Turkish obstructionism against Swedish and Finnish NATO membership, its limited offensive in Iraq, and its prospective offensive in Syria have grabbed international attention. But more significant is Turkey’s growing diplomatic tension with Greece, an ever-festering lesion that threatens to burst.
Considering Turkey’s domestic situation and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States must be wary. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan could capitalize on international distraction and wage a diversionary war to boost his popularity, a conflict that would disrupt NATO’s cohesion and threaten the alliance.
Washington should act now to resolve the current incarnation of this long-standing Mediterranean dispute.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics since 2001, when his AKP party first won a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Although Erdogan was banned from Turkish politics for anti-secular incitement, his prime ministerial — and, later, presidential — predecessor, Abdullah Gül, until the mid-2010s at least, was functionally a stand-in for him. Erdogan may have restricted his Islamist proclivities and international assertiveness until he consolidated power in 2014-2016. However, Turkey’s break with the United States over the latter’s invasion of Iraq, and Turkey’s growing hostility towards Israel, indicated a deeper rift between Washington and Ankara. Erdogan consistently sought a greater regional role; through diplomatic pressure against Israel culminating with the Gaza Flotilla — a bald-faced attempt to prompt a confrontation with Israel — Erdogan hoped to position himself as the spiritual leader of the Islamic world.
The Arab Spring, however, transformed the regional balance. No power could pretend that the “Palestine Question” still defined regional politics. The Libyan and Syrian civil wars, and the subsequent rise of ISIS, thrust Islamism to the fore once again, while Iranian expansion in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon demonstrated the relevance of traditional coalition competition, rather than religious rivalry.
Turkey’s response has been to sharpen its shift away from the United States by alternating between Russophilic and Russophobic policies.
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