pounds the Turkish Kurds who have taken sanctuary in the Iraqi mountains, with its air force and carries out targeted killings of local commanders with its lethal drones. In Syria, the contiguity of territories under Kurdish control has been broken by Turkey’s three military incursions since 2016 and most of the Syrian-Turkish border is now under Turkish control.


Turkey is also involved in a complex charade at Idlib, the last bastion in Syria in rebel hands. Here, it is trying to get the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra, to merge with the Syrian National Army, a coalition of rebel forces it has put together. Turkey believes that, with the formidable HTS on its side, it will be able to contain Kurdish aspirations in northern Syria with local militia.

Beyond West Asia, two hotspots have emerged — again in old Ottoman territory. Having obtained control over the Nakhchivan enclave in the west of Armenia, Azerbaijan now demands control over the passageway, called the Zangezur corridor, that would link Azerbaijan with the enclave. This corridor, if conceded, would cut off Iran’s direct link with Armenia, which is Iran’s sole land route to the northern Caucasus, while giving Turkey a direct route to Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics, bypassing Iran.

This issue has divided the region — Turkey has put together a tripartite security alliance of itself, Georgia and Azerbaijan, while Iran has affirmed its ties with Armenia and has carried out military exercises at the Azerbaijan border.

Also read | Defying Turkey, Joe Biden recognises Armenian genocide

Again, Turkey is highlighting its ties with Georgia and Ukraine, rejecting Russia’s “illegal occupation” of the Crimea and providing Ukraine with military drones. From June this year, it has begun the construction of “Canal Istanbul”, a new link from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, raising concerns in Russia that Turkey might someday restrict free movement between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

In the Mediterranean, Greece and Cyprus have been central to France’s outreach to Africa. This is now challenged by Turkey’s robust outreach to African countries and its plans to obtain a naval presence on the Libyan coast and in the Red Sea. Now, following the AUKUS humiliation — the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States — France has concluded a new defence agreement with Greece to upgrade the Greek navy to challenge Turkey in the Mediterranean; it is also supplying fighter jets to the air force, but this deal was signed earlier in January 2021.

Turkey versus the U.S., Russia

Both Russia and the U.S. have been watching Turkey’s regional shenanigans with grim concern. Turkey has been alarmed by the U.S.’s backing for the Syrian Kurds and is suspicious of a possible U.S. role in the attempted coup in July 2016 to overthrow Mr. Erdoğan. Violating its status as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 missile defence system in 2017. The U.S. then expelled Turkey from the development of America’s F-35 jet fighter project and imposed some sanctions.

While Mr. Erdoğan’s personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin have flourished, there have been regular downturns as well. Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, but have somehow ensured that these differences do not reach breaking-point. Mr. Putin prioritises detaching Turkey from NATO and has adopted ‘strategic patience’ in dealing with the prickly Turkish leader.

Recently, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with U.S. President Joe Biden, Mr. Erdoğan has quite unexpectedly asked the U.S. to supply 40 F-16 fighter jets and 80 modernisation kits for its existing aircraft. But observers believe this could be Mr. Erdoğan’s “last test of confidence” for the Biden administration. Knowing well the hostility directed at Turkey in the U.S. Congress, the expected rejection of this request will enable Mr. Erdoğan to shift irrevocably to Russia — Mr. Putin has already promised him Russia’s fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57 aircraft in place of the F-35 jet and even a second battery of the S-400 defence system.

Resetting relationships

As the U.S. disengages from the region, West Asia is experiencing a churn. Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose rivalry has defined regional politics for over a decade, are now talking about re-establishing diplomatic ties and addressing their bilateral and regional concerns.

Turkey has reached out to both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to improve their relations; the latter are holding back to see evidence of real change on the Turkish side — particularly in regard to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey has also signalled a new approach in Libya that would accommodate its rivals — Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Here, Turkish priority is to detach Egypt from its ties with Greece, Cyprus and Israel, and make it its own ally in the ongoing competition in the Mediterranean.


With Iran, Turkey is pursuing a dual-track approach — confronting it in the Caucasus, while building substantial bilateral energy and economic ties. It is also keeping open the option of closer strategic relations in case Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain lukewarm to Turkey’s overtures.

The outlook for Turkey’s ties with the big powers — the U.S. and Russia — remains uncertain. Turkey insists on asserting its strategic autonomy and independence of action, and enjoys sitting at the global high table, its counsel being respectfully solicited by both powers — as it was in the heyday of the Ottoman empire.

But what Turkey could soon discover is that the era of the sultans is over and its domestic divisions and economic fragility — unemployment, inflation, currency collapse, and capital flight — will finally determine its regional influence. And here, it will be found seriously wanting — as the Ottomans were in the late 19th century.

Talmiz Ahmad is the former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.