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April 22, 2012, Sunday

Turkey’s strategic depth and its limitations

It was only a short while ago that Stratfor, a strategic research and analysis firm/institution, was condemned in Turkey for being a shadow CIA and for the involvement of some Turks, including the inner circle of the prime minister, in its dealings.

But the emotional storm proved to be short lived. In the meantime, Stratfor did not cease sending its messages to millions of people around the world, including Turks.

For the heavier stuff you have to subscribe and pay, for others, such as low income professors (!) and interested researchers, analyses such as the content of the following article is disseminated freely by mail. In the April 17, 2012 issue of Geopolitical Weekly, the head of Stratfor, George Friedman, wrote a piece titled “Turkey’s Strategy.”

The gist of his analysis is as follows: The Turkish ruling cadre wants to expand Turkey’s influence to former Ottoman lands that were lost in World War I. However, so much has transpired since then both on the global and regional level that makes it hard to redeem the imperial past. In fact, the loss of Eastern Europe and the Middle East has normalized the imbalance between Turkey’s actual power and its overextended territorial existence prior to the war. The republic became “much less vulnerable than the Ottoman Empire” due to its territorial size.

Until the 1990s, there was a similarity in the foreign policy of both the Ottoman Empire and republican Turkey, which is the fear and threat of Russia. Having no access to warm seas due to the geographic location of her naval ports old and new, Russia has always been interested in controlling the straits of Turkey and “shaping her sovereignty.” That is why Turkey joined NATO and became a close ally of (in fact dependent on) the US. Russia (the Soviets) wasn’t just powerful but also assertive in areas surrounding Turkey. The Balkans, the Caucasus and Syria and Iraq were under Russian control. But with the collapse of the Soviet empire Turkey felt less threatened and freer in her relations with the countries in these regions.

Declining Soviet power in Turkey’s near abroad painted a completely new picture. But the breaking point with the US and past political tradition came in 2003 with the determination of this country to invade Iraq. Turkish rulers and people alike thought that this invasion would not only destabilize Iraq but put this country under Iran’s influence and encourage the Kurds to seize on the opportunity to become independent. Hence the invasion would betray its purpose of containing Iran, bring instability to Iraq and render the Kurdish problem uncontrollable.

These calculations distanced Turkey from its traditional ally (the US), enabling it to become freer in developing independent relations with other countries. But the main option was to seek membership in the European Union. This aim has not been reached; however, it helped Turkey to upgrade its economic, political and legal standards. Economic development gained momentum.

A growing economy, lack of Soviet assertiveness and a negotiable (not dependent) relationship with the US enabled Turkey to design its “post-Cold War strategy.” The following factors eased the development of Turkey’s new foreign policy: Manageable threats were replaced by existential threats. She had considerable military might. Finally, her neighborhood was getting “increasingly unstable and dangerous,” as exemplified by Iraq and Syria. Iran was another potential problem with its unpredictable behavior and nuclear ambitions.

These factors offered both challenges and opportunities. “Zero problems with neighbors” was born out of the necessity to reach out and “seek ways to manage the instability” in neighboring countries. With the US unable to define her role in the Middle East and the unpredictability of the situation in the region, Turkey could assert herself more freely in this region. This marked its ascendance to a regional power position on the back of a growing economy.

Friedman admits that Turkey is emerging as a regional power. However, he also sees that it has not yet developed the institutional capacity “for managing regional affairs” or become a major enough power to carry out corrective regional interventions. Furthermore, the region “is not yet prepared to view Turkey as a beneficial, stabilizing force.” At present, Turkish strategy is in a transitional stage.

What can extend the transitional stage or abort Turkey’s claim to be a great power are twofold: The tug of war between secular and religious social forces that not only concerns domestic stability but also foreign fear of Islamic fundamentalism gaining ground. The other is the unsolved Kurdish problem that weakens Turkey internally but also provides an expedient instrument for Turkey’s regional rivals to undermine her claim to be a powerful international actor.

If open intelligence is this lucid, why not make use of it?

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