Strategic Posture Review: Turkey

Get a .pdf version of this report.

Throughout the Cold War, Turkey remained a staunchly secular Western ally, serving as a NATO buttress against the Soviet Union. But in the aftermath of the November 2002 elections that brought the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power, its foreign policy orientation has undergone a gradual shift.

The AKP initially emphasized Turkey’s European ambitions, doing more than any previous government to move Turkey closer to EU accession. Yet in recent years, the AKP’s drive for EU membership appears to have lost momentum, while the previous domestic consensus on the country’s strategic priorities has broken down amid increasing uncertainty about Turkey’s role in its region and its relationship with the West. The AKP’s efforts to position Turkey as an interlocutor for the Muslim world have been viewed with suspicion at home, by the secular military establishment, as well as abroad, by Turkey’s neighbors who remain wary of any rebirth of Turkey’s past imperial ambitions.

Turkey has long been used as proof that a predominantly Muslim society can create a secular state. The victory of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Turkish general election of November 2002 challenged that image and raised questions about the future of Turkey’s traditionally pro-Western foreign policy orientation.

Initially, the AKP defied its doubters and did more than any previous government to move Turkey closer to its long-held goal of EU accession. Yet in recent years, the AKP’s drive for EU membership appears to have lost momentum, while the previous domestic consensus on the country’s strategic priorities has broken down amid increasing uncertainty about Turkey’s role in its region and its relationship with the West.

The Cold War Period

When he founded modern Turkey in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) turned his back on the country’s Ottoman and Islamic past and set contemporary Europe as the model to which the new secular republic should aspire. After remaining neutral throughout most of World War II, Turkey became a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and aligned itself very closely with the West during the Cold War. In 1952 Turkey was formally admitted to NATO. In 1963, it became an associate member of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). However, its status as a front-line NATO state dominated its foreign policy until the collapse of the Soviet Union and meant that, throughout most of the Cold War, the U.S. was its most important Western ally.

Inside Turkey, the orientation of the country’s foreign policy rarely became an issue for political debate. Indeed, successive governments tended to regard themselves as being responsible for maintaining previously determined foreign policy positions rather than formulating new ones. In practice, the running of foreign policy was delegated to the diplomats of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), under the watchful eye of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), which effectively served as the ultimate arbiter of political power in Turkey throughout the Cold War — including staging coups to topple civilian governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980.

Both the MFA and the TGS were staunch adherents of the principles laid down by Ataturk, including his insistence that Turkey should be oriented towards the West. As a result, the former Ottoman territory in the Middle East was largely ignored, except when events there directly impinged on Western domestic affairs, such as during the oil price shock of 1974.

Nevertheless, problems occasionally arose in Turkey’s relations with the West, most notably in 1974 when the U.S. imposed a temporary arms embargo on Turkey following its invasion of Cyprus to thwart an Athens-backed coup to unite the island with mainland Greece. The island has remained divided ever since. Around 35,000 Turkish troops are still deployed in northern Cyprus, where Turkish Cypriots administer around 38 percent of the island’s total area; the southern 62 percent is controlled by the Greek Cypriot government of the Republic of Cyprus. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot enclave declared its independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). To date, the TRNC has only been recognized by Turkey.

The Post-Cold War Period

The end of the Cold War dramatically changed Turkey’s perception of its geostrategic location. Initially, many Turks hoped that it could make the transition from being a bastion against Soviet expansion to being a bridge into the former Soviet space, particularly by building on its cultural and linguistic affinities with the newly independent states of Central Asia. However, Turkish dreams of establishing a zone of Turkish influence in the former Soviet Union quickly foundered on poor transportation links, a lack of capital and an inability to compete with Russia’s reassertion of its dominance over much of Central Asia. By the late-1990s, the primary focus of Turkey’s relations with Russia had shifted from political competition to economic cooperation.

Fears that the end of the Cold War would diminish Turkey’s strategic importance to the U.S. were temporarily assuaged by the Gulf War of 1991. In the years that followed, Turkey played a key role in the U.S. policy of containment towards the regime of Saddam Hussein, particularly by allowing Allied warplanes to fly out of its airbase at Incirlik in southeast Turkey to enforce a no-fly zone in northern Iraq.

However, the 1990s also saw the beginning of a divergence in the foreign policy priorities of the TGS and the civilian government. Although the TGS continued to regard the U.S. as Turkey’s main Western ally, successive civilian governments began to look increasingly to Europe and the prospects of Turkey becoming a full member of the EU. Nevertheless, relations with the EU were often problematic and member states repeatedly criticized Turkey’s poor human rights record, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, where the Turkish security forces were engaged in an often brutal campaign to suppress the insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

There were also frequent tensions with Greece, not only over Cyprus but also as the result of disputes about the boundaries of the two countries’ air space and territorial waters. In January 1996, Greece and Turkey almost went to war as the result of conflicting claims to the Aegean islet of Imia/Kardak. However, when Turkey and Greece were both struck by major earthquakes in August 1999, they each dispatched humanitarian aid and rescue teams to the other. What became known as “earthquake diplomacy” led to a gradual rapprochement between the two countries, which — even it did not resolve any of their differences — resulted in a lowering of tensions on both sides. In December 1999, Turkey was formally named as an official candidate for EU membership.

Even if it played little part in the strengthening of Turkey’s ties with the EU, the TGS nevertheless retained control over certain areas of the country’s foreign policy, particularly those related to security issues. For example, throughout the 1990s, it was the TGS, rather than the civilian government, that decided when and how to launch cross-border military operations against PKK camps and bases in the mountains of northern Iraq. It was also the Turkish military that took the decision to threaten an invasion of Syria in fall 1998 by massing troops on the two countries’ shared border in an ultimately successful attempt to force President Hafez al-Assad to expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from Damascus.

The AKP Era

Throughout the 1990s, Turkey was ruled by a succession of fractious and unstable coalition governments against a background of crippling high inflation and widespread corruption. In February 2001, a currency collapse triggered the deepest economic recession in Turkey in over 50 years. Economic hardship and widespread disillusion with the mainstream political parties had also helped fuel a rapid rise in support for Turkey’s Islamist movement. Led by the rigorously secularist TGS, the Turkish establishment try to reverse the trend by outlawing parties with a strong Islamic identity, only to see them reform under another name.

In August 2001, a young generation of Islamists established the AKP under the leadership of Tayyip Erdogan (born 1954), the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul. In the general election of November 2002, the AKP swept to power with 34.3 percent of the popular vote, giving it 363 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament.

Until the late 1990s, Turkish Islamists had tended to oppose membership of the EU and argued that Turkey should instead seek to strengthen its relations with other Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East. However, when it came to power, the AKP embraced Turkey’s attempts to join the EU with greater enthusiasm than any previous government. Skeptics argued that the AKP was merely using the EU process for its own ends as part of what they claimed was the party’s long term goal of establishing an Islamic state. They noted that the EU’s insistence on freedom for the expression of religious beliefs would inevitably ease many of the restrictions imposed by Turkey’s often draconian interpretation of secularism, while the implementation of the EU’s rules on civilian control of the military would effectively neutralize the political influence of the TGS. Regardless of whether the suspicions were well-founded, there is no doubt that, during its first years in power, the AKP introduced a series of EU-inspired reforms without making any attempt to establish an Islamic state. By December 2004, the EU judged that Turkey had made sufficient progress for official accession negotiations to be inaugurated in October 2005.

The EU also welcomed the AKP’s support for a resolution of the decades-old division of Cyprus. Frustrated by what it regarded as years of Turkish intransigence, in December 2002, the EU agreed to admit the Republic of Cyprus to the EU in the next round of expansion in May 2004. The prospect spurred intense efforts to reunite the island. On April 24, 2004, a U.N.-drafted plan to reunite Cyprus was put to twin referenda on the island. The Turkish Cypriots, backed by the AKP, accepted the plan by 64.9 percent to 35.1 percent, while the Greek Cypriots rejected it by 75.8 percent to 24.2 percent. On May 1, 2004, the Greek Cypriot-governed Republic of Cyprus entered the EU on its own.

However, the Cyprus problem rapidly became one of the main obstacles to Turkey’s own hopes of EU accession. In 1996, Turkey entered a Customs Union with the member states of the EU. But Turkey had withdrawn political recognition of the Republic of Cyprus in 1974. When the latter acceded to the EU in May 2004, Turkey refused to include it in the Customs Union and barred Greek Cypriot ships and planes from Turkish ports and airports. The EU threatened to suspend the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey unless it relented. On June 29, 2005, Turkey signed what became known as the Ankara Protocol, under which it undertook to lift its ban on Greek Cypriot ships and planes. The EU subsequently opened official accession negotiations with Turkey on schedule in October 2005.

But Turkey failed to honor the Ankara Protocol and, once accession negotiations had been inaugurated, the AKP appeared to lose interest in the EU-inspired domestic reform process. Against a background of declining public support for Turkish membership, both inside Turkey and in key EU member states such as France and Germany, the EU suspended negotiations on eight of the 33 chapters of the accession process in December 2006, until Turkey honored the Ankara Protocol. Although negotiations on some of the chapters continued, by early 2009 there appeared little prospect of an imminent resolution of the deadlock. Many Turks believed that the EU was merely using the disagreement over Cyprus to mask its own racial and religious prejudices, and that it would never admit Turkey as a full member regardless of how many concessions it made.

In recent years, Turkey’s exclusion from the EU and its refusal to recognize the Republic of Cyprus have also strained its relations with its NATO allies. Ankara has repeatedly blocked initiatives to allow the sharing of intelligence and capabilities between the EU and NATO, thus severely hampering the EU’s attempts to develop its own military capabilities, such as for peacekeeping operations.

Initially, the election of the AKP promised to strengthen Turkey’s ties with the U.S., particularly given Washington’s anxiety to demonstrate in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that a country could be both Muslim and pro-Western. However, the transatlantic relationship was soured by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. On March 1, 2003, around 100 dissident AKP deputies blocked a parliamentary motion which would have allowed U.S. troops to transit Turkey and open a northern front against the regime of Saddam Hussein in the coming military campaign in Iraq.

On July 4, 2003, U.S. troops detained, hooded, handcuffed and interrogated Turkish Special Forces in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah on suspicion of planning to assassinate a local Iraqi Kurdish official. Although the Turkish soldiers were rapidly released, their detention — and particularly the fact that they were hooded and handcuffed by a NATO ally — added Turkish fury towards the U.S. to American anger directed at Turkey for the previous March’s parliamentary motion, with relations deteriorated as a result.

In late 2003, Turkey and the U.S. gradually begin to rebuild their relationship. By 2005, the Turkish airbase at Incirlik had become the main operational cargo hub for the supply of non-lethal logistical support to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, despite the increase in practical cooperation, many in the AKP continued to suspect that what Washington described as its “war on terrorism” was directed against Islam, and that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had been motivated more by the desire to control the country’s oil supplies than to rid it of weapons of mass destruction.

The Turkish Islamist movement has traditionally included a strong element of Ottoman nostalgia. Many in the AKP were outraged that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq took place in a country which they regarded as forming part of Turkey’s natural sphere of influence. Since it came to power in November 2002, the AKP has vigorously cultivated closer political and economic ties with other Muslim states in the Middle East, particularly Syria and Iran.

The AKP’s policy of increased engagement with the rest of the Muslim world has been viewed with dismay by the TGS. Under the AKP, the TGS has seen its influence over foreign policy increasingly restricted to areas with a strong security component; including not only NATO but also Turkish policy towards northern Iraq, where the PKK now has its main bases and training camps. Initially, Turkey refused to engage directly with the Iraqi Kurds: partly in protest at their failure to clampdown on the PKK presence in the mountains of northern Iraq and partly because it feared that direct engagement with the Iraqi Kurds would be interpreted as recognition of their political authority in the north of the country. Ankara feared that might encourage Iraqi Kurds to push for full independence — something which Turkey has long opposed, not least because of fears that it might further fuel separatist tendencies amongst its own restive Kurdish minority. However, starting in spring 2008, the AKP — supported by the TGS — initiated direct contacts with the Iraqi Kurds in the hope that dialogue would prove a more effective means of persuading them to clamp down on the activities of the PKK.

The TGS also continued to play the leading role in Turkey’s relations with Israel. The TGS was the main driving force behind the signing of military training and defense industry cooperation agreements between Turkey and Israel in 1996. Its disdain for the role that Islam plays in public life in most Arab states meant that the TGS tended to regard Israel as Turkey’s only natural ally in the region. It was also attracted by the opportunity to establish closer links with the strongest military power in the Middle East and secure access to its sophisticated defense technology. Over the years that followed, Turkish and Israeli personnel regularly underwent training in each other’s countries and Israeli firms were awarded a string of lucrative defense contracts.

The combination of the strong military relationship between Turkey and Israel and the AKP’s own policy of forming closer links with the other Muslim countries in the Middle East encouraged the AKP to serve as an intermediary in the resolution of the disputes between Israel and the Arab states. Even though there is little doubt that the AKP was at least partially motivated by the desire to establish Turkey as an acknowledged regional power, it nevertheless appeared to be uniquely positioned to contribute to a permanent peace agreement in the Middle East. In May 2008, it emerged that the AKP had been overseeing discreet, indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria since February 2007. By December 2008, Turkish officials were hopeful that Israel and Syria were close to agreeing to direct negotiations. However, the process collapsed when Syria withdrew after Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza on Dec. 27, 2008.

An Uncertain Future

On Dec. 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara to discuss the indirect peace negotiations with Syria. Turkish officials received the impression that Olmert had assured them that no military action against Gaza was imminent. As a result, when Israel launched its first air strikes against Gaza five days later, feelings of Muslim solidarity with the Palestinians and outrage at the civilian casualties were exacerbated by a sense of betrayal. Over the weeks that followed, Erdogan not only severely criticized Israel but repeatedly declared his support for Hamas, condemning both the EU and the U.S. for refusing to enter into dialogue with Hamas on the grounds that it was classified as a terrorist organization.

The vehemence of Erdogan’s condemnation of Israel appeared to preclude any possibility of the AKP once again presenting itself as impartial intermediary in any negotiations between Israel and the Arabs, at least for the foreseeable future. Erdogan’s outspoken support for Hamas will also have caused unease in some Arab states, particularly Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood, which is closely affiliated with Hamas, has been outlawed since 1954.

In February 2009, it was unclear whether Erdogan’s bitter condemnation of Israel and championing of Hamas were merely products of his notoriously volatile personality or whether they marked a new era in the AKP’s policy towards the Middle East. There was also considerable uncertainty about the future of Turkey’s relations with both the U.S. and the EU. Although AKP officials welcomed the inauguration of Barack Obama as U.S. president in January 2009, they were unsure whether his administration would oversee any substantive changes to U.S. policy in the region. There was also considerable concern that Obama would deliver on an election promise to recognize as a genocide the massacres and deportations of ethnic Armenians during the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, something that Turkey has repeatedly warned could have a devastating impact on its relationship with the U.S.

In February 2009, Erdogan promised that the AKP would revive Turkey’s flagging EU accession process by passing a series of reforms after the nationwide local elections on March 29, 2009. In February 2009, it was unclear whether Erdogan would deliver on his promise. What was certain was the growing frustration in the EU at the AKP’s failure either to implement substantive reforms or to honor the Ankara Protocol of 2005. There were increasing concerns that, unless the AKP delivered on both commitments during 2009, the loss of momentum in Turkey’s accession process could become permanent.


In theory, the TGS is subject to civilian control and subordinate to the Prime Ministry, rather than the Defense Ministry as in most European countries, and defense policy is the responsibility of the civilian government. In practice, however, even though its political influence in other areas has declined in recent years, the TGS remains virtually autonomous in military affairs and almost solely responsible for all aspects of Turkey’s defense policy.

Although the Defense Minister is a civilian member of the government, in practice it is almost a titular position. In Turkish protocol, the chief of the TGS ranks ahead of the Defense Minister and behind only the Prime Minister and President. The Defense Ministry itself has no authority over the TGS. Its main responsibilities are conscription, defense procurement and relations with other ministries. It is effectively run by the TGS under the coordination of the Defense Ministry under secretary, who is traditionally a serving three-star general. The various departments in the ministry are mostly headed by serving one-and two-star generals.

Turkey’s total defense expenditure was estimated at the equivalent of 2.2 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2008, or around $12.5 billion, approximately half of which was earmarked for major arms procurement programs.

In addition to protecting the country against military threats, the TGS also perceives itself as having an almost sacred duty to protect Ataturk’s ideological legacy of Kemalism, particularly the principles of secularism and territorial integrity.

Military Organization And Capabilities

Turkey’s armed forces are the second largest in NATO after the U.S. At the end of 2008, Turkey had over 600,000 personnel under arms, of whom approximately 100,000 were members of the professional officer corps and the remainder conscripts performing their compulsory military service.

The Land Forces have traditionally been both the largest service in terms of numbers (around 400,000 full-time officers and conscripts at the end of 2008) and enjoyed the greatest prestige. Although there is no official hierarchy, the chief of the TGS has always been a member of the Land Forces, rather than the Navy or Air Force. In theory, the Turkish Gendarmerie, which is responsible for internal security outside municipal areas, comes under the command of the Interior Ministry in peacetime. In practice, it has always been more closely affiliated with the TGS and has traditionally been commanded by a four-star general on secondment from the Land Forces.

Turkey’s membership in NATO has meant that it has tended to look to the U.S. not only as its main supplier of military equipment but also for training materials and methodologies. The internal organization of the TGS is similar to the U.S. system of Joint Chiefs and consists of seven departments.

The Turkish Land Forces’ Corps-Brigade Structure

The Turkish Land Forces are based on a corps-brigade structure and consist of four armies, which are deployed in different geographical regions of the country. The First and Fourth Armies are based in western Turkey, in Istanbul and Izmir respectively. The Second and Third Armies are headquartered in eastern Turkey, in Malatya and Erzincan respectively, and — together with the Gendarmerie — have borne the brunt of the fighting in the war against the PKK. A further 35,000 Turkish troops are permanently deployed in northern Cyprus.

Throughout the Cold War, Turkey’s defense priorities were largely shaped by the threat of a possible Soviet invasion and, to a lesser extent, the possibility of an armed conflict with one of its other neighbors, such as Greece. In common with many other countries, the change in Turkey’s perceived threat environment during the late 1980s and early 1990s occurred more quickly than the pace at which Turkey was able to update its weaponry and equipment. As a result, its current military inventory continues to bear traces of the perceived threats of the Cold War era. For example, the inventory of the Land Forces still contains more than 4,000 main battle tanks (MBTs), even though Turkey does not appear to face a threat which requires such a large armored force.

Nevertheless, although budgetary constraints and often excessively lengthy procurement procedures have meant the pace of change has been very slow, since the beginning of the 1990s, the TGS has been attempting to restructure its inventory to match its prevailing security needs. For example, the purchase of Cobra attack helicopters from the U.S. in the early 1990s was a major factor in the Turkish security forces regaining control of large swathes of southeastern Turkey from the PKK.

In recent years, Turkey has also amended its force structure in order to improve its counterinsurgency capabilities by recruiting professional NCOs in order to shift the main responsibility for combating the PKK away from conscripts to full-time professional soldiers. The TGS plans eventually to be able deploy six fully professional commando brigades, each approximately 5,000 strong, which will then assume responsibility for offensive operations against the PKK, with conscripts primarily assigned to defensive duties.

Since the 1980s, the TGS has devoted considerable resources to improving the capabilities of the Air Force, particularly through the addition of large numbers of F-16 Fighting Falcons, most of which have been produced under license inside Turkey. The Turkish Air Force currently has around 240 F-16s, making it the third largest operator of the aircraft after the U.S. and Israel.

Turkey’s navy is primarily used for coastal defense. Its most recent sustained combat role was during the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. However, Turkish vessels have continued to participate in NATO exercises and deployments. In February 2009, the TGS announced plans to dispatch a frigate to protect Turkish commercial vessels against pirates operating off the coast of Somalia.

Participation in Multinational Interventions

Over the last 15 years, Turkey has participated in numerous peacekeeping operations, mostly under the command of NATO or the UN rather than in its own right, including deployments in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. In 2006, Turkey contributed naval patrol vessels and approximately 700 ground troops to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) following the war between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Turkey has also twice commanded the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. In February 2009, Turkey continued to contribute 800 troops to ISAF, most of whom were based in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
However, Turkey has traditionally been more reluctant to participate in multinational combat operations. Turkish troops fought with distinction in the Korean War (1950-53) and participated in the NATO air campaign against Kosovo in 1999. But Turkey provided only logistical support during the Gulf War of 1991 and did not participate at all in the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.


Since the 1980s, Turkey’s national security concerns have become more diversified and the primary focus has shifted from external threats posed by foreign forces to perceived internal threats to the territorial integrity and ideological foundations of the state founded by Ataturk. The previous overall consensus between different political parties and institutions such as the TGS on the relative importance of various strategic concerns has been replaced by a more complex picture in which a consensus on certain issues is accompanied by differing assessments of the relative importance of others.

Kurdish Separatism

There is a broad consensus, including both the AKP and the TGS, that Turkey’s most urgent national security issue is the ongoing insurgency by the PKK.

Since it returned to violence in 2004 after a five-year ceasefire, the PKK has pursued a two-front strategy, combining a rural insurgency in southeast Turkey with an urban bombing campaign in the west of the country. The PKK is currently estimated to have around 5,000 militants under arms, with its rear bases and training camps in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. Unlike in the early 1990s, when it effectively controlled large areas of the countryside of southeast Turkey after dark, the PKK is not longer able to confront the Turkish military on the battlefield. It now appears to be using violence primarily as an instrument in a war of psychological attrition in the hope of forcing the Turkish authorities to open political negotiations with the organization, something that both the TGS and the AKP have consistently refused to contemplate.

Under pressure from the EU, Turkey made a number of concessions to Kurdish cultural rights in 2003-2004, mainly by lifting some of the restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language. However, the reforms stopped short of granting the Kurds political rights. For example, it remains illegal in Turkey even to advocate the creation of an independent Kurdish state.

Turkey has traditionally tried to defeat the PKK primarily by suppressing it militarily. Improved military tactics — in particular, aggressive patrolling and the deployment of Cobra attack helicopters purchased from the U.S.— have enabled the Turkish military to contain but not eradicate the organization. Since December 2007, Turkey has conducted regular air raids against PKK camps and bases in northern Iraq, while also pressuring the Iraqi Kurds to restrict the organization’s ability to move and source logistical supplies from the lowlands.

Many of Turkey’s Kurds are appalled by the often brutal methods adopted by the PKK. But there is also little doubt that, since it first launched its insurgency in 1984, the PKK has played a major role in raising Kurdish national consciousness inside Turkey. The PKK appears capable of maintaining the current level of its insurgency almost indefinitely. However, even if the PKK was to be eradicated or abandon violence, the pressure from Turkey’s Kurds for greater cultural and political rights is unlikely to abate.


Prior to the AKP coming to power in November 2002, there was a broad consensus that protecting the TRNC and preserving Turkey’s foothold on Cyprus was a national strategic priority. During the 1990s, both the TGS and many Turkish politicians even argued that the continuation of a substantial Turkish military presence on Cyprus was essential to the security both of Turkey’s southern coast and to its maritime trade. Such views are still widely held in the TGS. But they are not shared by the AKP.

Until 2002, the TGS exercised considerable influence over Turkey’s policy towards Cyprus. However, the election of the AKP was followed in 2005 by Mehmet Ali Talat taking over as president of the TRNC from Rauf Denktas, who had dominated Turkish Cypriot politics for the previous 40 years. Denktas was an outspoken advocate of TRNC independence under Turkish protection and enjoyed a very close relationship with the TGS.

In contrast, Talat has always supported the reunification of Cyprus — albeit on terms which are currently unacceptable to the Greek Cypriots — and has distanced himself from the TGS. Meanwhile, the AKP has consistently insisted that it would not object to any solution to the Cyprus question that was acceptable to the Turkish Cypriots. As a result, despite the TGS’s concerns, it is currently unclear what, if anything, it could do if Talat reached an agreement with the Greek Cypriots that provided for the reunification of the island and a radical reduction in the number of Turkish troops currently deployed there.


Since it came to power, the AKP has accelerated the efforts of previous governments to take advantage of Turkey’s strategic location to turn the country into an energy hub for the transportation of oil and natural gas to Europe.

The 1,080-mile (1,730-kilometer) Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline was completed in early 2005 to carry Azeri oil from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. The first tanker was filled at Ceyhan in July 2006. Although frequent sabotage and, in the 1990s, UN sanctions against Iraq have meant that supply has been intermittent, Turkey has also already served as a conduit for the export of Iraqi oil along the 600-mile (960-kilometer) Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which was built in 1977.

In recent years, Turkey has also sought to become a major transit country for natural gas. The first pipeline to deliver Russian natural gas to Turkey, via Bulgaria, was completed in 1988. It was followed in 2005 by the 750-mile (1,200-kilometer) “Blue Stream” pipeline, which runs from southern Russia under the Black Sea to Turkey. In 2002, Turkey began importing natural gas from Iran, along a 750-mile (1,200-kilometer) pipeline from Tabriz. In July 2007, the first natural gas was pumped along the 430-mile (690-kilometer) Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) pipeline from Azerbaijan to eastern Turkey.

Turkey has also been involved in discussions about several additional pipelines, most notably the Nabucco pipeline, that would carry natural gas via Turkey to Europe. The plans currently under discussion have focused on the construction of a 2,050-mile (3,300-kilometer) pipeline to Baumgarten an der Marchwhich in Austria from Erzurum, where it could link up with the existing BTE pipeline, enabling the EU to source natural gas from the Caspian and Central Asia without having to rely on networks that transit Russia.

Russia and the Caucasus

The AKP’s plans for Turkey to become a transportation hub for the export of hydrocarbons to Western markets have inevitably increased the strategic importance of the Caucasus, and given Ankara an added incentive to strengthen its relations with the countries of the region.

In April 1993, Turkey suspended all of its political ties with Armenia and closed the two countries’ 204-mile (326-kilometer) land border in protest over Yerevan’s support for an armed uprising by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh against Azeri rule. In April 2005, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan signed an agreement to build a railroad to link Baku with the Turkish city of Kars. Although there was already an existing railway line running from Tblisi to Kars via the Armenian town of Gyumri, the three signatories agreed to build 48 new miles of track (76 kilometers) so as to avoid transiting Armenia. The railroad is currently expected to be completed by early 2011.

However, after several years of discreet contacts on the sidelines of international meetings, in 2008 Turkish and Armenian officials began to meet more openly. In September 2008, Turkish President Abdullah Gul even travelled to Yerevan to attend a soccer match between the two countries’ national teams, further raising hopes that a restoration of full diplomatic ties could be imminent.

On Aug. 11, 2008, in response to the outbreak of war between Georgia and Russia, Erdogan called for the establishment of a regional bloc provisionally entitled the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact (CSCP) and comprising Georgia, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. He argued that it would create a mechanism which could enable members to resolve their differences without recourse to force. Although all of the other proposed members of the alliance publicly welcomed Erdogan’s initiative, it is currently unclear whether the CSCP will ever become a reality.

In addition to demonstrating the increasing importance that Turkey is attaching to the Caucasus, Erdogan’s proposed creation of the CSCP also highlighted Turkey’s often ambivalent relationship with Russia. Despite its public declarations of support for the CSCP, Russia would be unlikely to welcome any mechanism which would increase Turkish involvement in the Caucasus, which Moscow continues to regard as falling within its natural sphere of influence. Similarly, the AKP’s championing of the Nabucco pipeline is a direct challenge to Russia’s domination of the EU’s supplies of natural gas. Yet Turkey itself currently sources more than 60 percent of its imports of natural gas and almost 30 percent of its oil from Russia, enabling Moscow to bring considerable pressure to bear in the event of any confrontation between the two countries.

The EU

It is currently unclear whether the EU remains one of Turkey’s strategic priorities. The AKP’s failure to maintain the reformist drive of its first years in power has reinforced suspicions amongst its critics that it was merely instrumentalizing the EU process for its own tactical purposes, namely to ease the restrictions on the expression of an Islamic identity in Turkish public life and to reduce the political influence of the Turkish military. However, it currently appears just as likely that, in common with many other Turks, it failed to fully comprehend the nature of EU membership and believed that it would be able to negotiate its way out of some of the demands made by the EU. The full requirements of EU membership have traditionally been poorly understood in Turkey, not least the fact that accession brings with it a ceding of a measure of national sovereignty to the EU. There is a strong suspicion that the AKP was dazzled by the alluring image of EU membership and failed to pay attention to all that it would entail.

Despite Erdogan’s promise of substantive reforms after the local elections of March 29, 2009, it is difficult to see what the AKP now has to gain. In the runup to October 2005, it did at least have the incentive of being able to formally initiate accession negotiations. However, the only similar incentive now would be a firm date for full membership. Without one, the AKP will have great difficulty winning over the many Turks who doubt that the EU will ever admit Turkey, regardless of whether it fulfils all the accession conditions. Yet there currently appears no prospect of the EU even debating a firm date for Turkish accession. If anything, sentiments have been moving in the opposite direction. In late 2009, even long-term supporters of Turkish membership inside the EU had begun to express concerns that there was a growing possibility that the accession process could even be suspended in late 2009.

Between East and West?

During the early years of the republic, Ataturk ruthlessly purged Islam from public life, turned the country’s back on the Middle East and argued that being European was Turkey’s vocation. During the Cold War, that was replaced with nebulous concepts such as identity and belonging to determine a strategic orientation towards the West by the hard reality of the perceived threat to national security. By 2003-2004, Turkey seemed to be moving towards cementing its Western orientation through joining the EU. Contrary to all expectations, the decisive momentum for EU accession appeared to be coming from a political party that had grown out of the Turkish Islamist movement, which at one time had appeared to be the force most likely to turn Turkey away from the West. Even if its Muslim population would enable it to have a different relationship with the Islamic world than other member states, there was no doubt that, once it was admitted, membership of the EU would necessarily form the basis of Turkey’s strategic orientation.

But although Turkey’s relations with the EU have not reached the point of no return, they have recently become sufficiently strained for many both inside and outside Turkey to wonder whether the country will ever be granted full membership. There is also little doubt that, in recent years, the AKP has devoted considerably more time and effort to increasing its influence in the Middle East than it has to reviving Turkey’s faltering bid for EU membership. Yet Erdogan’s outspoken condemnation of Israel and his equally vigorous support for Hamas has, for the time being at least, destroyed the hopes that Turkey had previously entertained of serving as an impartial mediator in the region’s disputes.

At the same time, it has also sent a warning signal to the Arab states in the region. The Arabs have never shared Turkish Islamists’ fond memories of the Ottoman Empire. Although most would welcome a closer relationship with Turkey, few want to see Ankara becoming actively involved in what are generally regarded as internal Arab affairs. That’s particularly the case with regards to Hamas, if Turkey’s policy extends to supporting an organization that is regarded as a threat by several Arab countries, particularly Egypt.

As a result, instead of strengthening its relations with Europe and the Middle East, in February 2009 Turkey appeared to be in danger of losing influence with both. Nor were its ties with the U.S. as assured as they had been throughout most of the second half of the 20th century. The events of 2003 destroyed the trust that had been built over the previous decades. Although the relationship had improved by early 2009, it appeared to lack its once-deep roots, and there was considerable uncertainty inside Turkey about whether the new administration in Washington was sufficiently interested in restoring the relationship to its previous levels.

Perhaps more critically, the uncertain prospects for Turkish foreign policy were accompanied by — and, to a large extent, were a product of — an increasingly volatile domestic political environment. In February 2009, there was a growing sense that the tensions and maneuverings over the role of Islam in public life in Turkey were entering an endgame, the results of which appeared likely to have repercussions not only for domestic politics but also for Turkey’s foreign policy and strategic orientation.

Gareth Jenkins is a journalist and writer who has been based in Istanbul since 1989 and specializes in civil-military relations, political Islam and security issues. His latest book, “Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East?” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008.