Stavros Lygeros: Religious war and Erdogan’s geopolitical overextension

Religious war and Erdogan's geopolitical overextension, Stavros Lygeros

The neo-Ottomans – based on Davutoglu’s doctrine of Strategic Depth – may have declared that they were pursuing “zero problems with their neighbors”, but the reality turned out to be just the opposite, Turkey has problems with almost all of its neighbors. Through its foreign policy, the Erdogan regime has opened up many difficult fronts. This, however, did not stop him from opening another one, turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque. His act is symbolically nothing less than religious war.

Obviously, this act does not harm the vital interests of anyone, not even Greece. On the other hand, however, on a symbolic level, it brutally offends the sensitivity not only of the Greeks, who have a special connection with the monument, but also of all Christians, or rather of civilized people everywhere. And this has sometimes been more important in history than the infringement of tangible interests.

History has also shown that opening many fronts simultaneously makes them extremely difficult to impossible to manage successfully, which usually leads to defeat. The phenomenon is known as “overextension”. And Turkey has already fallen into this trap, even if until recently it was gaining points from the fronts it opened.

Indeed, in northern Syria it has three zones, from which it has expelled Kurdish inhabitants. In northern Iraq it has not only occasionally invaded militarily, but has also set up several small bases. In Cyprus, in addition to being an occupying power for 46 years, it is pirating the EEZ and the free part of the Republic of Cyprus with research and drilling.

On the Greek-Turkish front, apart from the massive violations and overflights, apart from the unilateral expansionist claims on a large number of Greek islands, Ankara is attempting to usurp (together with the Sarraj government) the Greek EEZ and in this context has announced the conduct of research within Greek territorial waters along the Kastellorizo-Rhodes-Crete arc.

The Turkish intervention in Libya

Finally, the extensive Turkish military intervention in Libya has provoked an anti-Turkish rally in the Mediterranean. Erdogan had strongly supported Islamist President Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt and had just as strongly denounced the coup that overthrew him. As a result, relations with Cairo have been hostile.

The Turkish intervention in Libya, however, poses a threat to the Sisi regime. Especially if the Turks and their allies attack the Sirte-Al Jufra axis. Hence Cairo’s warning that if this happens the Egyptian army will intervene immediately on the Libyan front. On the side of Egypt are the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, more discreetly Jordan and of course Syria.

In an effort to build the profile of the ubiquitous Muslim leader, Erdogan has been hoisting the Palestinian flag for years. His choice put him on a collision course with Israel and severed the former strategic relationship between the two countries. So, in its own way, Israel is participating in this informal anti-Turkish bloc, and Netanyahu is clear about that.

The Greece-Cyprus-Israel trilateral cooperation may not have the character of a military alliance, but it certainly affects, to some extent, the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean. It should be noted that Cyprus and Greece provide Israel with the strategic depth it needs, especially after the rift in its relations with Turkey and after the experience of the temporary slip of Egypt into the arms of the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit briefly.

France crossed the Rubicon

The most important development, however, is the clear anti-Turkish stance of France. Paris has long sought to return as a central player in the Eastern Mediterranean and in this context made agreements for military facilities with both the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. The French oil company Total, moreover, now has a central presence and interests in both the Cypriot and Greek EEZs.

The turning point, however, was the Turkish intervention in Libya that highlighted the danger that this African country would turn into Ankara’s protectorate. Due to the incident with the Turkish frigates that “locked in their sights” a French warship off Libya, Paris considered that Erdogan had exceeded all limits. Thus, President Macron raised his tone with the aim of isolating Turkey diplomatically, primarily from the EU, but also from NATO.

We will see soon what French diplomacy will achieve. This is because at the NATO level, the United States and Britain are betting on Turkey to prevent the creation of a Russian base in Libya, although they acknowledge that serious side effects are emerging. At the EU level, Germany is resisting effective sanctions against Turkey. On the contrary, Berlin is promoting the renewal of the Euro-Turkish agreement on immigration, as well as the framework of Greek-Turkish negotiations.

It is important, however, that France seems to have crossed the Rubicon as far as Ankara is concerned. The bombing of the Al Watiya base is unlikely to have happened without the participation of the French. This is, after all, an event of much greater importance than the publicity it received. For the first time, Turkey’s opponents are using military tools against it. Until the bombardment, the military tool was used only by Erdogan, and because he was gaining points, he was getting deeper and deeper into this mire.

The bombing of Al Watiya is a turning point

This bombardment is of operational importance because it is a major blow to the Turkish Armed Forces. The biggest disaster for Turkey, however, is on the political level. For the first time Turkey is getting paid back in the same currency it’s using, sending Ankara the message that from now on it will receive such retorts. And this message was received not only by Ankara, but also by all the other players in the region.

It is no coincidence that Erdogan did everything he could to downplay the fact. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was probably hastened, precisely to cover up the event communication-wise and to balance the political blow from al-Watiya. At the moment, however, it is not clear whether or not he will abandon the attempt to occupy Sirte and Al Jufra.

In this endeavor, after all, he can only count on Qatar. Russia recognizes Ankara’s important role in western Libya, but opposes turning all of Libya into a Turkish protectorate. In essence, the Kremlin is seeking a compromise on the conflicting interests of Russia and Turkey in Libya, as has happened in Syria. This is because for Putin the “big picture” is far more important, that is, to keep Turkey away from the West. That is why he took down his Orthodox banner on the issue of Hagia Sophia, speaking of an “internal affair of Turkey.” The Moscow Patriarchate was left to let fly barbs against Erdogan.

The religious war

To complete the picture, we must mention the ambiguous attitude of Rome. On the one hand, it is dissatisfied with Ankara’s catalytic influence on the Tripoli government, because the decisive Turkish intervention has turned Italy into a second rate player. On the other, Italy also fears that Erdogan may soon be blackmailing Rome by controlling the flow of migrants from Africa to southern Italy. On the other hand, the survival of good Italian-Turkish relations, based not only on geopolitics but also on significant bilateral economic relations, survives in Rome.

The transformation of the Davutoglu doctrine “zero problems with neighbors” into the informal Erdogan doctrine “open fronts with all neighbors” is confirmed by Turkey’s traditionally negative relations with Armenia, as well as by cautious-problematic relations with Iran. The Kremlin’s mediation has only succeeded in overcoming the very real conflict of interests.

In this geopolitical landscape, therefore, it was decided to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Although Trump and Merkel are silent, although Moscow and London have tossed the ball out of the court, speaking of Turkey’s internal affairs, it is clear that Erdogan’s move underscores his intention to symbolically revive the Christian-Islamic religious war, that has been waged through other means by Al Qaeda and ISIS.

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