Erdogan’s Ottoman Dreams and the Shadow of Lepanto
It is not important that mainstream political scientists keep underestimating contemporary Turkey and its tough president Recep Tayyip Erdogan: we are facing a great power reborn. The facts prove it. Like the mythical phoenix, this centuries-old imperiality-oriented power managed to obtain new life by arising from its own ashes and is now showing to the entire world what is capable of.
The Turks are more and more present (almost) everywhere, from the Balkans to Mongolia, from the –stans to the Mexican Chiapas, from the Philippines to Europe’s Turkish diaspora – without forgetting Ukraine, the South Caucasus, the Middle East and Africa –, and they only aspire to one thing: to make Istanbul the Sublime Porte again. It’s their destiny to be the Sublime Porte – and to often be at odds with the West (and with Russia) –, that’s why whoever thinks that Erdogan is an accident of history is making a grave mistake.
Several others tried unsuccessfully to turn Turkey into a first-level great power more tied to its own historical identity than to the Western one, but only Erdogan eventually could. He had the vision – a captivating and heterogeneous but well-functioning mixture of pan-Turkic, Turanist and pan-Islamic elements supported by a far-sighted action plan –, the team – the Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is one of the most skilled strategists of our time – and a lot of “luck” – the masses were demanding a return to the origins, as shown by Necmettin Erbakan‘s exploit, accordingly Erdogan only seized the opportunity.
How Turkey’s President has been trying to make Istanbul the Sublime Porte is quite well known: he is being resorted to a wide range of instrumenta regni, among which stand out entertainment, culture, Islam (promoted by Diyanet), pan-Turkism and Turanism (exported via Tika), humanitarian cooperation and the recently-unveiled drone diplomacy.
Maybe Erdogan will fall into the trap of the imperial overstretch, or maybe not, but one thing is already clear today: Turkey did its homework, that is it did learn from the past, from its ever-changing surrounding and from other powers’ fatal mistakes and fruitful strategies. This is the reason why Erdogan got to subdue the European Union by weaponising refugees and European Turks. This is the reason why Erdogan is trying to make Turkey a naval power (again) via the Mavi Vatan doctrine. And this is the reason why that epoch-making event known as the Battle of Lepanto keeps being studied carefully by the country’s scholars, military strategists and foreign policy advisors.
The Lepanto’s Nightmare Is Alive and Healthy
Turkey’s contemporary foreign agenda is not only about the building of a pan-Turkic order extended from Anatolia to Ulaanbaatar, the subjection of the Muslim world under the Turkish flag and the emancipation from the Western yoke. It’s also about the definitive overcoming of all those centuries-old fears and weaknesses that eventually brought the Ottoman odyssey to an end. And those limits, which made the Sublime Porte a giant with feet of clay – similarly to Russia –, correspond to the never-achieved command of the sea, to the army’s backwardness and to the geographical neighborhood’s perennial instability.
Now that Turkey is getting to achieve a certain degree of domestically-driven military modernisation – the Bayraktar TB2 constitute the greatest example of it –, is securing its maritime and land borders via the use of force – let’s only think about Libya and Syria – and is restoring hegemony over its Ottoman-era near abroad – from the Balkans to Azerbaijan –, one of the last fears to face is that of a New Lepanto.
The nightmare of New Lepanto explains a wide range of Turkey’s most recent policies and initiatives across the Mediterranean, most notably the increasing pressure for the recognition of Northern Cyprus – the outpost from whose existence depends the outcome of the Ottoman-Venetian Wars 2.0 –, the maritime deal with Libya’s Government of National Accord – to be put in the wider context of the battle for hegemony over the pivotal Central and Eastern Mediterranean – and non-stop arm wrestling against the 21st century’s Venetians, namely the Italians – who have been forcibly ousted from the Cypriot waters in 2019, silently marginalized in the increasingly Turkish-influenced Balkans and violated in their own territory (the strategic port of Taranto is part of the Turkish Yilport Holding’s portfolio since 2019).
Europe sleeps, Turkey is awake
From North Nicosia to Taranto, without forgetting Ankara’s investments in the Adriatic Balkan area – Vlore is the gateway to Italy – the goal is the same: the making of the central-eastern part of the Mediterranean a safe place put under the maritime primacy of a sole power, that is Turkey. Because the alternative to Italy’s, Greece’s and Cyprus’ encirclements is the scenario of New Lepanto – obviously much more different than in the past –, and Turkey, driven by the dream of becoming something that it never was – a sea power – cannot allow that.
Similarly to the past – the past of the Battle of Lepanto –, Europe is weak, divided and trapped in a noxious “inferiority complex”, whereas Turkey is in the prime of life, as shown by its non-stop expansion across Eurafrasia and the ambitions over the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Islamic world. And similarly to the past, Turkey is showing the muscles in order to avoid the battle.
The only thing that Europe’s Mediterranean powers have to do is to forge an alliance to take the Balkans and the Mare Nostrum back, possibly by playing the my enemy’s enemy is my friend card – Egypt, Syria and several other Arab players are waiting for joining the game – and starting to put an end to Turkey’s penetration into their own territory and their own near abroad. Acting today is more than necessary, it’s fundamental, because not reacting to Turkish muscularism could eventually lead to a tragical retreat of Europe from its own backyard. And since Turkey lives by the gunboat diplomacy and understands only the gunboat diplomacy, the time has come for Europe to make a Turkey policy based more on realpolitik and less on idealpolitik.