By Younes Mahmoudieh
As Azerbaijan shells Artsakh, and Armenia rushes to defend the disputed territory (located between the borders of the two countries), Turkey quietly strategizes. The international community has taken too long to condemn Turkish expansionism as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pushes to become a regional leader. Recent Turkish aggressions in the Mediterranean and the Caucuses are part of a larger push for Turkey’s renewed territorial ambitions.
Azerbaijan is merely acting as Erdoğan’s proxy in its latest attack on the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (or Artsakh republic), a breakaway state mostly populated by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The self-governing republic is a presidential democracy with a unicameral legislature but seriously relies on Armenia for support, economic ties, and military protection. Azerbaijan has begun shelling the territory claiming to be acting in self-defense in response to a purported border attack (yet to be proven). Notably, in July, Azerbaijan protesters rioted in Baku demanding war with Armenia after border clashes, foreshadowing the recent attacks. In an aggressive show of unity and fury, “protesters marched through the [capital] demanding the government fully deploy the army, with some even entering the national parliament.”
Turkey, Azerbaijan’s biggest supporter (both financially and strategically) has quickly stepped up pressure on Armenia calling the nation the “biggest threat to peace in the region.” When asked about Azerbaijan-Turkey relations, ex-president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev often described the two as “one nation with two states” due to their shared Turkic heritage. Turkey was the first country to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Turkish President Recep Erdoğan immediately released a statement after Azerbaijan shelling calling on Armenians to stand against a “leadership that is dragging them to catastrophe and those using it like puppets.”
As of now, casualties in Artsakh include 59 soldiers and 2 Armenian civilians. Families in Artsakh are desperately fleeing Azerbaijan’s missiles as soldiers take their place. The Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Artsakh “strongly condemns the rough violation by Azerbaijan of the norms of international humanitarian law.” The conflict faces a serious risk of escalation as international powers deliberate on possible action or intervention. “Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a six-year war over the region until a ceasefire in 1994, and since then Nagorno-Karabakh has governed itself as the de facto independent Republic of Artsakh. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the war and about 1 million people were displaced.”
Turkey’s heavy investment in the conflict prompts investigation into why Turkey, a large Mediterranean country, is so invested in Artsakh, a small territory. Following the deterioration of Turkey-West ties, Erdoğan has shown a strong desire to restore the Ottoman Empire’s lost glory, stripped away after World War I when it was defeated and partitioned by the Allied Powers. This glory is being sought both domestically and abroad.
Despite international condemnation, Turkey has begun military intervention and involvement in the Second Libyan Civil War, the Syrian Civil War, and against the Kurds in Iraq. Erdoğan’s regime often employs jihadis and mercenaries to do its dirty work preferring to use the military for occupation of new territories. “In Africa, Erdoğan initiated the current Open to Africa Policy in 2005, when Turkey began strengthening military and economic ties with many countries on the continent.” Recent reports have also exposed Turkey’s attempts to send weapons into northern Lebanon via Syria. “Politically, [Turkey] backs members of Lebanon’s small, but active, Muslim Brotherhood branch” and seeks to interrupt European aid attempts after the Beirut explosion. Turkey’s ambitions include interrupting Iran and Saudi Arabia’s long-standing leadership in the Middle East occasionally using proxies or even deploying its own military. Turkish adventurism in the region has only begun with recent aggressions against Greece and Cyprus over gas reserves. In response, France and European powers have raised concerns calling for a Pax Mediterranean to confront Turkey’s imperialist goals.
“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to revitalize his country’s pre-republican legacy in the form of a “neo-Ottoman” vision for Turkey’s cross regional aspirations.” This emerging ideology, often referred to as Neo-Ottomanism, promotes a consolidation of executive power within Turkey (reminiscent of the Ottoman sultans) and greater political engagement with neighboring countries that were formerly under the rule of the Ottomans. “Unlike other Islamic ideological models, Turkish Neo-Ottomanism focuses on a revival of a ‘greater Turkey’ that renews a classical, civilizational model of the Ottoman Empire’s legacy anchored by economic, military, and political power.”The 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum provided for a strong president, allowing for the mostly ceremonial position to be filled by a powerful executive and abolishing the office of the Prime Minister. According to Human Rights Watch, “Turkey has been experiencing a deepening human rights crisis over the past four years with a dramatic erosion of its rule of law and democracy framework.” The expansion of the executive office has been followed by increasing influence and control over the judiciary, severe restrictions on the right to assembly, the censorship of press and media, as well as the arrest of human rights defenders and activists. As of 2018, reports suggested that “Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country” for the third straight year.
Turkish aggression and increased foreign involvement can be interpreted as a smokescreen for gross violations of humanitarian law domestically. Foreign intervention distracts from Erdoğan’s domestic agenda and rising Islamization in the country. “After consolidating power and promoting a particular approach to Islam at home, Turkey under Erdoğan has increasingly looked abroad.” The rally ’round the flag effect is often used by dictators and populists to evade growing attention to abuses and criticisms.
Germany’s involvement in World War I and II can provide relevant lessons for confronting Turkish aggression today. Firstly, empires stripped away of their territories and cultural legacy do not simply disappear. National identity plays a big role in the rise of populism and imperialism. Populations that self-identify with strong imperial roots which include perceptions of foreign wrongdoing and intervention often succumb to the rhetoric of tyrants. Secondly, appeasement does not work with dictators and populists. Erdoğan is both. These tyrants must be confronted before their ambitions become a bitter reality. The rhetoric of the Turkish president often calls for renewed inclusion of Islamic and Ottoman identity in modern Turkey and a revival of the country’s past cultural heritage. This revival includes a crackdown on domestic critics, journalists, and potential rivals as well as increased military adventurism in the region.
Artsakh is merely the most recent battleground featuring Turkey and its proxies. An empowered Turkish victory and an enabled Erdoğan could lead to the realization of many in the region’s fears: an Ottoman Empire revived and reborn with hostile eyes on its neighbors.
Younes Mahmoudieh is a researcher on Iran-West relations formerly at UCLA and now at the University of Barcelona. His work has been featured by the London School of Economics Forum on US Policy, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and Foreign Policy News. His articles have appeared extensively in Iranian media sources as well, including, but not limited to, Hamshahri Newspaper, Eghtesad News, Payvand News, Gooya News, and Khabaronline. His research co-authored with Ambassador Mousavian, “The Nuclear Deal: A Crossroad or Deadlock in Relations with Iran,” was recently published by the International Studies Journal.