Turkey: A Geopolitical Cheat Sheet

Turkey’s rogue state behaviors have put the NATO member in international headlines once again. Fallout from Turkey’s role in the war in Nagorno-Karabahakh and the US decision to impose Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions highlight concern over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ongoing campaign of geopolitical revisionism and expansionism in Eurasia and beyond. Turkey is becoming ever more isolated from its Transatlantic allies and Middle East regional partners. The inflection

point for Turkey’s alienation and, in some cases, rupture from its long-standing geopolitical relationships is the July 2016 failed coup attempt against Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the last four years, there has been a steady, steep deterioration in Turkey’s domestic security and human rights environment, and foreign policy commitment to international law. Here are three points to watch as we anticipate a continuation along this negative trendline.


The future of Turkey’s weapons acquisition strategy hangs in the balance as the U.S. government enacts CAATSA sanctions. The 60th Annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was recently completed for fiscal year 2021, and included a provision mandating U.S. sanctioning of Turkey. Earlier this week, on 14 December, the Trump administration issued sanctions against Turkey as punishment for purchasing an S-400 missile defense system from Russia in 2017. The sanctions will “impose economic penalties on U.S. exports, authorizations or loans to the Turkish military procurement agency,” and will also freeze the American-held assets of four of the Turkish military agency’s top officials. These sanctions deal another serious blow to Turkey’s floundering military expansion program, an initiative already weakened by Washington’s June 2019 cancellation of its planned sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to Ankara.

The imposition of CAATSA sanctions marks a further widening of the gap between Turkey and the West, and also raises renewed questions about Turkey’s allegiance to NATO. It is clear that Ankara’s putative commitment to maintaining NATO’s collect security priorities is questionable. After all, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conveyed to Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that, “Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system endangers the security of US personnel and military technology, and allows Russian access to the Turkish armed forces and defense industry.” The future of Turkey as a NATO member may be on the table—as former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman pithily summed up back in 2018, “It’s time for NATO to call Turkey’s bluff.”


Turkey has come under fire in recent weeks for playing demographic games in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees of any country, and has developed strategies to instrumentalize refugees for geopolitical and ideological gains. In recent years, Erdoğan has granted Turkish citizenship to radicalized, Sunni Muslim refugees in exchange for those refugees to relocate to certain parts of Turkey—namely, Kurdish-majority areas in southeastern Turkey and Alevi areas in Hatay Province. This strategy has enabled the AKP to expand and export its specific brand of radical Islamism while also deploying the religious ideology to perpetrate cleansing against the country’s vulnerable ethnic and religious minority groups. Now, in the fallout of the Armenia-Azerbaijan War, it is revealed that Erdoğan has employed the same demographic manipulation strategies in the geopolitically crucial region of the Caucasus. Prisoner interrogations conducted in recent weeks reveal that “Turkey facilitated the transport of more than 7,700 Syrian Islamists to Azerbaijan in the months before the September 27 outbreak of fighting.”

Turkey’s weaponization of ethnoreligious identity and support for Azerbaijan’s military cleansing activities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh were summed up in Erdoğan’s recent invocation of historical Turkic perpetrators of genocide. Erdoğan congratulated Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev for victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, declaring, “Today may the souls of Nuri Pasha, Enver Pasha, and the brave soldiers of the Caucasus Islam Army, be happy.” Erdoğan’s actions to expand Turkey’s influence on the territorial and identity geospace of Eurasia and to position himself as the hegemonic voice of global Islam have provoked strong negative reactions from Turkey’s former regional partners, and from other Muslim-majority state leaders who reject Turkey’s civilizational discourse and geopolitical disruption.


Erdoğan announced plans to permanently partition Cyprus following the 8 October reopening of the beach at Varosha, a critical geographic point and coastal town in the occupied territory. Erdoğan’s recent call for a full, permanent partition of Cyprus constitutes not only a rejection of the long-standing UN-brokered bi-zonal, bi-communal, soft partition of the island, but also reinforces Turkey’s identity as a rogue state committed to the use of violence for redrawing borders. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, and has illegally occupied the northern part of the island since then. In response to the recent announcement to permanently partition the country, U.S. Congressional officials sent a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo detailing their opposition to Erdogan's declaration. Pompeo voiced similar concerns at a NATO meeting on 3 December, characterizing Turkey’s behavior as "undermining NATO's security and creating instability in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Turkey’s behavior towards the Republic of Cyprus, as well as Ankara’s daily, incremental violations against its neighbors’ sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean is a continuous and growing threat to security in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

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