President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has complained about an international conspiracy forming against Turkey, and he says it’s attempting to frustrate his projection of Turkish power and influence abroad.
Domestic and foreign critics counter that there isn’t yet a conspiracy, but if one does emerge, it largely will be due to his picking fights with his country’s neighbors, including the European Union and Turkey's NATO allies. They are exasperated by his threats, whenever he is crossed, to throw open the doors for migrants to once again flock into Europe.
Erdogan has in recent months frequently blamed invisible, malevolent foreign enemies for Turkey’s sharply deteriorating economy. For most of this year, foreign investors have shunned the country, and an already weak Turkish lira plunged last month to record lows in value against the dollar and euro. Western critics say Turkish economic woes are the result of his own mishandling of the economy.
Additionally, the Turkish leader and his aides have accused European nations of ganging up to sabotage his geopolitical ambitions, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, where Ankara is locked in an escalating maritime quarrel with Greece and Cyprus that risks getting out of hand over lucrative gas and oil drilling rights.
The huge energy potential of the eastern Mediterranean has drawn other powers in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East into the destabilizing standoff. Western Europeans and Turkey’s other regional neighbors say maritime law is on the side of Athens and Cyprus, accusing Ankara of brinkmanship in a deadlock that’s seen opposing warships come close to clashing.
“We see ourselves as an inseparable part of Europe,” Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] in a speech last month. “However, this does not mean that we will bow down to overt attacks to our country and nation, veiled injustices and double standards,” he added.
In October, as European criticism mounted about Turkish adventurism, including a military intervention into northern Syria aimed at dislodging Syrian Kurds, Erdogan, retorted, “Hey EU, wake up. I say it again: If you try to frame our operation as an invasion, our task is simple — we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you.”
Conspiracy theories have long been a feature of cultural and political life in Turkey, certainly since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. And during his 17-year-long rule, political critics have accused Erdogan of stoking the long-held Turkish fear of being surrounded by foreign powers and beset by shadowy outside forces eager to weaken the country and to prevent it from restoring Ottoman greatness.
“In fueling the current disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, the [Turkish] leadership is using a narrative revolving around themes such as conquest—referring to the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul—battles and wars, a huge [and undefined] foreign conspiracy, and a return to glory,” Marc Pierini, an analyst at the research group Carnegie Europe, noted in a posted commentary.
Erdogan’s frequent complaint about an anti-Turkish foreign conspiracy risks turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy, warn some analysts and Western diplomats.
From a diplomatic row with NATO ally France over the enforcement of an international arms embargo on Libya, to the deployment of special forces and Ankara-paid mercenaries to the strife-torn North Africa country, from military adventurism in northern Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, to Turkey’s illegal drilling in Cypriot waters, the Turkish leader is amassing an impressive list of opponents.
Ankara seems ever more willing to challenge allies and enemies alike in pursuit of a larger role on the world stage. If Western nations, and Turkey’s near neighbors, start coordinating containment strategies, it will be as a consequence of Erdogan’s aggressive aim to expand, through assertive diplomacy and military means, Turkish influence in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea, say Western diplomats and analysts.
There are increasing signs that Turkey’s NATO partners are tiring with Erdogan’s assertive geopolitical ambitions and irredentist claims against his neighbors. “The totality of Turkey’s policies and actions have now reached a point of dangerous escalation,” according to analysts Heather Conley and Rachel Ellehuus of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a research group in Washington.
They noted in a commentary for CSIS that Erdogan’s actions “substantially challenge the coherence of NATO’s collective defense posture in the Mediterranean and weaken its political cohesion.”
“To avoid this,” they say, Western allies “should approach the growing instability in the Mediterranean through an integrative policy that seeks to de-escalate tensions and define, with Ankara, common interests by identifying some agreed principles to guide regional behavior.” They add: “If Turkey is unwilling to join such an initiative, greater transatlantic tensions lie ahead.”
Turkey's wrangling with allies and neighbors have increased since 2015, when Erdogan adopted as policy the so-called Blue Homeland Doctrine, originally drawn up by Turkish Admiral Cem Gurdeniz in 2006. The doctrine outlined an ambitious goal to expand Turkish influence with an aim to improve access to important energy and other economic resources. Its implementation has seen Erdogan resorting to ad hoc arrangements, reversing bilateral understandings, and backsliding on multilateral agreements and Turkish obligations to NATO—creating even greater regional instability, say critics.
Despite his complaints about an anti-Turkey international conspiracy, some analysts say Erdogan has been helped by the absence of coordination between Western allies and by their circumspection.
They say Western officials have held off imposing further sanctions on Turkey or enforcing sanctions that have already been announced. In July, EU foreign ministers asked the bloc’s diplomatic corps to draw up possible enforcement options for sanctions imposed on Turkey for its gas and oil drilling activities in Cypriot territorial waters and what they see as Ankara’s “gunboat diplomacy” in the eastern Mediterranean.
Likewise, the U.S. has held back. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Turkey’s illegal drilling in Cypriot waters is “unacceptable,” but the Trump administration hasn’t followed up with concrete action and has not yet imposed sanctions for Turkey’s recent purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, an acquisition seen as breaching Ankara’s NATO commitments.
Western diplomats and analysts say there are increasing signs, though, that Turkey’s NATO partners are wary of Erdogan’s adventurism and go-it-alone strategy. Impatience is likely to build quickly next year when U.S. President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House.
Erdogan clashed often with Donald Trump, but Washington backed off confronting Ankara and opted for backroom deal-making. The two leaders were at least united in antipathy toward the EU. But that won’t be the case next year, and Erdogan is likely to find himself dealing with a less forgiving U.S. leader, according to Western diplomats.
Since the U.S. election, Erdogan has shown signs he knows he will need to adjust. Hours after the U.S. election, Erdogan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, resigned as Turkey’s economy minister. Albayrak had a close friendship with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
The Turkish president has also since the election vowed to launch a period of economic and legal reforms, saying he will prioritize legislation to strengthen democracy and improve human rights, an announcement widely seen as anticipating the changed circumstances in Washington. Biden has promised to host next year a global Summit for Democracy.