Turkey’s quasi-imperial overstretch is at ripping point.
Based on a neo-Ottoman strategic vision of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over the last decade, it has generated animosity in virtually all neighbouring countries, and some who are not neighbours too.
Today, Erdogan finds himself without many friends.
He seems quite comfortable in that position, at least rhetorically, even feeding off the notoriety to boost his reputation as “Sultan” among his followers.
Observers might wonder what it is that gives Erdogan the kind of confidence that flies in the face of ground reality, apart from an over-dependence on Turkish conventional military strength.
Turkey, undoubtedly, has a powerful military, but this was so even before Erdogan came to national leadership in 2003.
Yet, its behavior today is like that of an irresponsible power with nuclear capability.
Erdogan is almost casual in terms of threats and bluster, escalatory in his actions and downright inflammatory in his rhetoric.
Caution has been thrown to the winds.
Why is that so?
The Turkish state can be accused of many things, but not of acting irrationally — at least not until Erdogan became president in 2014.
Erdogan’s defiant actions suggest a combativeness unwarranted by Turkey’s aggregate power reality.
Thumbing his nose at the world by converting the Ayia Sofia mosque was one example.
It was needlessly provocative.
People who have been there know there was already a functioning mosque at the back, which you could reach by walking through the “museum section” — so to speak.
That is just one egregious example though.
There are others which should give cause for concern.
Take Ankara’s involvement in Libya, which reeks of Ottoman style expansionist intent.
The Turkish role there is a direct challenge to Libya’s neighbor Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — all Arab states — which are also involved in that unfortunate country, now in its sixth year of civil war.
The tone of what is happening there can be understood from the following exchange:
On 31 July, referring to the UAE, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar stated: "Abu Dhabi does what it does in Libya, does what it does in Syria. All of it is being recorded. At the right place and time, the accounts will be settled".
By any measure, a strongly aggressive statement of intent.
On 1 August, the UAE, a wealthy country with a sane and conciliatory approach to foreign policy, not normally given to making tough statements, said through its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Anwar Gargash: “The Sublime Porte and colonialist illusions belong to the archives of history... and relations between states are not conducted with threats”.
He called on Turkey to “stop intervening in Arab affairs”.
(The Sublime Porte was the French name, later accepted by all, for the Imperial Gate that led to the outermost courtyard of the Topkapi Palace where the Ottoman Empire’s seat of power resided).
Not unexpectedly, Turkey’s relations with Greece, Cyprus and the EU have been in steady decline over the last few years.
There has been a constant drumbeat of territorial challenges from Ankara towards Greece over the Aegean waters and towards Cyprus over its oil and gas potentials in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Egypt, Syria and Israel have been antagonised by Turkey over this issue too.
One might go so far as to say that the situation in the East Mediterranean and the Aegean is on a hair-trigger.
Curiously, a country which advocated a “zero problems with neighbours” policy around 2010 finds itself a decade later with virtually zero friends.
This, at a time when the Turkish economy is not in a position to find $60 billion for debt management by the end of the year.
Does this mean something has changed in the intervening period that allows Erdogan to believe he can afford this approach to the world?
Has this change emboldened the country’s foreign policy and security establishment to go along Erdogan’s bravado?
Like everyone else, Turkey has two options if it decides to go nuclear: develop weapons by itself or secure the capability from others.
In September 2019, Erdogan said at a meeting of his Justice & Welfare Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi — AKP): “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two” but the West tells us “we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept”. (It is important to note that Turkey’s first nuclear research reactor went online in 1962. The country started producing reactor fuel in 1986).
Given its technological capacity (broader than Iran, for instance), it is certain that Turkey is now at a far more advanced stage.
Does it already possess an indigenous recessed deterrence capability?
The second option — securing the capability from others — should concern India and the world.
It implies Turkey is in a position today to operate as if it has nuclear weapons, with the assurance that it will get them if needed from a friendly state, if it has not already got them.
Does Erdogan’s rhetoric suggest that is the current position?
If not, what is driving this “irrational” behaviour of the Turkish leadership?
The Turkish-Pakistani relationship in the nuclear sphere goes back about 40 years.
As far back as 1981, the US State Department had warned Turkey against facilitating the supply of specialised inverters for Pakistan’s nascent nuclear industry.
But such facilitations did not stop, and in 1998 — the year in which Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests — then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif offered Turkey a “nuclear partnership” in research.
Since then, there has been active scientific exchange between the two, including visits to each other’s facilities by scientists.
Did Islamabad pay back for Ankara’s support for decades by providing either the weapons or a transfer guarantee?
Is that the reason why Turkey has upped its rhetoric against India, especially on Kashmir, over the last year?
No definitive answers are likely, but the questions are something that should focus minds — and not just in New Delhi.
The steady escalation in rhetoric and symbolic action by the Turkish president, seemingly out of touch with the apparent reality, suggests something of the sort is afoot.
So, it is valid to ask now whether a nuclear threshold has been crossed by Turkey, silently, perhaps sometime in the last four years after the 2016 coup attempt?
The bravado that we are seeing from Erdogan might well be a reflection of that possibility.
What we do know now is that the ground is fertile for such a development in Turkey, and has been for some time (see this October 2019 article in The New York Times).
On the Pakistani side, there is no restraint, in view of its history of opportunistic nuclear proliferation and failed strategic alliances — particularly in the current global environment.
The only question, therefore, is whether there is or has been any restraint on the part of the Turks.
Given the rough rhetoric from Erdogan and his ministers, every country within missile or fighter jet range of Turkey must make this call.
Reason suggests it is time to err on the side of caution.
An EU citizen of Indian origin, Jai is based in East Africa and is a keen observer of Eurasian and South Asian developments.
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