Former Turkish Black Sea Commander, Rear Admiral Türker Ertürk explains his country’s foreign policy mishaps in Cyprus, Afghanistan, Syria and the region.
Former Turkish Rear Admiral Türker Ertürk served as the Black Sea Region Commander from 2006-2008. He has commanded three warships, headed Turkey’s Naval Forces Command and Control Department, and concluded his military career as the Commander of Turkey’s Naval Academy in 2010, when he entered political life. He has served in various other senior official roles within the Turkish naval establishment, including service in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in his early career, and as Military Attache in London.
Türker Ertürk speaks to The Cradle’s Turkish columnist Ceyda Karan about the most pressing foreign policy issues facing Turkey today, and explains why Ankara’s international relations are such a mess. In short, the buck stops at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here’s what he has to say:
The Cradle: Turkey’s actions in the international arena have created much controversy in recent years. Its positions in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean have attracted attention, but not of the good kind. Some claim that the Erdogan administration carries out an independent foreign policy – as in the cases of Syria and Libya – that often runs counter to US and European stratagems. How do you evaluate Turkish foreign policy?
Ertürk: There have been significant dilemmas and contradictions in Turkey’s foreign policy. A major reason is that the foreign policy pursued by Turkey is not interest-oriented or science-oriented. The government has an outdated ideology focused on religion and sect. This can be seen in its approach to Iraq and Syria.
The tension created in the Mediterranean last year was one of the worst acts undertaken by this government. Of course, Turkey should protect its rights and interests in its maritime jurisdiction areas. But the criterion for this is international law and equity. Erdogan’s government, on the other hand, appeared to protect Turkey’s rights above all else, with the agreement to limit the maritime jurisdiction areas with Libya. Yet when the maritime jurisdiction initiatives began in the Mediterranean in the 2000s, the government did not claim these rights. [In order to pander to western allies] they even clamped down on, jailed and marginalized the military officers and intellectuals who demanded it.
So while countries in the Eastern Mediterranean declared maritime jurisdictions at the turn of the century, Turkey only did so in 2019. Why? To support the collapsing Muslim Brotherhood movement in Tripoli. So, in order to intervene in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, as in Syria, the government first made a maritime jurisdiction agreement, and then a military cooperation agreement. Erdogan sent Turkish soldiers and proxy fighters from Syria to Libya. That policy failed in Syria. In the case of Libya, Erdogan presented the operation to support the Muslim Brotherhood as a ‘national operation.’ Except this was not a national project. It was a project to support an outdated ideology.
The Cradle: Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region also came to the fore in Turkey’s foreign policy this year. President Erdogan has been saying for a long time that NATO should be more active in the Black Sea. He maintained this position at the last NATO summit in mid-June. However, Ankara took a more cautious stance in the latest exercises of the Western alliance in the region. What are the reasons for this? Is it to maintain certain balances?
Ertürk: Yes, this year, the Black Sea came to the fore. With the Turkish economy bankrupt, and a failed foreign policy in every field, the government had to reassess its position. It did so by seeking to open negotiations with the US and EU, Egypt, the Gulf countries, and Israel. This time, serious concessions came up. The areas that the US and NATO would be interested in are the Black Sea projects. Turkey knows what the US wants to do in the Black Sea. It knows they want to encircle and destabilize Russia.
We know that the Americans are uncomfortable about Montreux [a 1936 agreement restricting the passage of naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states]. They did not touch this issue during the Cold War years, but now they want a change to the Montreux Convention. Non-coastal countries can enter the Straits, albeit with restrictions and prior notification, but neither their aircraft carriers nor their submarines are allowed to enter. In the 2008 crisis with Georgia, a hospital ship with a large tonnage was unable to pass through. They want a change in the Montreux agreement and more activity in the Black Sea via Ukraine and NATO members, Romania and Bulgaria.
Unfortunately, the Turkish government went ahead and supported Ukraine, opened credit lines, created initiatives on unmanned aerial vehicles in order to win US favor. All of this works against Turkey’s interests. Then, when Russia ‘threatened’ at NATO summits, Turkey did not object. In fact, NATO’s attempts to be more active in the Black Sea were supported; no objections were made. This was actually a situation that hurt Turkey’s interests.
Finally, the Sea Breeze exercise, a yearly multinational military maritime exercise, was held in the region. This exercise has been held since 1997. I participated twice in that exercise. It’s called ‘Partnership for Peace,’ but that’s not the reality. Russia has a red line here.
What is the Turkish government trying to do now? It’s flirting with the US. That would be wrong. Although Turkey is in NATO, it used Montreux as leverage during the Cold War and did not turn the Black Sea into a sea of conflict. However, the government allows Erdogan to try and win US favor. But, of course, they had to be a little indecisive and careful. Because their previous moves brought the swings [with the Russians]. They also know that if they are thrown to the opposite side again, there may be no turning back.
The Cradle: While Turkey has been getting closer to Ukraine recently, it has rejected Russia’s Crimea thesis. Ankara has had the ‘Cyprus problem’ in the international arena for many years. The Erdogan administration’s recent insistence on a two-state solution complicates the situation, which is why Turkey was condemned in the UN Security Council recently. Alongside the US and the West, Russia and China have objected to the Ankara move that excludes a negotiated solution. There is speculation that the Erdogan administration could gain support for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus by recognizing the status of Crimea. Would you agree?
Ertürk: Turkish foreign policy is linked to domestic politics. Syria was linked to our domestic politics. As was Libya. And now Cyprus. This government does not have a Cyprus claim. If they had a national claim, they would have looked after the ex-TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) leader Rauf Denktas. If they had a national claim, in 2004, Turkey could have prevented the Greek Cypriot Administration from joining the EU by representing all of Cyprus. But they needed the support of the EU, especially to set up the conspiracy charges against their own military officers. So, what did they do? They sold the Cyprus case.
As someone who has served in Cyprus and knows the Cyprus case, I believe that the 2004 Annan Plan was a betrayal. They’re just stuck with it, trying to use it as a domestic policy dynamic.
Let’s also underline that this political Islamist structure – you can include the Gülen Cemaat in it – is the product of the Green Belt cropland [the American Islamism project to combat Soviet communism] of the Cold War climate. That’s why there’s no way for them to take an anti-imperialist stance and get involved with Russia. In fact, their hearts are on the side of America.
This is my analogy: When you are young, you pretend to have another relationship to make your ex-lover jealous so you can win her back. Turkey uses Russia or the ‘East’ as a counterweight to prove their indispensability to the West. Therefore, the Crimea–TRNC equation is unrealistic.
The Cradle: Another topic is the role assigned to Turkey in Afghanistan. The Biden administration and other countries that have withdrawn from Afghanistan under the umbrella of NATO, support Turkey acting as a proxy in Afghanistan. Long before Biden announced on 14 April that they would withdraw NATO from Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Blinken had suggested in early March to bring the Taliban and Afghan government together at a conference in Turkey. It didn’t happen because the Taliban refused. When Blinken made this suggestion, there was talk of how bad Turkish-American relations were. Why is the US choosing such a mission for Turkey? Why is Ankara so enthusiastic?
Ertürk: The US and NATO stayed in Afghanistan for 20 years. Turkey also assumed a role in their leadership. The issue of withdrawal from Afghanistan was not a topic of discussion between Trump and Biden; it was the decision of the American state system. They knew that the Afghan government could not be long-term. They actually planned and calculated the withdrawal, and they planned to leave Turkey there while they were withdrawing. But there was a tactic behind it. They knew that Erdogan was in a bind and was seeking an opening [to the west].
After Biden took office, he waited; then, three months later, he called Erdogan. Biden mentioned the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government, which always refers to ‘Ottoman ancestral history,’ said nothing. And then they tossed to Erdogan the task of Afghanistan.
When Biden and Erdoğan came together at the NATO summit on 14 June, the Turkish side did not mention any of their numerous differences. The Turkish government just doesn’t have the courage to bring anything up. We have so many problems with the US: maritime jurisdiction areas, Cyprus, S400, F35, the PKK/PYD garrison statelet in Syria. Did Erdogan say to Biden, ‘What you are doing is unacceptable, and if you continue on this path, we will review our relations?’
The Cradle: What is the Biden administration’s goal in Afghanistan? Why do they need Turkey for it?
Ertürk: There is a bigger picture in the matter of US withdrawal in Afghanistan. Why don’t Americans who have been in Afghanistan for 20 years stay for another five years? They have spent $1 trillion in Afghanistan so far. The problem is that they want to trigger chaos in that region. Even the so-called ‘shadow CIA’ George Friedman has voiced this opinion, saying that the US does not seek to ensure stability in an area where another power is rising [China], and that the US has no stability targets in Eurasia.
So, what is the target? Surrounding Russia and China as done during the Soviet Union, putting them into an arms race, destabilizing their environment and cutting off the Belt and Road project? Would a stable Afghanistan serve this project? Who else is around? There is Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan. China shares a small border. Pakistan in the south and Iran in the west.
Does the US want a stable Afghanistan or an Afghanistan that is spreading fire in the region with waves of immigration? Some say America was defeated; it’s retreating after 20 years. I do not agree. The US carried out a ‘successful’ operation and continues to do so. Turning the region into a fireball is one step closer to its goal. That’s why Turkey can’t see the bigger picture.
The Cradle: ‘Can’t see’ or is there another perspective? President Erdogan said that Turkey has no problem with the Taliban. Is there a desire to “design” – Neo-Ottoman style –the Islamic geography with its army, which is called ‘the most important export product of Turkey?’
Ertürk: There is no single answer to this. The ‘best export army’ quote by George Soros is true. This is also domestic consumption propaganda for the Turkish government. So what will you give to prevent the Halkbank lawsuit in the US? What will you give to get a loan from financial centers? Turkey will send its soldiers to die. Erdogan’s government has cornered Turkey, and is now sending our soldiers to die for the country’s political survival. And sending troops to Afghanistan will not be enough. Turkey is under heavy blackmail. In the past, Erdogan could have said to Biden, ‘I’ll do whatever you want, but I can’t get it through parliament’ or ‘I could have done that but the Turkish military objects.’ Or he might say, ‘I could have done that, but the judiciary would have prevented it.’ Does he have the strength to say such a thing now? Nope. Today, Turkey is like a truck with a faulty brake.
Is it possible for a secular, democratic state to accept the Taliban, who cut heads off, put women in burqas, and oblige men to grow beards? Do the reasons US and NATO members have for withdrawing from Afghanistan not affect us as well? But Biden gives directives, and the Turkish government has to comply. They compromise Turkey’s interests and security for their own political survival.
The Cradle: In what way will Turkey’s military adventure in Afghanistan affect its relations with Russia, China, and other countries in the region?
Ertürk: Turkey’s relationship with Afghanistan goes back to the early 1920s. Turkey is putting these relationships at risk. Ethnic structures are very different when it comes to Afghanistan. There are Pashtuns in the south, who are related to Pakistan. There are Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Hazaras.
This event will also disrupt our relations with the Turkish republics. In order not to be alone, the Erdogan administration talks about involving Pakistan and even Hungary with it. However, I have not heard that these two countries have agreed to be included.
Worse still, the Taliban says, ‘We accept Turkey as an enemy.’ Remember, they burned Turkish soldiers in Syria. God forbid, but such things can happen to us in Afghanistan. And we are making these moves without discussions in the parliament. This is a really unacceptable situation. I think that the foreign policy pursued by the Erdogan government today is a source of instability for our country, for our region, and for the world.