Turmoil in the Mediterranean
The founder of the Turkish Republic, Prime Minister Kemal Atatürk, once called for “zero problems with the neighbors.” He wanted to reassure his adjoining countries that the Ottoman Empire was truly dead, and he wanted no part of the fight to carve up the former Ottoman territories between the European powers. Although Turkey joined NATO in 1952, Atatürk’s successors kept Turkey neutral during World War II and generally followed the “zero problems” policy. But the 2002 election of the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development party started a return to an activist Turkey that expanded Turkish horizons into the surrounding countries. Some have suggested that the new slogan for Turkey should now be “zero neighbors without problems.”
In this piece, I consider the impact of the expansionist strategy that Turkey’s leader Recip Tayyip Erdoğan has pursued, reversing “zero problems with the neighbors” and inserting in its place a forward-leaning policy of Turkish intervention in the Mediterranean region—and beyond. Turkey is involved in Syria and Libya supporting factions in the conflicts there, as friction brews in the Mediterranean over gas exploration, and a dangerous escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia, under Putin, is returning to its former past as an adventurous power, putting it back into a regional competition with Turkey that dates back for many centuries. While not all of the turmoil in the Mediterranean can be traced to Turkish regional policies, much of it is related to changing Turkish regional goals.
The Strategic Contours of the Mediterranean Region: The Mediterranean region has long been conflict arena. Ancient empires sought to control its trade routes, and deny other empires access to the sea. The Mediterranean is one of the few international bodies of water that has chokepoints so narrow that one can stand on one side and see the other side.
The Mediterranean’s bottom is littered with the wreckage of thousands of ships that sank after bloody battles, and the ports on all sides of the sea bristle with old forts. The countries bordering the Mediterranean belonged to dozens of warring empires and dynasties; the Byzantine, the Umayyad, the Roman, the Fatimid, the Almohad, and many more, including the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire which expanded to include much of the Mediterranean and beyond from the 13th century to 1922.
The Mediterranean was a major battleground of World War II, with considerable bloodshed in almost all the littoral countries. But after World War II, an uneasy peace settled over the Mediterranean region, though interrupted sometimes by the Arab-Israeli wars, and tense encounters between Soviet and NATO ships. One stress reliever was the realization by most Mediterranean powers that preservation of the stressful status quo was in all littoral powers’ interest. Yet in Turkey, historical neutralism gave way to regional expansion, as the 2002 victory of the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party, or Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) brought political Islamist Recip Tayyip Erdoğan to power.
Turkey: Changing Paradigms. Turkey has emerged in the past decade as the most active country in Mediterranean regional affairs. Turkey is reaching into many parts of the former Ottoman Empire, seeking influence, challenging rivals, and helping to destabilize parts of the Mediterranean region and beyond. Turkish motives focus on reestablishing Turkey as a preeminent Mediterranean power, as a pole of Sunni Islamic influence, and as a reaction to many decades of European power in the region. Turkey also seems to be rekindling its ancient rivalry with Russia, which itself has expanded its own influence under President Vladimir Putin.
Turkish politics have taken a tortuous path from its republican establishment in 1925 until the present. Yet there have been some important constants, many based on the Kemalist legacy. The Atatürk narrative emphasized laïcité – the limitation of religion to private spaces, though laïcité was somewhat conditional, and religious parties occasionally challenged it. The Kemalist model also emphasized the centrality of the Turkish military as the thermostat of Turkish politics and society. Thus the Turkish armed forces interfered periodically in the political realm, twice overthrowing the government, and acted several times short of a coup to end governments it disapproved of. Those interventions, especially the 1980 coup, helped to weaken the existing secular party system and thus pave the way for a return to Islamist politics.
Atatürk and his successors maintained regional neutrality, though not always by choice. Despite efforts to “Europeanize” Turkey, and Turkish entry into NATO in 1952, most of Europe never accepted Turkey as European. Turkish efforts to join the European Union were consistently rejected by key EU members, including Germany, Belgium, and Austria, with France, the UK, and others remaining undecided. The Kemalist effort to separate Turkey from its Arab neighbors culturally also separated it politically. While Turkey did have regional concerns, particularly over Kurdish groups in nearby countries, it managed those issues largely through diplomacy and economic policy. Turkey became isolated, between the Middle East and Europe, with few strong ties to either beyond a long history.
The beginning of the end for Kemalist Turkey came with the election of 2002, when the AKP won the largest number of parliamentary seats. Erdoğan, the former mayor of Istanbul, became prime minister after a contested start. Initially cautious, Erdoğan started his tenure by boosting the Turkish economy, accelerating talks for EU admission, and reaching out to Turkey’s Kurdish population with peace and conciliation proposals. But the AKP and Erdoğan’s political tangent changed after successive victories in 2007, 2011, 2015 (twice), and 2018. The 2007 election was an impressive victory for the AKP, as it got 47 percent of the vote, crushing its rival parties. The 2018 election was especially important as it shifted the Turkish political structure from a parliamentary to a presidential system, giving Erdoğan more power by eliminating the prime minister position, and awarded now-President Erdoğan a majority of the votes. The AKP has maintained a plurality of Parliamentary seats in all the subsequent elections, thus strengthening its control of the Turkish regional objectives.
Erdoğan, unlike his predecessors, had a deep commitment to political Islam, contempt for secular Turkish politics, and grievances against the West for a variety of humiliations that dated back to the shattering of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish dismemberment by the 1920 Sèvres Treaty . Erdoğan, as the outsider from the rough Kaşimpasa neighborhood in Istanbul, knew that many Turks shared his grievances and, moreover, believed that Kemalism was restricted to the privileged urban elites, and that a large majority of Turks, especially in rural areas and neighborhoods like Kaşimpasa, would welcome a clean sweep of Turkish politics.
Emboldened by his control over Turkish politics, Erdoğan began to shift directions dramatically in both domestic and international affairs. He arrested many of Turkey’s senior military officers, starting in 2010, and accelerated his military purge after a failed 2016 military coup effort. He also expunged the ranks of his judicial and domestic security bureaucracies of the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled cleric who had once supported Erdoğan. Erdoğan interfered in Turkish elections, attempting to marginalize the already-weakened opposition parties, and rearranged urban planning to move his rural supporters to Turkey’s cities so that they could dilute the normally-progressive city votes. With control of parliament, Erdoğan doled out state funds for numerous showy infrastructure projects, with bridges, airports, and tunnels, many of questionable utility, dotting the Turkish landscape.
However, it was Erdoğan’s regional policies that contributed to the turmoil in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. In what could have been a test to determine his limits, Erdoğan supported the voyage of the ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010, as the lead vessel in a convoy of Turkish craft sent to deliver aid to the besieged Palestinian population in Gaza. As the convoy approached Gaza, Israeli commandos attacked the Mavi Marmara, killing ten people on board. A year later, Erdoğan tried to take advantage of the so-called “Arab Spring” movements that started in 2010-2011, hoping to improve Turkey’s position in the Arab countries near Turkey. But the Arab populations still recalled the Ottoman era with bitterness, and resented Turkish efforts to poach in their politics. Erdoğan also failed to realize how his support for Islamist Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in particular alienated him from Egypt’s political elite, who collaborated with Egypt’s military to oust Morsi in 2013 after turbulent presidential year. Yet undeterred by initial disappointments, Turkish regional horizons have expanded in multiple directions since Erdoğan’s new direction, as four conflict areas represent changes in Turkish interests and the impact that they have produced: Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean energy contest, and Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Syria and Turkey. Syrian-Turkish relations have been tense since the Ottoman Empire’s breakup. Turkey’s acquisition of Hatay in 1939 (with French assistance), and the Syrian government’s hosting of anti-Turkish regime groups, including several left-wing radical groups, and the Kurdish militia Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, (PKK), in particular, were thorns in Turkey’s sides. The Turkish-Syrian border was also a Cold War seam line, with Turkey in NATO and Syria as an outpost of Soviet influence. After the Cold War ended, Turkish hostility with Syria refocused on Syrian President Hafez Asad’s support for the PKK, as Syria hosted PKK President Abdullah Öcalan. Turkey and Syria also clashed on Turkish cooperation with Israel, and on the massive Turkish dam projects that threatened the flow of the Euphrates River, a major source of Syria’s fresh water.
The outbreak of the Syrian popular uprising in March 2011 only inflamed Turkish-Syrian relations. After the civil war started, Erdoğan encouraged Syrian President Bashar Asad to reach agreement with the various rebel groups. But Asad refused, and Erdoğan quickly abandoned hope of converting him, instead initiating support to members of the rebellion, as over three and a half million Syrian refugees poured into Turkey. The Syrian civil war grew more deadly as the so-called Islamic State (“al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa al-Sham” abbreviated pejoratively to Daesh) emerged in Iraq in June 2014 and spread to Syria. Turkish leaders realized that they had a compound problem in Syria, with rebels, Daesh, and the Asad regime and its supporters churning a caldron on Turkey’s southern border.
As Asad and his ruling clique was largely of the Alawite persuasion, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam, Turkish opposition took on religious overtones, as Erdoğan appeared to accelerate the already-high regional tensions between the Sunni and the Shi’a. Yet Turkish concerns about the conflict in Syria went far beyond a religious dispute. Turkish leaders, fearing that the Syrian conflict would spill into Turkey, and that Syrian Kurdish groups would increase their cooperation with the PKK in order to combat their enemies in both countries. Turkish fears were not unjustified, as Asad withdrew his forces from Kurdish regions in Syria, giving Syrian Kurds autonomy, and raising concerns in Turkey that the PKK would organize in Kurdish Syrian areas.
Turkey also feared that Daesh forces would create a safe space in Syria to launch attacks in Turkey. Yet as serious as the spillover threat was, Turkey hesitated to commit Turkish military power into Syria, partly because other Western powers (particularly the U.S.) refused to commit to military force in Syria. Turkish forces briefly invaded over the border into Afrin in January 2018, killing Kurdish forces who were fighting Daesh, and intervened again in October 2019 into lands east of the Euphrates. But those operations were limited in space and duration. However, in February 2020, Turkey dispatched over 7,000 troops to Idlib Province in Syria, where anti-Asad rebels were making a desperate last stand. A month later, Turkish forces suffered heavy losses from combined attacks by Russian and Syrian government forces, which then provoked Turkey to escalate the conflict.
Turkey and Russia faced a tense standoff in Idlib, where rebel forces remained. Despite efforts by both Russia and Turkey to moderate the conflict, they remained far apart in their support for the contesting parties. Airstrikes continued, for example, in October 2020, Russian warplanes struck Turkish-backed rebels, killing 78. But, given Russian hesitancy to risk further escalation against Turkey, Turkey is positioned to exercise influence in Syria for a while, though running the risk of fights with both Syrian and Kurdish forces.
Libya. Modern Libya was once three provinces (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan), of which Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were more closely related to their neighbors of Algeria and Egypt than they were to each other. The Ottoman Empire took Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in the 16th century and held them until Italy took them by force in 1911. The area had been a backwater in the Mediterranean, bereft of any resources until oil was discovered in the 1950s. Muamar Qadhafi captured Libya from a weak post-colonial regime and ruled it as a “stateless” country until a mob killed him in 2013 during the “Arab Spring” period. The weak bonds that held Libya together fell asunder and rival groups took over the pieces.
The United Nations helped to create the “Government of National Accord” (GNA) in 2015, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, which controls parts of Libya’s west, based in Tripoli. A militia-based “Libya National Army” (LNA) became the personal province of General Khalifa Haftar, a former Qadhafi general who defected, and remerged after the uprising, working out of Benghazi. A rump body called the “House of Representatives” backed Haftar, with both getting support from Russia, Egypt, and the UAE. Turkey supports the GNA, partly to gain regional influence and partly to regain some construction contracts that it held under Qadhafi.
Turkey showed the level of its interest in Libya by committing over one hundred Turkish military officers and over a thousand Syrian militants, who were offered Turkish citizenship if they agreed to support Turkey in Libya. As the fighting escalated, it appeared that the LNA had the upper hand with its Russian, UAE, French, and Egyptian support, but in late May 2020, the GNA inflicted a series of defeats on LNA forces, with Turkish forces and weapons providing a key element in the win. That outcome allowed Turkey considerable access into North Africa, as Russia decided to call for a cease-fire rather than to risk escalation. Russia, perhaps buoyed by its successful defense of the Asad Syrian regime, might have been surprised at its failure to bolster Haftar’s forces, and it was unclear that Russia was willing to take further risks and costs to keep him in the fight.
Eastern Mediterranean Energy Conflicts. One of President Erdoğan’s objectives for Turkey was to make it a regional energy hub. Turkey has numerous oil and gas pipelines running through its territory, sending regional petroleum to both the rest of Europe and into the Mediterranean. But Erdoğan also wanted to expand oil and gas pumping from the sea.
The eastern Mediterranean has numerous geological basins containing both oil and gas, around 122 trillion cubic feet of gas alone. European countries became interested in these gas fields from 2006 onward, wanting to replace more carbon-intense fuels with natural gas and, at the same time, wanting to reduce dependence on Russian natural gas. Countries that bordered the gas fields in particular understood that conflict could easily break out over the fields, and thus in In January 2019, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority joined the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. Notably Turkey was not a member, and thus the Forum was widely seen as a way to keep Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus out of the gas development. Turkey, long dependent on imported energy, signed an agreement with the GNA to create their own economic zones in the Mediterranean that most analysts rejected as being inconsistent with international law.
Egypt, holding the eastern Mediterranean’s largest gas reserves, complained that Turkey was disrupting existing agreements, and Cyprus, the UAE, France, and even Saudi Arabia joined the complaint. Greece and Egypt then signed a deal that delineated a different area for oil and gas exploration. Apparently undeterred, Turkey actively began exploring potential petroleum areas in the eastern Mediterranean, launching a well-publicized research vessel, the Oruç Reis, accompanied by a flotilla of Turkish warships. As the convoy steamed into waters contested by both Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, mapping out potential petroleum locations, Greece objected, and France sent warships to the region, ostensibly to support Greece against Turkey. Possibly in response, Turkey withdrew the fleet in mid-September and by early October Greece and Turkey had agreed to talks over the issue. Yet given the importance that Erdoğan has placed on Turkish energy independence, the exploration issue was unlikely to fade for long.
Armenia and Azerbaijan. While not technically Mediterranean countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan’s historic tensions reflect on Mediterranean security. Armenia and Azerbaijan, in a tense peace since 1994, escalated the fight between them over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in late September 2020. While Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan borders, it is home to ethnic Armenians, who first pushed for independence in 1988, right before the USSR broke up.
The conflict pits Russia, allied with Armenia, against Turkey, aligned with Azerbaijan, in yet another proxy conflict between the Black Sea and Mediterranean region rivals. While the cause of the 2020 fighting was unclear, some reports held that Turkey was recruiting soldiers from Syrian rebel groups to join the fighting in the region, a rumor that Erdoğan vehemently denied. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, claimed that, “The new aspect is that there is military involvement by Turkey which risks fueling the internationalisation of the conflict.” Turkey sent troops to Azerbaijan, and Turkish pilots stationed their F-16s on Azerbaijani airfields.
Turkey has reportedly supplied Syrian fighters and Turkish-built TB-2 combat drone aircraft to Azerbaijan forces, with Erdoğan mincing no words in his support message of October 5, 2020: “We say again to our Azerbaijani brothers, that we stand by them in their holy struggle until victory.” Russian responded to Azerbaijan’s use of these drones by using the highly advanced Krasukha-4 air defense system to reportedly shoot down nine TB-2 drones in late October. But combat between remote vehicles was less risky than clashed between military units with troops.
Putin appeared to be quite hesitant to support Armenia beyond its formal borders, arguing that, “It is deeply regrettable that the hostilities continue, but they are not taking place on Armenian territory,” with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claiming that Russian treaty obligations, “do not extend to Karabakh.” In response, Armenia’s Prime Minister appealed to President Trump to restrain Turkey, whom Armenia blamed for shooting down an Armenian combat plane, though Trump did not respond. In that sense, the lack of real support from Russia to Armenia in Ngoro Karabakh opened the door for further Turkish political and military expansion into the region.
Conclusions. The Mediterranean region, once a major conflict basin, is now showing signs of renewed turmoil. There are several reasons for the renewed tensions, including the Arab popular movements that sewed disorder over the region, and renewed Russian expansion from its post-Cold War retreat from Soviet days. Turkey, in its evolving post-Atatürk period, is a contributor to this regional disorder. Turkey has not only reached out beyond its borders on its own, but also taken advantage of the disorder. Turkey’s overall motives provoked disagreement among scholars.
For Keyman, the sudden turbulence in the region forced Turkey to turn from a proactive foreign policy to becoming a buffer state, as a barrier to that turmoil spreading to Europe. Yet as time passed, Turkey under Erdoğan became more expansionist, moving away from “zero problems.” It is an oversimplification to label this “Neo-Ottomanism,” though there are strains of nostalgia for the old empire in Erdoğan’s words. Yet it is also an oversimplification to dismiss the refrains of Ottomanism, especially as it refracts in the Turkish neighborhood. The more important reasons were a long-delayed response to Europe’s rejection of Turkey, as the hoped-for improved relations with the west promoted by Atatürk and his successors never materialized.
The EU snubbed Turkey for decades, while admitting the Republic of Cyprus and other European countries whose democratic commitments were questionable at best. Turkish interaction with NATO became increasingly strained, and Turkish-American relations grew in complexity after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and support for Kurdish groups in Syria. Russian expansion in the region also got Turkish attention, and though there was cooperation on some areas, there were also sharp differences, especially on Russian support for the Asad regime. And Turkish concerns about Kurdish irredentism is a long-standing Turkish security issue.
Erdoğan seemed to sense Turkey’s limits, pulling back from conflict when the cost and risk became obvious. Yet few other regional players seemed all that willing to really challenge a careful but persistent Turkish push away from “zero problems” in the Mediterranean. Even Russia, with its own expansionist policies notwithstanding, seemed not eager to challenge Turkey’s regional pressures. How far Turkey will push is not yet clear. But what is clear is that a good deal of the turmoil in the Mediterranean and beyond is a consequence of the expansion of Turkish horizons.
 Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within this paper are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency. I am grateful to Carrie A. Lee, Joshua Goodman, Wayne Straw, and Sean Braniff for helpful comments.
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 The large number of refugees from Muslim-majority countries fleeing into Europe over the past decade tended to harden European attitudes towards Turkish EU admission, as fears of more Turkish Muslims moving north into EU members countries increased.
 M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, Chs. 7-8.
 Meliah Altunişik and Lenore G. Martin, “Making Sense of Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East Under AKP,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 12 (December 2011), pp. 569-587.
 Turkish courts convicted Erdoğan of reading a banned Islamist poem, and he served prison time, thus technically barring him from holding public office. A December 2002 constitutional amendment removed his disqualification, and in 2003 he formed a government.
 Tahir Abbas, Contemporary Turkey in Conflict: Ethnicity, Islam, and Politics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017, p. 43.
 Erdoğan initially staffed the military and judicial bureaucracies with Gülen supporters to eliminate staff whom Erdoğan suspected of disloyalty to him and his party. But when those same Gülen agents initiated an investigation of Erdoğan and his family over an alleged money laundering scheme in 2013, Erdoğan began a purge of the Gülen agents. On the Gülen movement, see Joshua D. Hendrick, Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
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 Kaya Genc, “Erdogan’s Way: The Rise and Rule of Turkey’s Islamist Shapeshifter,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 98 (September/October 2019), p. 32.
 Cagaptay, pp. 111-113.
 Michael B. Bisku, “Turkish-Syrian Relations: A Checkered History,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 19, 2012, pp. 36-53.
 Emel Parlar Dal, “Impact of the Transnationalization of the Syrian civil war on Turkey: Conflict Spillover Cases of ISIS and PYD-YPG/PKK,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 2017, p. 6 http:/dx.doi.org/10.1080/09557571.2016.1256948.
 Michael M. Gunter and M. Hakan Yaviz, “The October 2019 Turkish Incursion into Kurdish Syria: Its Background and Broader Implications,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 27 (Spring 2020), p. 87. When Turkey started supporting anti-Asad insurgents, Asad lifted earlier negotiated prohibitions on PKK activity in Turkey. P. 89.
 Palar Dal, p. 16-17.
 Carlotta Gall, Turkey Declares Major Offensive against Syrian Government,” New York Times, March 1, 2020.
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 Declan Walsh, “In Stunning Reversal, Turkey Emerges and Libyan Kingmaker,” New York Times, May 21, 2020.
 Mohamed Eljarh, “Turkey’s Disruption in Libya Disrupts the UAE but Opens the Door for Russia,” Fikra Forum, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 1, 2020. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/Turkey-Intervention-Libya-UAE-Russia-USA-Middle-East.
 Geoffrey Aronson, “The Eastern Mediterranean Heats Up as Conflicts over Energy move Onshore,” Middle East Institute, July 14, 2020: https://www.mei.edu/publications/eastern-mediterranean-heats-conflicts-over-energy-move-onshore.
 “Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Azerbaijan President Vows to Fight On, BBC News, October 1, 2020.
 Anealla Safdar and Farah Najjar, Iran Warns Nagorno-Karabakh Could Become Regional War,” Al Jazeera, October 7, 2020.
 Andrew E. Kramer, “Why is Conflict Erupting Again Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?” New York Times, October 13, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/article/armenian-azerbaijan-conflict.html
 “Russia Shot Down a Total of Nine Turkish Bayraktar Drones Near its Armenian Base, Russian Media Reports. The EurAsian Times, October 22, 2020. https://eurasiantimes.com/russia-shot-down-a-total-of-nine-turkish-bayraktar-drones-near-its-armenia-military-base-russian-media-reports/. The reports indicating that Russia “shot down” the drones might be misleading. It is more likely that the electronic countermeasures actually disabled the drone’s electronic systems.
 “Russia’s Security Guarantees for Armenia do not extend to Karabakh, Putin Says.” The Moscow Times, October 7, 2020.
 E. Fuat Keyman, “Turkish Foreign Policy in the Post-Arab Spring Era: From Proactive to Buffer State, Third World Quarterly Vol. 37 (December 2016), pp. 2274-2287.
 Nicholas Danforth, “The Nonsense of ‘Neo-Ottomanism,” War on the Rocks, May 29, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/05/the-nonsense-of-neo-ottomanism/.
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