Ryan Gingeras: "Turkey believes it can have its cake and eat it too"

In an interview with Sunday Ethnos, American professor Ryan Gingeras sheds light on the degree to which Turkey has now militarized its foreign policy

Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California and an author of four books on Turkey. In an interview with Sunday Ethnos, he sheds light on the degree to which Turkey has now militarized its foreign policy by tracing the reasons behind this militarization as well as its effects and the ways in which these effects could be dealt with.

Do you see Turkey becoming more maximalist in its claims towards Greece? Do you see it becoming more aggressive?

Yes, I do. I think there are lots of factors that account for this. One, it’s been seen as successful so far. The other reason is that it’s seen as really quite gratifying. It’s quite clear that not only policy makers but a large segment of the public at large in Turkey find some amount of gratification in being this assertive. I think also one has to consider that the Turkish navy is in the midst of an expanding modernization process. The fleet is growing. The capacity of this fleet is also bound to become much greater. Turkey is positioning itself as being a more dominant naval actor in the region. All of these factors taken together, you can expect this kind of behavior to continue.

Since you mentioned the navy, is “Mavi Vatan” a doctrine that is here to stay, regardless of who will be in power in Turkey in a couple of years from now?

When anyone asks me to predict Turkey’s future, I always get a little hesitant. Turkey is a difficult place to predict. I would say that in the long term some iteration of this policy will likely continue. It’s not only for the reasons I just listed but also if you consider issues beyond Turkey, the region is in the midst of a period of reordering. There is a great deal of fluidity in general in the Eastern Mediterranean. Even if there was some sort of radical reorientation in the government, I think that in terms of the way Turkey has viewed its recent experiences, you will continue to see a much more active Turkish presence in the Eastern Mediterranean whether it’s called Blue Homeland or not, maybe for political reasons. Turkey’s activity in the region, particularly the degree to which it’s now militarized its foreign policy… for the foreseeable future this is something you can count on.

You said that this approach on the side of Turkey will likely continue because it has been “successful” so far. In what ways has it been successful?

First and foremost the advance in Libya over the last six to eight months is seen broadly speaking, as far as we can tell, as having fulfilled the expectations of policy makers and to a certain degree excited Turkish citizens. You see Ankara having invested relatively little in material terms in securing this agreement with the GNA government in Libya, having intervened militarily in the Libyan civil war, having done so with relatively limited resources. The bulk of Turkey’s presence in the region is tantamount to supplying of essentially mercenary fighters as well as vehicles. We can’t say that Turkey has invested a great deal. So far not only has the GNA government survived but the tide for the time being appears to be turning. This has been seen as a success. The other element of this policy is that Turkey’s activity in the maritime domain, specifically the activity of the drilling ships, has not brought any negative consequences thus far. The drilling ships have been active. Turkey has signaled very loudly that this is what it is going to do. So far there has really been no serious pushback from states in the region. From the EU, from the United States.  

How would you assess the Greek and European reactions to Turkey’s drillings and provocations so far? Could the EU push back Turkey if it wanted to?

I am not quite sure what are all the different means by which the EU can push back. What does appear to be the case is that so far this has not necessarily become an issue of supreme importance for the European Union. Moreover, the European Union does not have a tremendously strong track record in terms of being able to deter bad behavior. Whether that has something to do with the politics of the EU or its lack of capacity - the lack of means to actually be able to provide some means of deterrence… I am not sure. A part of this too is that major states in Europe are somewhat divided over Turkey’s behavior. To some degree Italy has, of all the European states, treated this with the least amount of opposition, in terms of Turkey’s behavior in Libya for example. Germany’s behavior is interesting. I can’t speak authoritatively but considering Germany’s comparative strength within Europe and the degree to which Germany has taken a leadership position within the European Union on matters of foreign policy, specifically vis-à-vis Libya, Germany has been relatively silent on this issue. Specifically when one compares it to France, with France having been much more vocal. Again, the real question is a matter of means. What means do Germany and the European Union have to deter Turkey? I think there is some degree of uncertainty about what tools do they have to actually change Turkey’s behavior.  

Should we take Turkey’s claims and threats at face value? Or are they maybe more like a pretext, a leverage or a bargaining/blackmailing chip for future negotiations?

The two prospects that you raised are not necessarily at odds with one another. You should take the claims at face value. Turkey understands Greece to be risk-averse like the rest of Europe when it comes to confronting Turkey. No one particularly wants to risk a military confrontation with Turkey. Turkey is using that to its advantage. When it comes to specifically its maritime claims whether off the coast of Cyprus or off the coast of Crete. It should at some point there be a much more concerted effort to deter Turkey. It is possible that Turkey might be willing to negotiate but so far it hasn’t had to. So, I think one should therefore consider these claims to be genuine and to be taken very seriously.

Can the vision of “Mavi Vatan” be also seen as a byproduct of Turkey’s shifting away from the West (US/NATO) in its quest of a different, grander and more autonomous regional role? 

One should understand this as symptomatic of not so much Turkey moving away from the West but of being capable of behaving more promiscuously with the West. Turkey believes it can have its cake and eat it too. Turkey can be a member of NATO. Turkey believes it can continue to engage Europe and the United States in ways that it feels beneficial. And at the same time, in cases where the United States or Europe is at odds with Turkey, it can behave in ways that are antagonistic and get away with it.

Is the Turkey-Libya memorandum something that is here to stay as well? The way things are today, can there be a generally accepted deal with maritime delimitations in Eastern Mediterranean without first a comprehensive solution to the Libyan crisis?

What’s interesting about this arrangement is that Turkey believes that it can settle the maritime border issue by a series of bilateral agreements as opposed in engaging in this issue in a multilateral way. The problem is that the strength of these agreements is only as strong as their weakest partner. If there is some sort of resolution to the Libyan civil war, and that solution comes from Tripoli, it may be the case that Turkey will have believed that it had cemented this agreement or that is has achieved legitimate legal cover for making these claims. But on the other hand, it depends also on how the GNA government sees its future. If it feels that it can receive greater amounts of support, whether it’s political or material support from Europe or the United States or whomever, where the cost of that would be to renege on this agreement, that’s entirely possible as well. It is still a little too early to count out the Haftar factor. We may end up getting something akin to a stalemate. If Haftar can consolidate his control over Libya, I would assume that that agreement would be in jeopardy. This is more of a legal fig leaf for Turkey. It’s clear that Ankara believes that it cannot assert Turkey’s claims without some sort of legal framework in place. But in reality the legality of this is paper-thin and highly susceptible to political intervention of various kinds whether it’s the result of the civil war or foreign pressure.

When it comes to Turkish internal politics, do you see the balance shifting towards nationalism, authoritarianism and/or eurasianism?

You can consider it in two ways. One is electorally. The AKP is now dependent upon the MHP to retain political power. And in some ways the two parties have become hostage to one another. Electorally Erdogan has to retain to some degree a political approach/a manner of rhetoric that is much more not simply nationalist but quite intolerant. It’s not simply a matter of being patriotic or behaving in a way that’s more populist. The rhetoric is much more intolerant of what’s considered deviant behavior in nationalistic terms: whether it’s expressions of Kurdish identity or desires for Kurdish independence, groups that behave in ways that seem to be deviant in national terms, for example those who are more culturally liberal, those with much more of an orientation towards Western Europe in cultural terms. The other element of it too is that nationalists possess a strong base within the media and represent a rather vocal element of the Turkish electorate. You see this especially with the television shows in Turkey, the kind of nationalism that you see there is certainly more aggressive, much more revisionist in the way it sees the world. To some degree it comes from the government, but to some degree it also reflects a rather noisy and active component of the Turkish electorate as well.

Could someone maybe claim that parties such as MHP or even VATAN have today more power in Turkey in terms of influence that what one would expect?

The short answer to your questions is yes. But these parties are very different. The ways in which they express their influence is very different. Between the two, the MHP is in a much stronger position than VATAN. MHP is both a hostage to the AKP as well as an active enabler of the AKP. Without the MHP’s explicit support for the government, Erdogan would be in a great deal of electoral trouble. VATAN is a different case. VATAN is a much smaller party. It does not have any real strength electorally. It is instead assumed, and again this is largely on the base of media reports and media speculation, that elements of the Turkish military and more broadly the Turkish security establishment, are devotees of Dogu Perincek and the VATAN party, and that the Erdogan government has entered into some sort of political arrangement with VATAN in terms of accepting the presence of officers or politicians who are close to VATAN at the expense of other groups within the Turkish military, specifically as a way of counteracting what is sees as the influence of gulenists within the military. This is one of the interesting things that has come out of the recent scandal around the reassignment and then resignation of the navy’s chief of staff rear admiral Cihat Yayci. I think that what is reveals is that there is some sort of arrangement between VATAN and the government but that does not necessarily mean that VATAN has any kind of real leverage over the government. To some extent one can see Yayci’s resignation as an effort to limit the autonomy or the influence of VATAN. So, VATAN is a much more dependent upon the good will of the government as opposed to the MHP which has much more of a synergistic relationship.

How are these two parties, MHP and VATAN, different?

To some degree it’s nuance and personality. Both are nationalist parties. Both parties are highly intolerant of Kurdish nationalism, one could say of Kurds in general. Both parties present themselves as being Kemalist but the MHP has shown that it can be much more at home with the muslim nationalist aspects of the AKP. They are not necessarily as uncomfortable with the kind of islamist rhetoric of the AKP, whereas VATAN is much more strict in its interpretation of Turkish secularism. It is less comfortable with the religious conservatives of the AKP or more broadly it does not interpret being Turkish as something akin to being a muslim. In fact Islam is something kept very separate from being to Turkish. The last component of it too is personality. Dogu Perincek who is the head of the VATAN party possesses a small but really very vocal following and those who identify with the VATAN party identify with Dogu Perincek more than anything. Whereas the MHP comes out of a broader social and political movement that began with Turkes Alparslan who was the founder of the party going back to the 1960s. It has now coalesced around not simply the current leader but also among personalities who have associated themselves with the party, more famously these gangster types like Sedat Peker who identify themselves with the party. So, personality matters as well in terms of what makes an MHP support different from a VATAN supporter.

Do you see a political future for the HDP?

The party itself may survive. Erdogan likes having the party there to kind of beat up on it. So long it exists, he can point to it as the terrorist party, so in that respect it is actually quite useful. The HDP does represent a rather sizeable portion of the Turkish population. Even if it went away, this element of the population has coalesced strongly together. This is one of the things the elections last June in Istanbul revealed. Without the support of HDP voters, Imamoglu would not have won that election. Even if the HDP doesn’t exist, they will form a rather sizeable bloc regardless of what the future brings.

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