By Xander Snyder
Turkey is in the unenviable position of being surrounded by historical adversaries: Russia to its north, Iran to its east and south (via Syria), and Europe to its west. The Ottoman Empire fought wars in all of these theaters at one point or another. Yet even at the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire could not engage in multiple theaters simultaneously and win. Its success in warfare was guided not by the religious fanaticism of its troops, as some European commentators at the time suggested, but by the cautious allocation of resources to the most pressing theater while keeping the others at bay. Today, as Turkey’s power increases, it is still exercising this strategy.
Two seemingly unrelated events – one internal and the other external – reveal how Ankara is applying this strategy. The first is the demolition of the Ataturk Cultural Center, located in Taksim Square, the site of the 2013 protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s encroachment on secularism in the country. Erdogan has praised the move and said the building will be turned into an opera house. As Turkey’s power expands, it will move away from the secular republicanism that was a pivotal part of Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s vision for the country. Europe was his model for modern Turkey, and the country therefore needed to be built on a secular political order.
Erdogan has a different vision for Turkey, one that requires religion to play a larger role in society and politics. The demolition of the cultural center named after Ataturk is a step in this direction. Erdogan wants to unify the country around its Muslim roots, because a divided country can’t be a powerful country for long. Only then will he be able to project power in earnest and deal with the threats facing Turkey from the outside.
The second event is last week’s extradition from Kosovo to Turkey of six members of the Fethullah Gulen movement – a movement that Ankara blames for the 2016 attempted coup – reportedly without the knowledge of the Kosovar government. In response to the surprise extradition, Kosovo dismissed its interior minister and intelligence chief. Erdogan condemned the officials’ dismissal and accused the Kosovar prime minister of “shielding terrorists.”
Turkey may not be facing the same kind of challenges as it did during the Ottoman era, when it fought for and held territory throughout Europe and the Middle East, but it is still surrounded by potential enemies. Considering that it’s already engaged in the conflict in Syria, it must minimize the threats that could arise on its other fronts. In Europe, this means it has to do everything it can to keep the Balkans weak and susceptible to Turkish influence. During the Ottomans’ rule, Europe posed a constant threat. Even when the Ottomans controlled Kosovo, Hungary and Wallachia, the distance between Central Europe and the Ottoman core made it difficult to deploy troops there. It took up to three months just to move forces to the battle arena, and the harsh Central European winters meant that military campaigns almost always had to be concluded within one season.
Because of the logistical challenges, Ankara doesn’t want to wage another war in Europe, but it does want to exert power in the region to ensure that it doesn’t pose a serious threat. That Ankara gained enough influence over Kosovo’s intelligence agency to have six people deported from the country without the government’s knowledge shows that Ankara has already been working to gain a foothold there. Turkish influence in Kosovo could also weaken Serbia, which would benefit Ankara. Indeed, it was Serbia’s weakening, following the death of Serbian ruler Stefan Dusan and the outbreak of the bubonic plague in the 14th century, that enabled the Ottomans to move into the region and take control of territory. (They subsequently lost this territory after the invasion of the Timurid Empire and needed to reconquer the Balkans throughout the 1420s and 1440s.)
If a war were to break out in the Balkans, Ankara would be called on to defend its fellow Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially considering that multilateral institutions like NATO and the EU that have kept peace in the Balkans for the past 20 years are weakening. This would be costly and potentially dangerous for the Turks. Ankara instead wants to pull the strings and exert its influence over the region, but stop short of creating so much volatility that a military conflict could break out.
First Thing’s First
Turkey’s most pressing security concern lies in the Middle East, so its focus will remain there. Right now, it is facing significant challenges from its historical rival Iran. Iran has established a powerful position in Syria and, to a lesser degree, in Iraq. This is a reversal of the days of the Ottoman Empire, when the territory that is now Syria and Iraq was controlled by the Ottomans and acted as a buffer between the Ottomans and the Persian Safavid dynasty. With Syria and Iraq between them, the two empires didn’t have to confront each other in their core territories. This is why a pro-Iranian Syria and Iraq pose such a grave risk to Turkey – one of its main adversaries could have a pathway to Turkey’s doorstep.
At the same time, Turkey knows that it still needs to keep an eye on its western front. This will force it to, at some point, refocus its attention on the Balkans, which are a notorious flashpoint for conflict. The Balkans were a critical region for the Ottoman Empire, accounting for up to 25 percent of its population and tax revenue during its rise in the 16th-17th century. The loss of the Balkans in a wave of 19th-century nationalist revolutions inspired by the French Revolution crippled the Ottoman Empire, paving the way for European powers to push the Ottomans largely out of the Continent.
Turkey’s invasion of Syria is driven by a number of tactical goals, but all are related to its strategy to re-establish buffer space between itself and Iran. While it is implementing this strategy, it does not want to be drawn into another conflict elsewhere, and it will seek to keep its other historical adversaries at bay while it first completes its eastern conquests.