Turkey resides in a perilous neighborhood surrounded by historical rivalries, stemming back from the Ottoman, which pose a constant threat to the country’s geopolitical imperatives. There is the Balkan peninsula, which consists of Turkey’s central rival Greece and then there is Russia in the Black Sea, and then there are the Arab nations on Turkey’s southern border.
Today, the Arab states are weak and will remain so in the foreseeable future, specifically the ones within the Persian Gulf. As for Greece, over the years, Turkey has been able to gain the upper hand over the Greeks. In the Balkan Peninsula, Turkey’s NATO membership and its increasing military might be prepared to defend itself if any instability ignites in the region.
Therefore, the only lingering threat to Turkey’s security remains with Russia.
The Myth of the Turkish-Russian Alliance
The rivalry between Turkey and Russia dates to the 17th Century due to the Tsarist expansion in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The last 300 years of the Ottoman Caliphate faced a decline in vitality, which provided the Russian Empire with the opportunity to push southeast.
By 1607, the Russian Empire reached Persia and consequently conquered Crimea between 1771-1784. Furthermore, the Russian Empire invaded the Georgian kingdom in 1801 and overpowered tribes in the Caucasian mountains during the mid-1800s.
By 1878 the Tsars took over Armenia. As for Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were also overtaken by Russia through several military expeditions from 1801-1881.
These military ventures rolled back the Ottomans back to Anatolia. The contest carried on until the First World War in 1914, which brought an end to the Ottoman Caliphate.
Russia has always pursued the Tsarist policy, which continues to reside within the minds of the Russian elite class. Where Russia’s geopolitical landscape strongly shapes the nation’s politics. Russia for the last 300 years has sought to attain the straits of Dardanelles, which would provide the country with access to warm water ports, but never has Russia been entirely successful in gaining control of the Turkish-controlled channels.
Before the First World War, Britain- to protect its naval supremacy – preferred a weak Ottoman Caliphate but strong enough to control the Dardanelles to prevent Russian access. During the Second World war, Britain implemented the same strategy to protect its interests within the Mediterranean, however, Britain was too weak to fend off the Soviet Union on its own. Therefore, Britain remained in constant fear of Stalin’s eventual acquisition of the Turkish-controlled straits. This is when America entered.
When the Turkish crisis occurred in 1946, the U.S. finally entered to safeguard the Turkish-controlled straits and the Mediterranean from a potential Soviet penetration. However, the U.S. did not intend to protect Britain’s interests but rather to secure its interests of naval primacy. From 1950 onwards, Turkey became a NATO ally, and ever since then America and Turkey possess common security interests regarding Russia and the region.
During the Cold War immense military and economic aid were provided by the U.S to the Turks to contain Soviet expansionism. Thus, Turkey views the U.S as the only capable and trustworthy security guarantor to its geographical security concerning Russia.
Therefore, Russia and Turkey can never attain a deep relationship because both view each other with immense discontent and skepticism. This leaves America as the only viable external balancer for Turkey. From an economic perspective, America also possesses more political and financial muscle in comparison to Russia due to the current global financial system being based upon American hegemony.
The U.S. Grand Plan
The U.S. would also utilize Turkish efforts to reconnect with its past Ottoman influence in the Middle East which would be used to safeguard American interests in the region.
Former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu insisted that Turkey is a regional leader in the areas which were once part of the Ottoman Caliphate – the Levant, North Africa, and Mesopotamia. But these considerations are not driven by Islam, but rather by geopolitical motivation.
Henceforth, the current so-called Islamic rhetoric of Erdoğan would help Turkey penetrate the Middle East and gain a geopolitical stronghold, which would also be utilized to safeguard American interests.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, America’s grand strategist once stated, “Turkey’s commitments to peaceful cooperation with its Middle East neighbors, a region of Turkey’s historic pre-eminence, is consistent with the security matters of the West in that region. Third, an increasingly secular Turkey, yet also Islamic – and that exploits its territorial and cultural connection with the peoples of the Ottoman Empire and the post-Soviet and Central Asian states- could be a Turkey that undermines the appeal of Islamic extremism and enhances regional stability…”
In the early 1920s, Britain was determined to use the Saud and the Hashemite families to create an artificial Caliphate post-Ottoman period, which Britain would control and utilize to safeguard its interests. The Ottomans, which were an unquestionable Islamic force that not only dominated the region but also reached the gates of Vienna, were not aligned with British interests in the region. To redress, Britain employed its Arab surrogates to rebel against the Ottomans at a time when it was at its weakest point. After 1924, the British were determined to create a Caliphate of their own to dominate the Middle East. However, these efforts proved futile.
On the contrary, the U.S. has managed to accomplish much more where Britain had failed.
Today, the U.S. has tacitly helped promote a regional force that poses a threat to Israel, Europe, Russia, Armenia, and the Arab states in the Middle East. Likely, a new balance of power in the Middle East is emerging where Turkey would be promoted as the American policeman of the region, which would regulate the Middle East for the Washington and retain a check on Israel.
Israel also plays a similar role for the U.S. in the region towards the Arab states. As for the Arab regimes, they would be too feeble to counter these two forces in the foreseeable future.
However, what would balance Turkey in the region remains to be seen.
Recent close cooperation between the U.S and Turkey in Syria and Libya indicates that America is recreating an Ottoman footprint that would benefit U.S. interests in the region. It also confirms that the U.S. relationship is not at odds with its Turkish counterpart and what appears to many in terms of the apparent agitation between Turkey and America over the last few years is nothing but rhetoric.
The U.S. in the foreseeable future intends to destabilize Russia via Turkey, through its Islamic rhetoric, which would be projected into the Caucasus and Central Asian Turkic states. These regions are volcanic, and if instability ignites in these regions, it could become a security quagmire for Russia. Turkey’s modernization of the military via America will also play a pivotal role in keeping Russia contained and foster Turkish influence within the Black Sea.
Turkey has restarted drilling attempts in East Mediterranean amid tensions with Greece, which applies pressure on the Europeans by holding Greece captive through aggressive naval exercises.
American rhetoric in the 1996 Imia (pair of small uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea, situated between the Greek island chain of the Dodecanese and the southwestern mainland coast of Turkey) dispute would likely follow the same precedent of status quo ante in the foreseeable future regarding the Turkish-Greek conflict.
Neither the alliance of Athens, Egypt, and Israel would be in any position to prevent the Turkish Armed Forces from dominating the Eastern Mediterranean. Let’s not forget, the most prominent naval presence in the Mediterranean belongs to America and no power can challenge America’s maritime supremacy. Despite this, the U.S. remains mute on Turkey’s hostile maneuvers within the Mediterranean.
Turkish power will also be adopted by the U.S. to normalize relations with the Armenians and the Azeris. Currently, the events in Nagorno-Karabakh illustrate that Turkey’s overwhelming military power would be used to bring Armenia to a pro-Western camp, which is used by Russia to obstruct energy flows from the Caspian Sea to the West.
During the Obama administration, Turkey was urged to normalize ties with Armenia. Furthermore, in 2016 Obama declined to label the 1915 atrocity as “genocide” since its counterpart Turkey was helping the U.S. carrying out efforts to normalize relations with the Armenians and sway the country away from the Russian sphere of influence to the American domain.
However, U.S. efforts failed once Armenia cancelled the Zurich Agreement in 2018.
Now, Turkey is supporting Azerbaijan and demanding the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which Erdoğan did not require when Turkey initially agreed with Armenia, which shows that the U.S is playing with both sides – Armenia and Azerbaijan, through Turkey to defuse Russian influence from the region. More importantly, Turkey never sought to physically intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict over the past 20 years, even though the occurrence of skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan is nothing new.
Last month, Trump told reporters at a White House press conference that the U.S. has “a lot of good relationships in that area. We will see if we can stop it.”
This statement shows that Turkey is America’s surrogate which would be utilized to offset the conflict as the “good relationships” Trump refers to are certainly not Russia or France, nor anyone in the Middle East for that matter since none hold the power to intervene and resolve the issue except for Turkey alone.
It is in Washington’s interest to let the crisis linger and not participate in the proposed ceasefire of Russia and France as this would hinder America’s prospects to establish a political solution entirely on its terms between the countries. There has been nearly no high-level diplomatic engagement from Washington since heavy fighting broke out on September 27, 2020. The U.S. would only intend to resolve the issue once it considers it in its interests, which is most possibly after Turkey stokes tensions to create a healthy atmosphere for the U.S to intercede and craft a political change.
The U.S. still maintains the most dominant position in the world and possesses the ability to influence regional players to aid in its strategic interests. Turkey will be one of the players that would be fully utilized by the U.S a lot more in the foreseeable future to safeguard U.S interests in the region.
Hashim Abid is an analyst and a researcher of international affairs.
The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Greek City Times.