The coup attempt has generated a great deal of debate over Turkey’s future. Much of the discussion on this issue is focused on the personality of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the struggle between his supporters and their opponents. Truly understanding the current status of Turkey and where it is likely headed in the future, however, requires moving away from individuals and groups and examining objective geopolitical forces that shape a country’s behavior. This is why we try to make sense of Turkey by examining the imperatives and the constraints it faces.
- In order to survive and prosper all nations – regardless of which personality or group is leading them – must achieve certain objectives based on the confluence of their geographies, demographics and available resources.
- Turkey’s imperatives include: consolidating control over the Sea of Marmara and Anatolia; securing the ability to pursue goals unilaterally; neutralizing threats beyond its borders; bringing order to the chaos in the Arab world; and projecting power into the regions to the north, west and east when and where opportunities present themselves.
- The coup has given the current regime, led by Erdoğan, a massive opportunity to complete the first imperative. Meanwhile, the situation in Syria is enabling the Turks to push ahead on their second, third and fourth imperatives, which will be the focus of Turkish efforts for many years to come before they can move to the fifth imperative.
In our 2040 forecast, we identified Turkey as a major emerging power. We believe it will project power southwards into the Middle East, westwards into Europe and northwards into the Black Sea region. However, Turkey is currently mired in problems at home and struggling on the international front. This was the case even before the July 15 coup attempt.
Therefore, the question is: what can be expected from Turkey in the coming years and decades? To answer this question, we will examine Turkey’s imperatives in this Deep Dive. We also need to look at the constraints that the Turks will be operating under. By understanding its imperatives and constraints, we are able to forecast the country’s future evolution – irrespective of which personality or faction is at the helm.
We define imperatives as the actions that a state must take to survive and flourish. They stem from the confluence of its geography, demographics and available resources. The most basic imperative is to control and govern a core territory. Once that is realized, a state then will turn to its second imperative pertaining to the relationships it must maintain with neighboring actors and those further afield.
Imperatives often take a long time to achieve and any country will require a significant amount of time to get to its second and third imperatives. Domestic upheaval, wars, economic downturns and even natural disasters sometimes force nations to retreat from pursuing advanced imperatives to focus on the more basic ones. In the case of Turkey, we have identified five imperatives.
1. Unify the Turkish Homeland Under a Single Authority
This is the most basic imperative that any Turkish regime must achieve. All nations have internal divisions that give rise to different sub-national groups. But each country has a core area that must be controlled, as well as one or more peripheral regions that have to be brought under a single political order.
The Marmara region, which includes Istanbul, represents Turkey’s core, while the Anatolian peninsula is the country’s periphery. Since the founding of the modern republic, these two areas have been inhabited by Turks with opposing outlooks. The former, being a wealthy and cosmopolitan region, has been dominated by Western-oriented Turks. In contrast, the interior has been the mainstay of traditional and conservative segments of the population.
For many decades, the Kemalists – followers of the ultra-secular ideology of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – in the civil and military sectors sought to expand their grip beyond the core and into the periphery. However, they have met resistance from religious and social conservatives who refuse to adopt a strict form of secularism. This struggle resulted in multiple coups (in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1998 and the most recent failed attempt on July 15) along with the rise of a number of religiously oriented parties – predecessors of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the government is attempting the reverse, as a new conservative elite is trying to unify the two areas under a milder American-style secularism that allows religion greater space in civil society.
While the Kemalists were largely entrenched in the state machinery (particularly the security sector), they were not always able to control the elected organs of the republic. However, their opponents have been able to penetrate the civil-military establishment in the last seven to eight years. The Kemalists have weakened but the “Muslim democrats” of the AKP and its supporters have also been limited in their growth. The former camp has been divided over whether democratic continuity should take precedence over strict enforcement of secularism. The highly acrimonious rivalry between the AKP and the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gülen represents the split within the latter.
The end result is a divided social landscape leading to a situation where state institutions are not under a single authority. These and other divisions among Turkish nationalists have prevented the country from tackling the issue of Kurdish separatism. Given the demographics, it is not possible for the Turks to eliminate the threat of Kurdish separatism. Even significantly weakening it will require greater harmony among the Turks.
2. Establish Independence of Action in Pursuit of Turkish National Interests
The failure of the July 15 coup has shown that significant progress has been made towards a post-Kemalist order under the AKP. But the Turks cannot wait to fully achieve the first imperative before moving on to the next one.
This is because of the growing chaos in the region, which has increased the involvement of global powers and placed pressure on the Turks, leaving them no choice but to push back. But decades of being a NATO member and pursuing European Union membership have limited Turkey’s ability to act unilaterally. Under AKP rule, the country has begun to push towards greater independent actions on the foreign policy front. It is doing this by finding points of leverage in its relationships with the U.S. and the EU, especially with regards to the fight against the Islamic State.
Turkey will need to push back against American pressures. Towards this end, it will have to develop greater leverage with the United States, although this is limited by its NATO membership. Turkey has tried to use the failed coup to enhance its ability to shape American perceptions and behavior. The accusation that the United States had backed the coup and the demand that Washington extradite Gülen are part of this effort.
The resistance to the American strategy against the Islamic State is the biggest example of Turkey trying to gain independence of action. Turkey cannot simply follow the U.S. lead in the international efforts to counter IS. Turkey does not want to be heavily involved in the conflict. But it will need to have a major say in how this war is prosecuted.
The Turks are deeply opposed to American reliance on the Syrian Kurds as strategic partners on the ground in Syria. While IS remains a major threat, Kurdish separatism is an even greater threat given that Turkey faces a significant domestic insurgency in its southeast – a region that it has not been able to pacify. The Turks also oppose American pressure to intervene in Syria because they feel that the United States has the luxury of going home while they will have to deal with the consequences of the war against the Islamic State for a very long time.
Similarly, Turkey will continue to avoid getting entangled in the U.S. and European efforts against Russia. Russia is not just a neighbor that has great influence on Turkey’s northern flank; Ankara is dependent on Moscow for half of its natural gas supply. This is why the Turks are less enthusiastic about the Intermarium (an alliance among countries between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea) than some Eastern European nations. This does not mean the Turks don’t have issues with the Russians but Ankara wants to prioritize its national interests, rather than Washington’s needs, in its relations with Moscow.
Iran represents another key conundrum where the Turks cannot simply follow the U.S. lead. The Iranians are the main competitors of the Turks in the Middle East, which is why the Turks will have to deal with them in a complex way. Turkey will work towards reaching an understanding with Iran, especially since the latter has significant influence in Syria and Iraq. This is why the Turks have been pushing for a negotiated settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue.
Turkey views U.S. unwillingness to ease the sanctions after Iran has upheld its end of the bargain as detrimental to Turkish interests. The Turks do not want the Iranians to retaliate by further complicating matters in Iraq and Syria. Ankara knows that it can’t deal with Syria unless it has an understanding with Tehran. In order to achieve these objectives, the Turks have to push back against the United States.
3. Defend the Homeland from External Threats
The more the Turks are able to gain the ability to independently act in their national interest, the more they will be able to defend themselves against threats from the outside, which is the next imperative.
Close relations with Europe, the problems of the EU and a weak Russia mean that Turkey faces no immediate threats from the west or the north. The outside forces that present the most pressing threat to Turkish security originate from the south. Given the complex conflict that is radiating out of Syria, Turkey faces a number of challenges from the Middle East. First and foremost, Turkey must prevent the Syrian Kurds from exploiting the conflict to establish a Kurdistan in Syria.
The close relations between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey mean that the Syrian Kurds are very much a domestic security threat to Turkey. This is why the Turks have been hesitant to go after IS, which indirectly keeps the pressure on the Syrian Kurds. However, Turkey must do something about IS because its radical agenda for the region threatens Turkish national security and brings greater international pressure on Ankara. For this reason, Ankara will be working towards a strategy that neutralizes IS without empowering the Syrian Kurds in the process.
While the Islamic State must be curtailed, Turkey cannot be seen as operating on behalf of the United States. Rather, it will seek to confront IS in such a way that doesn’t undermine its credibility as a major Muslim power. Since Turkey is competing with IS and even Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the region and the wider Sunni Muslim world, it has to be seen as a credible force. Many Arabs will be resistant to Turkish domination because this conjures up memories of Ottoman imperialism.
This is why Turkey has been pushing for the removal of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which grants it influence among Sunni rebel groups and also within the wider Arab/Sunni Muslim world. But the Turks are not oblivious to the risks of a sudden collapse of the Syrian regime, which is why they will be pressing for a negotiated settlement between the regime (without Assad) and the rebels. Turkey risks major destabilization if there is an abrupt collapse of the regime. This is where Turkish interests clash with those of Saudi Arabia, which is more interested in seeing the collapse of Iranian influence in Syria than a stable post-Assad Syria.
That said, Iran also represents a major obstacle for Turkey. In sharp contrast to the Ottoman era when the Turks controlled the Levant and Mesopotamia and blocked the Persians, today the Iranians are able to prevent Turkey from shaping these areas. Iran’s influence in the two Arab states that Turkey borders prevents Turkey from projecting power on its southern frontier. Therefore, Turkey will be working to gain leverage in both countries to roll back Iranian influence.
It will be working to improve the position of the Syrian rebels on the battlefield, which means fighting the Islamic State and its caliphate, the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds. In Iraq, it will support the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to counter the pro-Iranian Shiite-dominated central government. Ankara will be doing so in a way that keeps the KRG dependent on Ankara to avoid fueling Kurdish separatism. Turkey will also work with Iraq’s Sunnis but faces two challenges.
First, the Islamic State’s grip on Sunni territories in Iraq must be broken to revive the position of mainstream Sunnis who are bitterly divided. Second, Turkey must deal with the Kurdish-Sunni ethnic dispute, which is in many ways more serious than the Shiite-Sunni conflict. The Kurds have been encroaching on Sunni territory for years, especially after the Islamic State took Mosul. The dispute is also linked to the Sunni desire to control energy resources. In order to counter Iran, which largely acts through the Shiite community, the Turks will need to work with these two minority groups.
Preventing Iran from gaining the upper hand in Syria and Iraq is thus the key to the third Turkish imperative. While Iran represents a considerable challenge to Turkey in the short term, Iran is limited in the long term by geography and the fact that Turkey is much stronger politically, economically and militarily.
4. Pacify the Arab World
The first three imperatives are all things that Turkey is dealing with right now. The coup is an obvious example of why Turkey needs to consolidate absolute authority of the government over the country; an active war with the Kurds in the southeast is another. Turkey is balancing between the U.S. and Russia as it seeks to secure some independence of action in terms of its foreign affairs. And issues on its southern border in Syria and Iraq demand immediate attention.
Our long-term forecast for Turkey, however, extends beyond the current reality. We expect that Turkey will be emerging as a regional power by 2040.
Turkey will not do this willingly. These are strategic imperatives, not foreign policy prescriptions. They describe the challenges we expect Turkey to face.
We are currently watching the Middle East, Europe and the former Soviet Union experience various forms of fragmentation and conflict and we expect both of those processes to continue. These crises will intensify and create power vacuums – and Turkey will have no choice but to assert itself and fill some of the gaps. Turkey will increasingly be drawn outside of itself.
We expect the first place this will manifest is in stabilizing the chaos in the Arab world. Whether it is the Islamic State or some other as yet unknowable entity, the potential threats to stability emerging out of the Arab world will force Turkey to act, however reluctantly.
5. Expand into Weakening Areas to the North, West and East
The Arab world will be the most pressing issue for Turkey and the one we expect Turkey will have to address by 2040. It is fragmented and there is already a power vacuum throughout the heart of the Middle East that Turkey is competing to fill along with Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In time, fragmentation in Europe and Russia will also present new challenges to Turkey. To varying degrees, Turkish influence and power will begin to be projected into many of the areas once dominated by the Ottoman Empire. These areas will include, to varying degrees, southeastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea region and the Caucasus. That is far into the future and beyond the scope of our forecast to 2040, so we will not address it in any great depth in this report. But that imperative still exists and is important to keep in mind when taking a long-term view of Turkey’s future.
Currently, Turkey represents a critical component in the U.S. strategy to deal with the Islamic State threat, the chaos in Syria and the wider region. The country is also an essential ingredient of American plans to create the Intermarium as a way to counter Russia along the Kremlin’s western frontier. Ankara, however, has started to resist Washington, as both projects entail risks to Turkish national security and have resulted in serious differences with the Americans.
The situation on Turkey’s southern flank in particular has rapidly deteriorated with growing threats from jihadism and Kurdish separatism. In addition, Turkish hopes of toppling the Syrian regime were dashed when Assad’s forces gained the upper hand against the rebels. The Russian military intervention in Syria – though limited in scope – played a key role in enabling Damascus to go on the offensive. This brought Turkey into conflict with Russia, which intensified when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border last November.
Consequently, the Turks found themselves simultaneously at odds with the Americans and the Russians. Ankara could not afford to be in conflict with both, which is why in the past couple of months Ankara has sought to repair relations with Washington and Moscow. On May 5, Erdoğan replaced former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu who was perceived by Washington as an obstacle to closer U.S.-Turkish cooperation on the Islamic State. In June, Turkey and Israel agreed in principle to a diplomatic reconciliation, a further nod to Washington’s wishes. Then on June 27, Erdoğan apologized in writing to his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, for the downing of the Russian jet.
The Turks reached an understanding with the Americans regarding Turkish concerns that the fight against the Islamic State would empower the Kurds in Syria. Erdoğan and his top aides announced in early June that they had received assurances from the Barack Obama administration that anti-IS efforts would not empower the Syrian Kurds. Stepping up its involvement in Syria meant that Turkey had to deal with Russia, which explains why it wanted to mend fences with Moscow.
Turkey finally appeared to be on the path to playing a major role in Syria – in keeping with U.S. strategy for the region. Then came the July 15 coup attempt.
The failed coup underscores that Turkey suffers from a much deeper problem. The issue is not between the civilians and the military; rather, the Turkish military internally is fragmented due to differing views on what its relationship should be with the government. On one side is the old guard Kemalist commanders and officers who have not accepted that the armed forces are subordinate to the elected government. On the other is a new breed of men in uniform who may not agree with the civilians but feel that military intervention in government affairs is a thing of the past.
Despite the fact that the AKP has seen uninterrupted democratic rule since 2002, Turkey has not been able to get over the civil-military divide that has long plagued the country. On the contrary, the efforts to establish civilian supremacy over the military has made matters worse as it has created fissures within the armed forces. The government is trying to restore internal cohesion by purging the military and civilian sectors (including the judiciary) of people who may have been involved in the coup. This process will obviously take time. But these imperatives provide a long-term roadmap of the challenges Turkey faces and would be no different if the coup attempt had never occurred.