Turkish army tanks roll past a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, during a military parade on the 86th anniversary of Victory Day in Ankara, August 30, 2008. Tensions between Turkey's government and its powerful generals will continue clouding the future of the European Union-applicant country, after the new military commander warned against the rising profile of Islam. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas (TURKEY)

Turkey’s 21st Century Could Be a Big One (Or: When your neighbors are derelicts, you’d be wise to do something about them)

Oh, the Turkish model.  It was supposed to save the Middle East. It was meant to provide a model for chaotic Arab states to become both democratic and Muslim.  What a lovely straw to grasp at.

This was classic moral projecting.  Westerners rooting for peaceful democracy in the Middle East hoped the only successful Muslim country in the region could somehow be copied and pasted onto all other Muslim nation-states.  But that was oversimplifying reality, as projection always is.  Turkey is quite unique, and its uniqueness is one reason why Ankara is slowly but surely drifting out of the West’s camp and trying to make its own.

In 1952 Turkey joined NATO and threw itself firmly into the Western bloc.  For decades, Western powers have seen Turkey as a compliant, useful regional ally.  But spats over the invasion of Iraq, what to do over Syria, and how to combat the Islamic State are expanding rifts that were merely papered over during the Cold War.

For centuries, Turkey was the center of great empires.  What formed the foundation of the Eastern Roman and Ottoman Empires is still very much in play, and Turkey’s elites, now recovered from the disaster of World War I, are readying to assert themselves in the 21st century.  And Turkey is realizing it has less use for NATO than ever.

So, the cliff notes.

  • Turkey’s good growing season, mineral resources, geographic location on both sea and land trade routes, and long civilized history give it the geopolitical strength of Iran, but unlike Iran, Turkey’s had powerful friends happy to arm it for half a century.
  • With the Middle East in utter chaos, and looking only to grow more chaotic, it will fall to local powers to reorder the region, and right now, the smart money is on Turkey and Iran both trying to do so.
  • While Turkey won’t repeat the mistakes of the past and build a traditional empire, the Middle East of the 21st century may well be filled with Turkish proxies and a Turkish form of NATO.
  • That is, unless Turkish power is forced back into NATO’s arms by an expansionist Russia, dismembered by Kurdish nationalism, or absorbed by a suddenly effective European Union.

Don’t you dare sneeze at Turkey, which as a base is a fine place to build an empire.

Turkey’s near 75 million citizens rival Iran’s 77 million and Germany’s 80 million.  Beyond heavily urbanized Istanbul, Turkey’s people are not jammed into cities like Egypt and have a better balance between rural and urban populations, freeing up Turkish state power to concentrate on other things.

Like thinking about how much better the Middle East would be under Turkey’s sway.

Better, it’s a proper nation-state; Turks emigrated from Central Asia somewhere around 1000, invaded the Middle East, converted to Islam, and set up shop in the crumbling ruins of the Roman Empire, going on to conquer Constantinople in 1453.  That conquest cemented the century-long rise of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Middle East until World War I.

Before and after World War I. Turkey’s power shrank to its Anatolian base, but it may yet grow again. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Oil and gas routes from the Middle East to Europe are easiest through Turkey; the Silk Road, which once ran through the country lives on through pipelines.

Its legacy of empire has left it with a strong, effective state protected by a capable military.  Its culture and language unifies its millions.  Well, mostly.  But we’ll get to that later.

And if left entirely alone, Turkey is the frontrunner to be the Middle East’s natural hegemon. 

As America pulls back from its disastrous micromanagement of the Middle East, someone must put order to the chaos.  Who will that be?

China is too far away; its military still isn’t ready for the kind of fun the Middle East provides.

Iran has the people and the economic power to put together a sizable military, but its guns are rusty and its militant Shi’a Persian identity makes Sunni Arabs hate it well before they’ve met it.

Egypt?  The crowded cities of the Nile will continue to sap the state’s energy for decades to come.

And the Persian Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia?  Overarmed and undertrained, their idea of good governance is throwing dollops of cash at people who complain too much.  But that wholesale bribery will not put down the Islamic State and those who will doubtless come after it.

That leaves only one state with the right army, the right geographic position, and the right amount of power.  If nobody tries to stop it, Turkey will call most of the shots in the Middle East by the end of the 21st century, just as it did at the beginning of the 20th.

Sounds rather fatalistic.  Must history repeat itself?

Well, no.  There’s plenty that might founder Turkish ambitions, but here’s why Turkey will still try: when your neighbor next door is running his household into the ground, you judge, but you don’t do anything at first.  You need a clear demonstration of danger.

When that same neighbor begins running his house more insanely, like hosting parties for crackheads or running meth from his basement, your calculations begin to change.  You can’t assume that all the methheads are going to remember how property rights work.

You may stay on your high horse for a while and presume toleration will instill the peaceful values you seek on crackheads and meth dealers.  You will, of course, be wrong, because on a long enough timeline, the anarchy next door will come knocking.  If you’re lucky, it’s just a broken window, or a damaged car.  If you’re not, it’s a dead family member.

When that logical conclusion is finally reached, the odds of you taking action are high.  Play the pacifist again and you risk death for no good reason.  For argument’s sake, let’s say you do just that, and are killed by some marauding, toothless meth head seeking your pocket change.  Your death will spur others in the area to action; inevitably, the neighborhood will organize and use what tools they have to end the insecurity, drive out the crack and the meth, and restore order.

When your neighbor looks like this, you try to do something.
When your neighbor looks like this, you try to do something.

In a neighborhood, often that means calling the police.  But in geopolitics, there’s no true world police, and the closest there is to a world cop, the United States, acts only when it might profit America.

The crackheads and meth dealers of the Middle East are the Islamic State and other anti-state actors that are flourishing.  Turkey is on a bit of a high horse about them right now, but on a long enough timeline, Islamic State will begin to harm Turkish interests, just as a random meth mouth as a neighbor will one day knife you.  Islamic State’s ideology calls for a pan-Muslim caliphate, and Turkey, as a Muslim state, must one day be overthrown.

And let’s presume IS is somehow wiped out; whoever replaces it will still not solve the problem of Syria and Iraq.  The nation-state system has failed both Syria and Iraq, and putting them back together again is a fool’s errand.  Some other political model must be imposed on them because they are not going to figure it out on their own.

So who’s going to impose what?  This is where Turkey’s opportunity arises.

Not an empire exactly, but a Turkish NATO of sorts amidst the ruins of Sykes-Picot. 

Remember your history, kids, for Sykes-Picot was the secret Anglo-French agreement that created both Syria and Iraq and was a pretty terrible idea.  It’s now pretty comprehensively failed, and the warring tribes of Syria and Iraq will be long in putting together something to replace them.  If left alone, the only system that will work will be something like the Islamic State – an extremely conservative brand of local culture intolerant of everyone and everything.

That makes a huge amount of sense when you view history as a system of development.  For a place to jump from tribes and villages to something more advanced requires an ideology brutal enough to exterminate the strong individuality (and selfishness that breeds a lot of corruption) that comes with tribalism.  Nation-states don’t do that very well; they try to balance individuality with society.  But tribes exploit that balance, undermine it, and eventually destroy the nation-states that provide it, degrading society back to tribalism.

So you can’t just impose a nation-state over a bunch of tribes and expect people with a tribal mentality to suddenly understand what a modern citizen has to do.  This is like asking a bunch of amateur YouTube viewers to create a summer blockbuster film; they’ve seen it plenty, but they have no idea the mechanics of actually creating the next Toy Story.

The next logical step up from tribalism is something like a monarchy; the Persian Gulf states are the modern models here.  I slag off the Saudi king quite a bit, but the Saudi monarchy was exactly what the doctored ordered as the kingdom developed in the 20th century.  (The slagging comes from the fact that the Saudi monarchy hasn’t been willing to develop both itself and its society enough to keep up the 21st century).

From monarchy, you can move towards democracies or republics.  But to skip that step is dangerous; Iraq and Syria did that to their peril.

So Turkish power will project itself through local warlords-turned-statesmen, and while nobody will feel great about it, it will put out the fires.

If Turkey actually does invade these chaotic neighbors and try to build a traditional empire, it’ll founder, and Ankara knows it.  The tribes will fight back, and Turkey will either have to exterminate them and risk international isolation during the great condemnations that would follow, or it will have to withdraw and suffer a geopolitical defeat that will set it back decades.

There aren’t any good guys or bad guys, just guys you can work with and guy you can’t. Turkish power will support those who it sees as useful. (Source: Clingendael.nl)

So instead, Turkey will build alliances with the strongest; those strongest will enjoy Turkish arms and training until they dominate and annihilate their enemies.  Already the Free Syrian Army is under heavy Turkish influence.  Jordan, feeling abandoned by the U.S., will see Turkey as a new protector.  Turkey needn’t annex anything to grow more powerful; a relationship that puts Turkish bases in Jordan would do the same thing.

None of this will build democracy.  Warlords will style themselves presidents in all likelihood, but they won’t be all that different from Assad and Saddam, who were both essentially kings despite their suits and ties.  Human rights will continue to be violated, but not on as vast a scale.  Borders will probably be redrawn, and the shards of these two countries will end up under foreign protection and influence.  Turkey stands to be the big winner if it plays its cards right.

Yeah, yeah, but what about Iran?  What about America?  What about Russia?  And what about those Kurds the Turks can’t seem to defeat?

Iran’s ability to win friends and influence people is limited because it’s Shi’a; as the nominally secular nation-states are dead, sect matters, and while Iran can arm Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a to the hilt, they cannot expect either to conquer much territory.  That leaves out swathes of Syria and Iraq that must be ruled by someone.

America has an even weaker hand in Sunni Arabia.  Having destroyed Saddam and now waging war on the Islamic State, America is wanted only so much as it can provide ammunition.  But the U.S. is coming to understand an endless supply of guns isn’t bringing order to the Middle East.  Instead, American elites will try to outsource the region’s problems to reliable powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and most especially Turkey.  Over time, they’ll find only Turkey to be capable of actually solving problems.

Russia matters only so much as its revanchism succeeds in Eastern Europe.  If Russian power succeeds in Ukraine and pushes NATO back, Russia will absolutely focus its energies onto the Middle East and Turkey.  Turkey’s rule of the Turkish Straits are key to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea; if Turkey ever closed them to Russia, it would hurt Russia quite a bit.  So Russia must have those straits open; it was the demand of the Soviet Union to have troops there that drove Turkey into NATO in the first place in 1952.

But Russia doesn’t have the power to fight a two front influence war.  Its adventure in Ukraine hasn’t been astounding, and it must settle matters there before it can deploy its limited forces southwards.

And what about those Kurds?  Well, if ever there were better geopolitical spoilers…

Kurdish nationalism could undo all of Turkey’s ambitions – and abilities – to rule the roost of the Middle East.  It’s incredibly likely Iraqi Kurdistan will be independent in the next few years, but that independence, depending on how it’s managed, will either inspire Turkish Kurds to struggle to join them or accept their place in the Turkish Republic.  If Turkey is part of the process that results in Kurdish independence, it could find a way to keep Turkish Kurds happy; if not, another long civil war could result, and such a war would stymie Turkey’s ability to influence much of anything anywhere.

Darkest red is the highest concentration of Kurds. To lose these regions would cripple Turkey as a Middle Eastern power. (Source: wikimedia.org)

If Turkey lost Turkish Kurdistan, it would effectively lose borders with Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the Caucasuses.

Suddenly, the problems of the Middle East would be of a greater concern to the new Kurdistan while Turkey would have a vast buffer state between it and anarchy.

That would be the only good news for Turkey. To lose those 11-15 million Kurds and such a vast territory would put Turkey onto the backfoot for decades.  It would fall to someone else to reorder the Middle East; Turkey would be out of the game.

Then there’s the longest of shots that might halt Turkey’s rise: the European Union.

Today, the EU looks like a bigger mess than ever, but if the EU can survive the Greek crisis, close ranks against the Russians, and militarize, it could yet emerge as a formidable geopolitical force able to challenge America itself.  If such an entity came about and brought Turkey into the fold, it would not be Turkish but combined European power that would surge into the Middle East.  With Turkey as a key component, such a venture would be more successful than the last time Europeans tried to fix the region.

But that’s such a long shot it’s only worth thinking about in the 2050s, if at all.

For the long bet, put your money on the Turks.

This isn’t a quick job; it’s the work of decades.  But the conditions of the Middle East favor Turkish power in a way that hasn’t been seen in a century.  It’ll take quite the pacifist state to not be tempted.

2 thoughts on “Turkey’s 21st Century Could Be a Big One (Or: When your neighbors are derelicts, you’d be wise to do something about them)

  1. OK – good for Turkey but what about Israel? They certainly are going to be involved in the mix. No mention of them one way or the other. What will their influence be?

    1. Certainly, but Israel’s power projection in the region is very limited. Israel cannot control even its own nearby Palestinians, and trying to influence or control the affairs of even more Arabs is a non-starter. Witness Israel’s unsuccessful ploy to control Lebanon from 1982-2000, or its unsustainable occupation of the Sinai from 1967-82. Israel can fortify itself further and be safer than ever, but it won’t be able to control the destinies of those millions around it who must be reordered.

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