Geopolitics, Turkish Style, and How to React to It
David Batashvili, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
In the fall of 2022, Iran began to meddle in the Russo-Ukrainian War by giving Russia weapons to strike Ukrainian infrastructure. This marked Iran’s first major intervention in the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. In truth, however, the struggles going on between states in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where Iran is a major player, have been interconnected for years, and certainly since the start of the Syrian War in 2011.
Russia’s long campaign to topple the United States and its allies from the position of global preeminence involves, besides Eastern Europe, also the Western Balkans, the Caribbean, and Africa. Iran operates against the same Western adversaries, as well as against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, in the Arabian Peninsula. The geographic theater where both Russia and Iran have been major actors, each for its own purposes, is the region including Levant and Iraq, traditionally called the Fertile Crescent.
Russia’s and Iran’s objectives are not necessarily the same. There may even be some competition between the two. But the fact of having the same main adversaries in the US and its Western European allies has caused Russia and Iran to cooperate closely, for years.
There is yet another key player operating in the Fertile Crescent, with objectives quite separate from those of the other major powers – Turkey. Possessing wide-ranging geopolitical interests, this power has been acting, in conflict or cooperation with others, in several regions around it, including Eastern Europe.
The US with its allies, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, are the sides participating in a system of interconnected sets of competition and cooperation. The new stage in Russian-Iranian military-technological collaboration starting in 2022 is just one of the latest acts in this great game.
Turkey’s NATO membership should not dim our view of this reality. This power is not a member of anyone else’s geopolitical camp. Instead, it is at the center of a camp of its own. Since at least the 2000s, Turkey has pursued an active geostrategy aimed at growing, as much as possible, its power and influence in the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Balkans among other parts of the world.
Turkey’s understanding of itself clearly is, by now, that of a geopolitically independent great power. In this, it is similar to some other countries whose power has greatly increased in the recent decades, such as India and Iran. There are crucial aspects, however, in which it differs from them.
India strives for influence in the Indian Ocean basin and South Asia. But its ambitions are incompatible with those of China, whose quest for global preeminence requires it to dominate the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, while no doubt a power independent in its choices, India must closely cooperate with China’s other adversaries, such as the US, Japan and Australia.
Iran, on the contrary, is pitted in an uncompromising struggle with the US. The foreign policy goal of its ruling regime is hegemony in the Middle East. This is not, and can never be, acceptable to the Americans. Yet this goal is a core part of the Tehran regime’s ideology. Therefore, it will remain in place as long as this regime lasts, and so will the American-Iranian struggle.
Turkey is not compelled to stay in the same camp with the US, like India, and is not pitted in an inescapable struggle against the US, like Iran. Its ambitions in the Middle East are not as intransigently hegemonic as the Iranian ones, which allows Ankara much more flexibility. Turkey’s method has been to maneuver between the opposing camps in the Western-Russian and Western-Iranian struggles, seeking every opportunity to increase its own influence.
Turkey engaged in proxy wars against Russia, with some success, in Syria’s Idlib region and in Libya, where it prevented the capture of Tripoli by Russia-aligned forces supported by the Wagner Group. The two powers have conflicting interests in the South Caucasus and the Western Balkans. And yet, Turkey has maintained a close working relationship with Russia. Ankara’s position, and Erdogan’s criticism, regarding the Western sanctions against Russia can hardly be acceptable to Ukraine and all its supporters. Yet everyone is restrained in their reactions to this, because at the same time Turkey gives Ukraine help in certain instances and must not be antagonized. Turkey’s maneuvering obliges all other sides that are in conflict with one another to respect Turkish interests, whether they like Ankara’s behavior or not.
It is important to accept that the foundations of modern Turkey’s foreign policy are not necessarily tied to any single political party. If the ruling AKP and Erdogan were to be replaced by other politicians, this would remove from the international arena Erdogan’s personal style of doing things, but not the fundamental reality of Turkey’s geostrategy and independent international stance. These are, in all likelihood, here to stay.
The best way to look upon Turkey’s geopolitical positioning is with clarity. We should recognize that Turkey is an independent player that is not really aligned to any other major power. The attitude towards Turkey should be as pragmatic as Turkey’s own attitude is. Cooperation is in order when interests align. When they do not, Turkey needs either to be negotiated with to achieve a compromise deal, or constrained to limit its ability to do damage. Unlike Britain or Japan, Turkey is not a straightforward friend of the US. Unlike the regimes in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran, it is not a straightforward adversary.
With Turkey, therefore, a page from 18th and 19th century pragmatic diplomacy can be more useful than the black-and-white (or, rather, red-and-blue) logic of the Cold War.
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