What is Erdogan looking for in the Caucasus?


In his speech at the inauguration of the huge ultra-modern hospital in Konya, a city located in the heart of the Anatolian plateau, 300 kms south of Ankara, on October 2, Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not resist the pleasure of indulging in a geopolitical digression. 

The almighty president first of all renewed Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, a Turkish-speaking country in the Caucasus, separated from it by Armenian territory. At dawn on Sunday 27 September, the Baku army launched a surprise offensive against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

This Armenian mountainous enclave in Azerbaijani territory refused to be swallowed up by Azerbaijan during the self-dismantling of the USSR in 1991. In January 1990, the Armenian population of Baku had been the victim of a vast pogrom. Nagorno-Karabagh demanded that it be attached to Armenia. In reality it is already there, but it is not recognised by any country in the world.

No wonder the Azeris are trying to recover the territories they lost in their military defeat against Armenia in the 1992-1993 war. In search of popularity, authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev is trying to reunite his nation.

But this is the first time that Turkey has interfered so deeply in the Caucasian conflict, which is of far-reaching concern to it. In addition to discreetly sending military advisors, it is supplying the Azeris with modern military equipment (notably these Bayraktar TB2 armed drones which have done wonders in Libya) and supplying them with hundreds of Arab jihadists, which it has already used on the Syrian front against the progressive Kurds or against the army of Bashar al-Assad.

A century after the Armenian genocide, it is disturbing to see a Turkish leader attacking Armenian lives. Not only does Erdogan refuse to acknowledge the reality of the 1915 genocide, but he allows himself to take part in the bombing of Armenian cities.

So what is the Turkish president looking for in the Caucasus? He explained it to us himself in his Konya speech: he wants to break the siege of which his country would be the victim. If you link the crisis zones of Syria, the Mediterranean and the Caucasus, “you can see that it is a desire to lay siege to Turkey,” President Erdogan said on 2 October. “At the same time as we are protecting the unity of our people and our nation, and the strength of our state, we are acting to break this siege!”

No one, until then, had noticed that Turkey was under siege. On the other hand, for a year now, Turkey has been very energetic outside its borders. She was seen bussing Muslim migrants and encouraging them to violate Greece’s borders. She was seen violating the UN arms embargo on Libya. She was seen intimidating (alas successfully) a French frigate off Misrata. She was seen cutting herself a military slice of the oil cake in Tripolitania. She was seen multiplying militarised underwater explorations in the Cypriot and Greek exclusive economic zones.

In short, Turkey has never shown itself to be as expansionist as it is today. As a good crowd manipulator, Erdogan knows how to use the psychological instrument of accusatory inversion: accusing others of what one is committing oneself.

In 2009, the official line of Turkish diplomacy, as thought by Ahmet Davutoglu, was “zero problem with all our neighbours”. Today, Erdogan’s foreign policy could be summed up as “zero neighbours and no problems with us”. It is true that the Turkish president has since made an alliance with the extreme right-wing nationalist Grey Wolves, nostalgic for the greatness of the Ottoman Empire. To understand Erdogan’s strategy, one must understand that he is both a Muslim Brother and a neo-Ottoman nationalist.

His neo-Ottoman nationalism led him, after the Arab springs of 2011, to try to extend Turkish influence in North Africa. This failed in Egypt and Tunisia, but it succeeded in Libya – where a certain Mustapha Kemal successfully resisted the Italians in Tobruk in 1912 .

In the eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan was forced to calm down after the US Secretary of State, visiting the Cypriot president on 13 September, ordered him to do so. After this tactical retreat, he was able to remobilise his supporters, with a little bit of pantouranism in the Caucasus. Bombing Christian dwellings in Nagorno-Karabakh is, for this president, the dreamt of extension of the recent transformation of the Basilica of Saint Sophia into a mosque.

But, in his panturanism, will Erdogan go so far as to help his Turkish-speaking Uighur brothers in Xinjiang? No, because he will always spare those who are stronger than him, such as Trump or Xi Jinping.

This article first appeared in Le Figaro.

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