By Allison Fedirka
For a number of years, the Turkish government has tried to strengthen relations with countries that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. It’s part of what GPF sees as Turkey’s re-emergence as a regional power. One of the regions in which it has tried to establish a growing presence is North Africa, where the Turkish president has spent much of this week on state visits. It’s important to remember, however, that Ankara still faces a number of barriers to restoring its past glory.
Reviving Turkish Influence
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week visited Sudan, Tunisia and Chad in what, on the surface, appeared to be routine diplomatic trips aimed at maintaining bilateral ties. Both the Turkish and the international press particularly emphasized the Sudan visit, highlighting Turkey’s plan to restore the Suakin Port along the Red Sea. The port has been defunct for more than a century, but it was a major port during part of the time that Sudan was ruled by the Ottomans. It will now be used mostly for tourism and a ferry service to Mecca.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C-L) is welcomed by his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir (C-R) upon his arrival in Khartoum on Dec. 24, 2017, for a two-day official visit. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
The restoration of this port is part of a broader neo-Ottomanist strategy to revive Turkish influence in regions once controlled by the Ottomans. Domestically, the government has been arousing pan-Turkic sentiment for years through a number of measures, including restoring historic sites. But now we’re seeing moves to expand Turkish power on the international front, with the Turkish press even referencing the country’s Ottoman past during Erdogan’s visits abroad.
But Turkey won’t be able to revive its old empire if it can’t ensure its own survival. Key to its survival is maintaining its control over the Bosporus, a critical waterway that separates the European and Asian parts of Turkey. The Ottomans too depended on this passageway. Before Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, the Byzantine Empire was able to threaten the Ottomans and prevent them from defending their holdings on either side of the strait. Securing the Bosporus requires building buffer zones around it where Turkey can maintain some degree of influence and prevent other powers from getting close enough to threaten Turkish control. Building this strategic depth requires establishing power over parts of the Caucasus that can act as chokepoints in its ability to project power further east toward Iran; securing territory south of the Caucasus in Arab lands that border the western side of the Zagros Mountains; protecting or controlling its border with Europe in the southern Balkans; and defending itself in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey faces challenges to establishing buffers in each of these directions. In the Caucasus, it faces competition from both Iran and Russia. In the Balkans, it has to contend with the Russians and key European powers, although Europe currently lacks a major power like the Hapsburg Empire so it’s less threatening. To the south, the Syrian civil war rages on and a lot of political, and potentially military, maneuvering will be needed to establish a Turkish foothold here.
The one place where Turkey could more easily expand its presence is in North Africa. Turkish engagement with countries like Sudan and Tunisia will be met with relatively less competition or pushback from other regional powers. North Africa’s main geopolitical value is its access to the Mediterranean Sea and, to the east, the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Given that Europe borders the Mediterranean to the north, it naturally has an interest in North African affairs. But this interest is currently limited to stemming migration to Europe, which has exacerbated internal political divisions on the Continent.
The United States needs to ensure its navy has access to the Mediterranean, but it already has this through its NATO partnerships. Washington’s resources are stretched thin, and the resouces it has devoted to Africa are mostly focused on security operations in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
Russia has recently established a minor naval presence in the Mediterranean to support its operations in Syria, but the fleet’s home base is far away in Murmansk, and maintaining long, large deployments in the region is logistically difficult. Its efforts to expand its global influence are better focused elsewhere in the Middle East or in other strategic regions where it can better compete. Additionally, should it want to contest Turkey directly over the Bosporus, it can use its Black Sea Fleet.
Both Sudan and Tunisia fell under Ottoman rule during the empire’s heydays and could allow Turkey to once again project power into North Africa. The Ottoman Empire seized control over North Africa and maintained this control by relying heavily on local actors and a very powerful navy. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman navy had a strong presence in the Mediterranean and maintained trading routes to North Africa for much of this time. While some Italian city states tried to challenge it for control of these routes, they failed to cut maritime supply routes. This time around, however, considering the significant U.S. and NATO presence in the Mediterranean, Ankara will likely establish its influence through political ties and economic investments.
Turkey may be trying to re-establish its once mighty power, but a number of factors still stand in its way. Iran is chief among them. Tehran, which has strong ties with the governments in Damascus and Baghdad, is blocking Turkey’s path in Syria and Iraq. Even at the height of Ottoman power, the empire couldn’t push its borders too far east due to geographic factors, including the long distance between Istanbul and eastern Turkey that made supplying its army difficult.
Although deeply concerned about the rising power of Iran, the Arabs are also worried about Turkish expansion and are therefore resisiting alignment with Turkey. But the Arabs need a counter to Iran. Egypt, considering the state of its economy, is in no position to be an Arab leader. Saudi Arabia is still dealing with the fallout of its economic reforms and the drop in oil prices. Neither of these two countries is capable of countering Iranian power, and thus the only viable option is Turkey.
But by supporting the Turks, they run the risk of helping Turkey re-establish itself as the regional hegemony. The Ottoman Empire is a blueprint for what this regional hegemony might look like in the future, and Ankara’s interest in North Africa is motivated by its desire to grasp that power once again.