Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has never made a secret of his ambition to become a historic regional leader. His nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire long ago became a source of concern for observers who think he might seriously attempt to bring it back.
His detractors mock him as “Sultan Erdogan,” but he might not find that name insulting. Erdogan flexed his military muscle in several recent conflicts. He might be warming up for something bigger, or he may have already overtaxed Turkey’s military strength.
Erdogan has been a populist, nationalist, and Islamist throughout his career, although he began as a “reformer” with a considerably softer approach. He long dreamed of abandoning Turkey’s postwar legacy of secularism and remodeling the country as an aggressive Islamic power. He declared war on the secular elite of Turkey when they threw him in jail for inciting religious hatred in 1997.
Erdogan apparently emerged from that experience with a strong desire to be the one who gets to throw people in jail for disagreeing with him. As soon as he talked himself into national power, he made certain no one would ever be able to talk him out of it. He is generally a splendid example of an authoritarian leader who took pains to dynamite the path he took to power behind him so that no upstart opponent would be able to follow it and usurp him.
Erdogan had a very hostile relationship with the military in his early career, denouncing it as corrupt and domineering. After the unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt against his rule, he purged the military of political adversaries and remodeled it into his “private army,” as Foreign Policy described it in 2017. Erdogan’s defeat of the coup is now celebrated in Turkey as a national holiday.
Veteran Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil lost his job at Turkey’s top newspaper Hurriyet in 2017 for writing an article that criticized post-coup Erdogan as an aspiring “conqueror” eager to revive the Ottoman Empire’s “law of the sword.” The Turkish president is now enmeshed in military conflicts across the Middle East, and he seems willing to kick off a few more.
Syria: Turkey invaded Syria in 2019, launching an operation called “Operation Peace Spring” against Kurdish militias operating near the Turkish border. Turkey accused these militia groups, which Western allies saw as crucial allies against the Islamic State, of working with the violent PKK separatist organization in Turkey.
Erdogan threatened to attack the Syrian Kurds again on Wednesday after a suspected Kurdish militant carried out a suicide bombing in a Turkish border town. According to the Turkish president, Kurdish armed forces have not yet withdrawn from the buffer zone in Syria he demanded in 2019, so Turkey has “a legitimate reason to intervene at any moment we feel the need to.”
Iraq: Turkey also periodically bombs Kurdish positions in Iraq, to the growing annoyance of the Iraqi government. Iraq strongly protested Turkish bombing runs and ground missions against PKK camps near the border over the summer, calling them a “dangerous violation of Iraqi sovereignty.” Erdogan was unmoved by Iraq’s warnings, even after Turkish air raids killed several Iraqi military officers.
Russia: Turkey’s incursion into Syria brought conflict with Russian forces working to keep dictator Bashar Assad in power. When the Russians first moved into Syria, Turkey accused their warplanes of violating its airspace, leading to Turkey downing a Russian attack plane in November 2015.
The two nations came to the brink of war, patched up their differences, and then returned to the brink as their proxy forces in Syria fought a vicious battle for the key province of Idlib. Dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed during an offensive by the Moscow-supported Syrian government against the province.
Erdogan worked out an Idlib ceasefire deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, but on Wednesday he denounced a Russian airstrike against Turkey-supported Syrian rebel forces, calling it “a sign that lasting peace and calm is not wanted in the region.”
Libya: Russia is also critical of Turkey’s military involvement in Libya, where Erdogan gave crucial support to the government in Tripoli – controversially including thousands of Syrian jihadis employed by Turkey as mercenary shock troops – while Russia supported Tripoli’s rival for power, Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Turkey was able to break Haftar’s siege of Tripoli and turned the tide of the Libyan civil war, in part by aggressively deploying anti-aircraft weapons that made the Russians and other Haftar supporters nervous.
Egypt: Also unhappy with the Turkish presence in Libya is Egypt, which insists on its own defensive buffer zone against Turkish troops and militia proxies, much as Turkey demands a buffer against Kurdish forces in Syria. In October, Egypt and its allies in Libya criticized Turkey for scheming to seize Libya’s oil wealth, much of which happens to reside in the area Egypt claims as a security buffer. Erdogan has responded by denouncing Egypt’s involvement in Libya as illegal.
Greece and Cyprus: The Atlantic Council noted in October that Libya is a stepping stone for Erdogan to project power into the Mediterranean, where his ambitions could develop into a military conflict against Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus.
Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) repaid Erdogan for his support by giving Turkey access to valuable offshore energy resources also claimed by Egypt and Greece, which loudly denounced the GNA-Turkey agreement and signed their own accord to create an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean in August. Greece made major weapons purchases in September – its largest in twenty years – to underline its willingness to fight over its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tensions were high between Greece and Turkey long before Libya entered the picture. The two nations are bitterly at odds over Cyprus, an island with a complex history divided between a government that favors Turkey and a government that favors Greece. In the most recent flare-up between them, Erdogan accused Greece and the Greek Cypriot government of spitefully arranging the interception of a Turkish vessel bound for Libya.
Greece and Turkey are also at odds over islands and offshore resources in the Aegean Sea. Pessimistic observers believe air and naval forces from the two countries are in perpetual danger of opening fire on each other, especially during periods of heightened tension when both sides are determined to demonstrate their strength in the Aegean.
The Turks have a nasty habit of acting like they might shoot down Greek officials during visits to the disputed islands. In May 2020, Greek and Turkish warplanes engaged in a mock dogfight after Turkish jets threatened a helicopter carrying Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos and his staff. The engagement, like many others preceding it, came perilously close to not being “mock” anymore.
Turkey’s tensions with Greece have a strong religious dimension, as Greek Orthodox Christians were outraged by Erdogan’s decision to convert the fabled Hagia Sophia into a mosque last year. Greece was similarly enraged when Erdogan did the same thing to another cathedral with deep significance to the Orthodox Christian faith, the Church of Chora.
Israel: Egypt, Greece, and Greek Cyprus belong to a cooperative called the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), based in Egypt. The EMGF pointedly told Turkey not to expect an invitation to join any time soon. Turkey responded by calling the EMGF an “alliance of evil” that seeks to unfairly block Turkey from its “blue homeland.”
Another member of EMGF is Israel. Israel is very interested in building a gas pipeline in the Eastern Mediterranean, a project Turkey opposes because it would interfere with Ankara’s plans in the region. Erdogan is hostile to the Israeli government and considers its membership in EMGF provocative.
Erdogan makes a great show of supporting the Palestinians against Israel, although he recently remarked that instead of Israelis and Palestinians squabbling over who owns the holy city of Jerusalem, they should both remember that it really belongs to the Ottoman Empire.
After years of belligerence, Erdogan and his Islamist party grew relatively quiet about Israel in the bottom half of 2020, leading some Israelis to suspect Erdogan is biding his time and preparing renewed hostilities against them after the strongly pro-Israel U.S. President Donald Trump leaves office.
Armenia: Turkey intervened in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan last month, to the horror of Armenians who remember Erdogan’s beloved Ottoman Empire making a spirited effort to exterminate them a century ago. Turkey made no bones about its willingness to support Azerbaijan in every way possible, from diplomatic and financial assistance to military intervention.
Turkey has ambitions in the South Caucasus that go far beyond helping Azerbaijan push the Armenians out of a few disputed provinces. The region is another point of contention between Turkey and Russia, which appears to have outmaneuvered Erdogan by emerging from the Nagorno-Karabakh battle with a stronger position in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
France: Relations between Turkey and France turned extremely sour after French President Emmanuel Macron spoke out against Islamism in the wake of a jihadi beheading a French schoolteacher. Erdogan responded to Macron’s defense of free speech by suggesting the French president belongs in a mental hospital.
France was already lined up against Turkey in every one of the disputes mentioned above. Erdogan’s renewed vitriol against France is probably a play to shore up his nationalist and Islamist bases; some observers noted that Turkish media, which Erdogan now fully controls, scarcely reported on the French schoolteacher’s beheading, making it easy for Erdogan to paint Macron as an unreasonable bigot who lashed out against Islam for no good reason.