By Yavuz Baydar
The new year began with a bang. The drone attack that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Quds Force.
The external wing of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will have far-reaching consequences in the Middle East and beyond, adding to the battle for influence in the region between Russia and the United States.
However, the strike does not change the situation created by Turkey’s convulsive moves in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya.
Initially underestimated and watched with measured anxiety by the European Union, the escalation reached a new level Jan. 2 after the vote by Turkey’s parliament to allow Turkish troops to be dispatched to Libya.
Meanwhile, Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed an accord for a 1,900-km undersea pipeline deal in Athens to take gas from the eastern Mediterranean to markets in Europe.
Russia and Turkey are this week to open the TurkStream pipeline, bringing Russian gas to Europe via Turkey, which would set up an accelerated power struggle as regional countries set up axes against each other, a dangerous development that is reminiscent of the times preceding two world wars in the 20th century.
Turkey’s policy choices have placed it in a massive vortex.
In the eastern Mediterranean and Libya, it stands far closer to serving Russia’s long-term interests, while challenging the European Union and, to a great extent, the United States.
As a consequence, the policies pursued by Ankara, contrary to what major European capitals seem to think, will have a determining effect on developments.
The resolve of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his team in the pursuit of a high-stakes game should not be under-estimated.
“The one who considers his own ends can never become a hero,” Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay said before the vote in Turkish parliament.
What should be understood is that Ankara’s policies are designed by a solid group of adventurists circling around Erdoğan, who, instead of standing up to his delusions of grandeur, seem to encourage him to pursue more daredevil gambling.
This is not without a rationale: the rudderless drift in Europe and the disarray in Washington provide a perfect setting for raising the stakes.
Erdoğan has long realised that, to have a say in a world in disorder, his government can and should cross the lines and do its best to benefit from faits accomplis.
Syria was a fine example and now Ankara has its eyes set on Libya — no diplomatic bluffing there.
A foothold in North Africa’s shoreline has less to do with neo-Ottoman dreams than with spreading Ikhwanism — Muslim Brotherhood ideology — having access to energy and politically winning over Africa.
“I don’t think there’s any thought of a re-establishing the Ottoman Empire with control over territory, but there is a desire to establish Turkish influence throughout the former Ottoman area, which covers, of course, all of North Africa and extends into parts of sub-Saharan Africa.” David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador now teaching international relations at George Washington University said in an interview with Public Radio International.
“As a result, you’ve seen a major effort by Erdoğan to re-establish Turkey’s interests throughout all of Africa, including those parts that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Ottoman Empire.
“A good indication of this is simply the fact that Turkey now has embassies in 42 of 54 of Africa’s countries. That’s an astounding number for an economy the size of Turkey.
I think it’s an effort to establish, not only a political presence, but also political influence in as many countries as possible to ensure these countries’ support in forums such as the United Nations over issues like Cyprus, for example.”
Those observations are only part of a broader reality. What has united Turkey’s staunch nationalist, anti-Western circles with Erdoğan was the will to recalibrate Turkish foreign policy as autonomous from American-European frameworks.
In Syria and in Libya, Erdoğan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) still see an opportunity to help the Muslim Brotherhood regain the sphere of influence it lost there.
The resolve with which Erdoğan raises his stakes in tying his links is, in a way, an attempt to keep AKP rule intact at home.
Erdoğan knows that Turkey, which he rules with the help of his Islamist circle of advisers, and his party are the last bastions of Ikhwanism — a fact often ignored by analysts.
Throughout 2020 we will watch Erdoğan’s Turkey pushing the boundaries for irredentist adventures, backed by the notion that Erdoğan will do his best to endorse U.S. President Donald Trump, his only base of support in the West.
All this is fine with Russia, which sees this as its best chance for revenge after the fait accompli toppling of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, after the adventurist move by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The stage is set for huge complications for Europe and its fragile democratic orders.
Erdoğan is launching a game-changing offensive in the entire eastern Mediterranean and he may succeed unless the European Union’s major actors muster their courage and pre-empt his move.
The odds of that happening are quite remote.
Expect a storm ahead.
Yavuz Baydar is the Editor-in-Chief of Ahval. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Baydar was among the co-founders, in 2013, of the independent media platform P24 to monitor the media sector and the state of journalism in his home country.