TURKEY AS THE NEW NEAR EASTERN HEGEMON? A LOOK
'Turkey in Europe', was a topic of huge discussion for much of the 19th century, when the infamous 'sick man' of Tsar Nikolai Pavlovich construction, gradually but assuredly lost more and more of its position on the European continent. The idea of 'Turkey in Central Asia', was a topic which was floated and discussed by many people, often enough with little insight or background knowledge of either Turkey or the Central Asian successor states of ex-Sovietskaya Vlast. Many were the predictions that were made circa 1995 and after, that by reasons of (very shaky) history, geography, ethnic affinity or whatnot, Ankara would naturally assume the mantle of the new rising and leading power of the Central Asian states. By 2001, if not earlier. This thesis had been thoroughly exploded. Turkey was not, and is not a power much less a leading power in the region. If any power has the right to assume that title, it is Matushka Roissya. With the United States, China and far behind Persia as the also rans in this particular race. Even in the conflict between the Kavkas power which it feels the closest affinity, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkey is for the most part a bystander. As it is Russia (1st) and the United States (2nd)which exercise real influence Baku, rather than Ankara.
With the long brewing crisis over Turkish threats to invade portions of Kurdish Iraq now coming to a boil, as the Turkish Parliament has passed the necessary legislation, Dr. George Friedman of the American online intelligence Journal, Stratfor.com (www.stratfor.com) takes the opportunity to argue, in a cogent piece of analysis, that the crisis is the beginning of Ankara's gradual emergence as a regional hegemon("Geopolitical Intelligence Report: Turkey as a Regional Power",). According to Dr. Friedman:
"In 2006, Turkey had the 18th largest economy in the world -- larger than that of any other Muslim country, including Saudi Arabia -- and the economy has been growing at a rate of between 5 percent and 7 percent a year for five years. Most important, Turkey is not a purely export-oriented country. It has developed a substantial middle class that buys the products it produces. It has a substantial and competent military and is handling the stresses between institutions and ideologies well.
It also is surrounded by chaos. Apart from Iraq to the south, there is profound instability in the Caucasus to the north and the Balkans to the northwest. The southern region from the Levant to the Persian Gulf is tremendously tense. The stability of Egypt -- and therefore the eastern Mediterranean -- after President Hosni Mubarak departs is in question. Turkey's longtime rival, Greece, no longer presents the challenge it once did. Moreover, the European Union's effective rejection of Turkey has freed the country from many of the constraints that its membership hopes might have imposed.
Turkey has a vested interest in stabilizing the region. It no longer regards the United States as a stabilizing force, and it sees Europe as a collective entity and individual nations as both hostile and impotent. It views the Russians as a long-term threat to its interests and sees Russia's potential return to Turkey's frontier as a long-term challenge. As did the Ottomans, it views Iran as a self-enclosed backwater. It is far more interested in the future of Syria and Iraq, its relationship with its ally, Israel, and ultimately the future of the Arabian Peninsula.
In other words, Turkey should be viewed as a rapidly emerging regional power -- or, in the broadest sense, as beginning the process of recreating a regional hegemon of enormous strategic power, based in Asia Minor but projecting political, economic and military forces in a full circle. Its willingness to rely on the United States to guarantee its national security ended in 2003. It is prepared to cooperate with the United States on issues of mutual interest, but not as a subordinate power".
And, while stating that this process is in its earliest stages, Friedman opines that this process is an inevitable return to the previous patterns of history, noting that: "Turkey has always dominated the region". With the only question being "the limits of its [Turkey's] ambition".
How realistic or likely is the above prognosis? Well if one were to rely upon 'history' as a forecaster of the future, than Deutschland would have made, certainly since 1989, strenuous efforts to make a 'German Europe'. And of course, nothing of the sort has been done, much less attempted. As was seen in my earlier brief survey of Turkey in the post-1989 world, much has been said, little actually attempted in the vein of Ankara expanding its reach. Regardless of this however what is the likelihood of the current crisis over the Kurds being the beginning of a definite effort by Turkey to begin to re-establish its position in the Near East? On the face of it, Turkey has much to recommend itself to such a role: relative wealth (at least vis-`a-vis its neighbors in the Arab World), probably the best trained and equipped army in the greater region other than Israel and perhaps Egypt, a central geographic location, relative political stability (again as compared to its neighbors). And, of course its being a Muslim power.
Notwithstanding the above, there are I would argue, insuperable constraints that would prevent and have prevented Ankara from fulfilling the role that Friedman would like for it to pursue. These are: Turkey is a non-Arabic speaking country (the same constraint the prevents Persia from also acting as a regional hegemon), with a less than positive image in much of the region, both for historical reasons, as well as due to its continuing military and diplomatic relationship with Israel. In addition, regardless of its military bravado, Ankara has not in fact engaged, much less engaged successfully in any opposed military operations of a large scale outside of its borders for the entire history of the Kemalist Republic. In addition and perhaps explaining the last fact is that much of the emerging bourgeoisie in both Ankara as well as the provincial hinterland (not to speak of the cosmopolitan elites of the Bosporus), are not in the least interested (I would argue) in any assertion of Turkish might in the region, nor for Ankara to become a regional hegemon. The reasons for this are rather similar to say Russian (or for that matter German) elites similar indifference: the game is not worth the candle.
The (relative) wealth that Turkey has acquired (albeit with much in the way of IMF assistance), in the last twenty five years, since the re-establishment of democracy, ould not be assisted or expedited by Turkey 'expanding' outside of the Anatolian peninsula to the greater Near East. Not only would such expansion entail a vastly greater military budget in a country which was on the verge of a major economic meltdown in 2001-2002, but, it would mean that assistance and commerical bank loans from the USA, the IMF, the World Bank as well as the EU would be at risk. Capital flight, inflation, a falling Turkish currency, would all be the end result of any long term or indeed even a more than momentary intervention into Iraq. There does not appear to be anything which would indicate that the commercial provincial bourgeoisie, who form the electoral backbone of the current Turkish Government would be interested in putting their hard earned monies at risk. All for a venture, which as the Americans can all too easily relate to Ankara, is easy to get into and very difficult indeed to get out of.
To sum up: look for a short-term, limited, Turkish intervention into the borderlands of Kurdish Iraq. Certainly do not expect that Ankara will endeavor to retain a permanent or semi-permanent foothold in the area. The risks: diplomatic, military, and economic are all much too great. Especially since as the present Turkish government knows quite well, the only 'solution' to the problem posed by the PKK, is for greater reforms in Turkey proper so the the position of the Kurds in Turkish society are improved so that the rationale for any guerrilla campaign enjoying support is gradually eliminated once and for all.