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Ertugrul Ghazi and modern Turkey's strategic imperatives

The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at and tweets @20_Inam

Turkish TV plays are hugely popular across the Islamic world for their content, storyline, cinematographic excellence and a sense of shared history. The recently played TV serial Resurrection Etrugrul (Dirilis: Ertugrul) has taken Pakistan and the Muslim world by storm. It is the epic story of Muslim tribes of Oghuz Turks in 13th century Anatolia that led to the creation of one of the greatest Muslim empires, the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923); which, once disintegrated after some 624 years, gave birth to over 70 countries and territories.

Turkey — larger and more populous than any European state — is located at the crossroads of the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, and eastern Mediterranean, serving as a barrier and a bridge between Europe and Asia. Today, it comprises Asia Minor or Anatolia (Anadolu) and parts of Armenian Highland. Turkish Thrace (Trakya) forms the tiny remnant of the once mighty Turkish empire in Europe. Three narrows called Turkish straits; Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles dominate land/sea access. A Turkey ensconced in Asia Minor is nearly unassailable as it is surrounded by water on three sides; it controls the only maritime connection between the Black and Mediterranean seas; and the Turkish plateau has difficult mountainous territory around. No wonder Ertugrul Ghazi and his ancestors, coinciding with the Seljuk period (11th century), fought for some three centuries to capture this area from the Byzantine Empire.

Turkish geo-strategy is broadly defined by Turkey’s legacy of the Ottoman empire; its Russian problem; relationship with US/West; domestic compulsions — struggle between Islamists and secularists (especially the military), Kurdish question and economy; and other issues like Armenia and Greece, etc.

The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) dissolved the Ottoman Empire and contracted Turkish sovereignty to Asia Minor and a strip of land on the Bosporus (European side), relieving Turkey from its strategic burden that outstripped its waning power. On October 29, 1923, national assembly declared Turkey as a republic and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk its first president. Caliphate was abolished in 1924 and Ottoman dynasty exiled. The then British-Indian Muslims had run the Khilafat Movement to save the caliphate. Turks remember this fondly. Ataturk re-oriented the Turkish state and society through his six principles — republicanism (creation of the republic), nationalism, populism, statism, secularism, and revolution.

Russia is among the world’s most strategically vulnerable states. With no geographic barriers to invasion, it has to weave a perimeter of influence beyond its perimeter of security. Most Russian ports — St Petersburg, Vladivostok, Murmansk and Odessa — are accessible only through straits, historically controlled by potentially hostile powers, with Turks blocking Russian access to the Mediterranean. Traditional Russian policy aimed at controlling Bosporus to prevent a blockade and project power into the Mediterranean. In energy politics, Turkey depends on Russia for its natural gas and oil imports.

Entering WWII in 1945 on the Allied side, Turkey subsequently joined NATO in 1952, becoming a central plank of US containment strategy for USSR. Turkey’s geostrategic rationale for this pro-US alignment included a powerful Soviet Union and two Soviet clients, Syria and Iraq, in its neighbourhood to the south; its westernised military; economic compulsion to access EU market; Greek hostility and Turkish diaspora in the West.

USSR’s collapse in 1991 dissolved this strategic logic. A diminished Soviet threat also reduced Turkish dependence on US and American rationale for sponsoring Turkish-Israeli strategic ties. It also brought immense geo-economic opportunities to Turkey given it was a legacy power in as far off places like Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria former Yugoslavia and Central Asia.

Turk nationalists chide at the Western support of Greece in its dispute with Turkey over Cyprus, control of the Aegean, European criticism of Turkey’s human rights record (Kurd-specific) and treatment of Turkish workers in Western Europe. Turkey’s Islamic political parties are increasingly wary of alliance with the West especially Turkey’s EU membership. Turkey’s key breakpoint was the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which from Turkish perspective, was unnecessary, beneficial to Irani empowerment and domestically unsellable. Breaking with NATO, Turks did not participate in the war and did not allow the use of Turkish territory. Events vindicated Turkish wisdom. Exclusion from EU spurred Turkey’s economy, without liability for Greece’s debt. Militarily, Turkey emerged with the most powerful military in the region.

Turkey’s relations with most Arab government (as against people) are nonchalant. Impediments include Turkish support for Morsi and his Akhwan in Egypt, it closing ranks with Qatar over blockade by Saudi-led coalition, war in Yemen, Khashogji murder and Turkish relations with Israel, etc. Turkey — opposing the UAE — supports the UN mandated government in Libya. While the Arab Street views Iran as a hostile power, it welcomes Turkey as a trusted counterweight and mediator.

Turkey enjoys strong ties with Muslim communities in Russia, Bulgaria, especially with the Crimean Tatars. And while it has a thriving relationship with Georgia, it has made little progress in overcoming its adversarial relationship with Armenia, unable to play a constructive role in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Contemporary Turkey, to solidify inner front, is focused outward, hence its involvement in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan. Domestically, Turkey faces manageable societal tensions between the secular and religious elements. Kurdish problem is Western-propped and financed, occasionally stirred-up by Syria and Iran to undermine Turkish incursions in Syria.

The following can be discerned from this wider canvas.

First, Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions to “reclaim” the ‘Turkish Middle East’ — and by extension the Ottoman legacy — remains on course under the Islamist government of Erdogan, an assertive statesman par-excellence, imbued with clarity and vision.

Second, although Turkey accommodates Russia; Russia has learnt to live with an aggressive Turkey as demonstrated by Sukhoi-24 shootdown, Turkey’s bold use of its military in Syria and acquisition of S-400 missile system from Russia. With refurbished military bases in Latakia and Tartus in Syria, Russia is too eager to replace US and an alliance with Turkey is mutually beneficial.

Third, Turkish geo-strategy is no longer captive to an alliance system but more sensitive to regional instability and Islamist causes internationally. Turkey is not part of the US coalition against Iran, balancing its strategy between being a NATO member and assertively independent.

Fourth, Turkey remains vulnerable to Western machinations like targeting lira and its banking system, stirring up street protests on a range of issues from local bodies’ elections to human rights violations to gasping secularists to legacy issues like Kurdish question, Armenia, Cyprus and Greece, etc.

Fifth, NATO will continue to depend upon Turkey, given Incirlik Air Base’s role in NATO’s nuclear deterrence and power projection in the Middle East. Turkey also hosts an allied land command in Izmir and surveillance radar unit in Kürecik — part of NATO’s missile defense system.

Sixth, the chasm between US-Turkey relations (Turkey an unstable ally) — due to Turkey’s non-participation in Gulf War, the S-400 transaction and Fetullah Gülen episode, etc — seems irreversible.

As Ertugrul Ghazi demonstrates; tenacity, grit and relentless focus on objectives are guarantees for success. Turkey had shown the path to Muslims, it can lead now.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 25th, 2020.

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