New Sultan

Long held ambitions

What’s behind the blazing row between Macron and Erdoğan? Esen Uslu explains the strategic overreach

When the finance capitalists of Turkey were growing up during the cold war era, their main preoccupation was their acceptance into the international establishment - rejection would have been a serious blow, if not the killer punch. They appeared very tame and docile, ready to comply if a subtle request was made or a finger was pointed at them.

What was hiding behind that docile appearance was a burning desire to be strong enough to mount a challenge to the pecking order of the capitalist world, but they knew from their own experience that any such open challenge would have severe consequences. In the late 1950s, the government of Andnan Menderes did make a minor challenge to the US, when it sought credits for investing in heavy industry from the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Turkish lira quickly collapsed in value, and a couple of years later a junta of young officers trained by the USA toppled the government.

In the late 60s a similar fate was awaiting the government of Süleyman Demirel - a military coup overthrew the government in 1971. After a state of emergency, and the 1974 invasion of Cyprus under Bülent Ecevit, the relationship between Turkey and the west deteriorated to such an extent that the US imposed an embargo on military sales, and Turkey closed down US military bases. After Greece left Nato on the grounds that the alliance did not intervene during the Cyprus crisis, Turkey vetoed later attempts to allow Greece back in. That required a unanimous vote.

Faced with the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the US was determined to resolve the Turkey-Greece crisis. Interestingly the US position was put to the prime minister of Turkey by a certain Joe Biden - then a member of the Senate foreign relations committee. But within a few months, in September 1980, a military junta toppled the government, and one of the first things it did was remove the veto on allowing Greece back into Nato. The junta did not ask for anything in return - apart from acceptance and approval from the west.

Burning desire

While finance capital was quite content with its progress without rocking the boat too much, the military and civilian bureaucracy - those who believe they are the real masters of the state - still had the burning desire to return to the glory days of the past, when the Ottoman empire dominated a vast swathe of territory, and took part in the Great Game. However, after defeat in World War I and the collapse of the empire, when they managed to put together a nation-state centred in Anatolia on the basis of Turkish nationalism, racism and Islam, they had a lesser target in mind: to achieve full control of the Bosporus, and occupy regions of Syria, Iraq, Transcaucasia and Cyprus with large Turkic populations.

As World War II was approaching, Turkey managed to wrangle control of the Bosporus (with certain limitations) in accordance with the Montreux Convention, and afterwards it gobbled up Antioch province in Syria. But after the war the Kirkuk and Mosul oil regions in Iraq remained on the agenda. Transcaucasia was out of bounds, since the Soviet Union’s short-sighted claims on certain areas at the borderlands and over the Bosporus led Turkey to become a member of Nato.

The collapse of the British empire brought Cyprus onto the agenda. It was a burning issue for nearly two decades. After gobbling up the northern part of the island, Turkey’s next target was northern Mesopotamia - leading figures attempted to present themselves as protectors of Turkish-speaking minorities there. Meanwhile Turkey was attempting to maintain intelligence facilities through using those minorities. Later, following the ascendancy of Israel in the Middle East, religious contacts also came into play.

While the need for foreign currency was still producing bottlenecks for the development of finance capital, foreign adventures seemed too expensive to contemplate. However, since the job of the state is to protect finance capital from the evil working class, the bureaucracy was prepared to accept any general’s dictatorship. That meant supporting the armed forces and increasing taxation. The foundations of today’s military-industrial complex - exporting products ranging from rockets and UAVs to electronics and armoured vehicles - were laid.

The post-cold war era brought about new threats, as well as new opportunities. In the fertile ground provided by the new wars taking place in the Middle East, the growth of local-national finance capital was quite startling, and the ‘outsider’ capitalists of the bygone era quickly began enriching themselves by engaging with the Islamist and nationalist politics of the state. They formed new conglomerates and started competing with the well-established and entrenched Turkish finance capitalists during the export boom, which was fuelled by easy credit from international money markets.

The state’s investment drive to make Turkey one of the prime energy corridors linking east to west was complemented by the drive to find and develop gas and oil fields under the seas near Turkey. The rivalry between Russia and the west provided more opportunities.

The wary foreign policy driven by finance capital was quickly replaced by an aggressive expansionism, fed by rabid nationalism and Islamism. Dominant sections of the state with close links to Islamists had an overtly Eurasian and anti-western outlook and the rise of Islamist politics in the Middle East provided ample opportunities for meddling in the affairs of faraway lands.

But all these foreign adventures required external financing, since Turkish finance capital was unwilling to come up with the cash. But the new international order provided fresh sources of finance from the Gulf region - not least Qatar, which acted as a channel for such investment, along with other kinds of support. The rivalry between Shia and Sunni Islam, national quarrels in countries such as Egypt and Libya, and ongoing wars in Syria and northern Iraq provided fresh means for manipulation.

While Turkey’s foreign adventures had previously been regarded benignly by imperialism, now patience is wearing thin. Turkey’s involvement in Libya, its attempts to use refugees as a weapon against Greece and the European Union, and its confrontational attitude to the Israel-Egypt-Greece axis over eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon exploration are causing upsets. The ‘maritime boundaries’ dispute quickly pulled France away from the EU’s dithering attitude into open opposition. Despite the efforts of Germany to maintain cohesion and enter a purposeful dialogue with Turkey, Emmanuel Macron is now the champion of those opposing Turkish adventurism.

And Istanbul is able to grasp the opportunity provided by an Islamist terrorist act and Macron’s gut reaction to it. The state propaganda apparatus and the mainstream media started fanning anti-French sentiments within Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made passionate speeches in favour of ‘religious freedom’ and hurled insults at Macron.

Meanwhile the Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh has once again become a war zone, as Azerbaijani armed forces, bolstered by the weapons and training provided by Israel and Turkey, commenced to ‘liberate the occupied territories of Azerbaijan’.


While here in Turkey we were focusing on these disputes, suddenly the earth shook under the Aegean Sea close to the Greek island of Samos, and the tremors from a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook Izmir on October 30. At least 17 high-rise residential buildings collapsed in one district of the city, killing more than 100 people and damaging hundreds of buildings.

Around the world this year there have been 22 earthquakes above magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale. The total death toll from 20 of those earthquakes was only 15, but the two earthquakes that took place in Turkey have killed over 140 people. These figures provide a clear indication of the current state of society. The buildings that collapsed were known to be structurally unsound as a result of shoddy, unsupervised construction methods. There have been official reports to that effect, but no action was taken.

The fact that the land affected had been reclaimed from the former river delta, leaving soil prone to liquefaction and subsidence, has been a major issue. The area had been opened up originally to the development of unauthorised single-storey buildings called gecekondu (built overnight) without the provision of any facilities or even proper roads.

Later, governments looking to pick up votes allowed the construction of higher buildings without any regard for the consequences. They issued building permits and, as the present-day president once said, when he was the mayor of Istanbul, “We solved the problems of the population, and they gave us donations” for basic services. Such has been the attitude of central and municipal government even in Izmir, which is considered to have a safe social democrat majority, while being fiercely nationalistic. And now the mainstream media has been feeding us with images and clips of miraculously saved babies recovered from the rubble, while the rescue services are paraded as heroes in order to promote worship of the state.

The hope is that one day the working class will ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we were not buried under rubble before they rescued a few of us?’ A positive reply to that question would provide a key to understanding Turkey’s hostile relationship with both its own population and its neighbours.