On February 12th, a Turkish TV station, broadcasting nationwide, projected a mostly-red map highlighting Turkey’s expanding geopolitical influence, by 2050, over southern Europe, Caucasia, parts of Asia, and parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This map was originally created, in 2009, by George Freidman, the founder of Stratfor, an American corporate intelligence group. Apparently, showing this old map on TV was meant to serve the ongoing pro-Erdogan propaganda, especially among the many Turkish citizens who embrace the ideology of neo-Ottomanism. However, the shocking speculations attached to the map, coupled with Turkish military’s recent moves in the aforementioned regions, made the map travel beyond Turkey’s borders, raising endless controversy among observers, worldwide, on how realistic Stratfor’s forecast could be.
Freidman estimated that by 2050, Turkey will expand its power way beyond its current borders to build a new empire, similar to the Ottoman Empire. However, it will be an empire of influence; not occupation, over countries such as: Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Greece, Cyprus, and Azerbaijan. Ironically, Freidman’s map kept Israel, which exists right in the heart of the affected regions, immune to the claimed expansion of the Turkish influence. That is despite Erdogan’s declared ideological animosity to Israel and his repetitive vows to “liberate Jerusalem from the hands of the Jews.”
According to Stratfor’s forecast, the proposed expansion of Turkish influence, over the aforementioned regions, should rely on two parallel factors. The first factor is Turkey’s success in employing its economic supremacy, military strength, and cultural/religious soft power to exert influence over the states and/or the societies of targeted countries. The second factor is the natural weakening, over time, of targeted states, which were expected to go through political turmoil that should eventually lead to political divisions or, in severe cases, civil wars.
Speaking of Turkey’s cultural/religious soft power, Erdogan has been ingeniously using Turkey’s model, as the only country that successfully consolidate Islam and democracy under a secular state, to gain support and empathy, among the youth of the huge Muslim population, stretching from Morocco to Malaysia. That was particularly true after the eruption of Arab Spring revolutions, in 2010-2011. For example, one of the reasons why many Egyptians elected a Muslim Brotherhood government, in 2012, was the misleading propaganda that introduced the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), in Egypt, as an extension to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), in Turkey. By 2013, political Islamist groups, loyal to Erdogan’s Islamist AKP, were already leading the governments of many Muslim countries. However, in less than two years, Erdogan’s dream of sitting on the throne of an expanding Islamic Caliphate faded away. The Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt was removed in mid-2013. Then, Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Nahda Party in Tunisia resigned to avoid a similar fate to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Also, Arab Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and UAE, helped Egypt in its war on political Islamist groups, all over MENA region. Meanwhile, Turkey’s model of an Islamic, democratic, secular state, lost its glamor in the eyes of the people of the Middle East, not only because of Erdogan’s unconditional support to political Islamists, but also because of his messing with the Turkish constitution to seize all political powers in his hands, which negatively affected the status of democracy and freedoms in Turkey, turning it into an almost authoritarian state.
On the economic supremacy issue, Friedman expected that by 2020, Turkey would have been among world’s top ten countries with the strongest economy. Here we are in 2021 and that is not the case. Based on the most recent available data by the World Bank, Turkey is ranked the 19th largest economy in the world, in 2019. Last summer, the Turkish Lira fell to its lowest exchange rate against the U.S. dollar, before slowly recovering at the beginning of 2021. On the other hand, the economic growth of the countries, which fall under the claimed Turkish influence in Stratfor’s forecast map, is doing better compared to Turkey. For example, the same World Bank ranking put the Russian Federation at the rank 11, and Saudi Arabia at the rank 18, of world’s largest economies, in 2019.
In addition, Turkey has been, purposefully, excluded from all recently-formed regional economic coalitions, such as the EastMed Gas Organization and the Philia Forum, which brought together eastern Mediterranean countries, such as Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt, with the most powerful countries in the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Ironically, all of these countries fall under the claimed Turkish influence in Stratfor’s map. Such regional coalitions are pushing Turkey into forced economic isolation, sooner or later. Turkey’s economic alliances with Qatar or Iran cannot balance the economic power of these regional coalitions. Recent academic publications argued that Turkey’s successful military intervention on the side of Azerbaijan, in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh region, last year, may enhance Turkey’s opportunities to project economic influence in Central Asia. However, this requires for Turkey to enter into a brutal competition with Russia and China, which Turkey’s struggling economy is not ready to handle at the moment.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s military power an expansion is already growing faster than expected. The Turkish military is ranked by Global Firepower Index as the strongest military in the Middle East, in 2020. The Turkish military is the second largest military in NATO, after the United States. Currently, the Turkish Defense Ministry operates military bases in the Middle East, Caucasus, Africa, and Asia. Despite Turkey’s domestic political and economic troubles, the Turkish military has been relentlessly harvesting one success after the other, since the NATO-trained, Hulusi Akar, became the Minister of Defense in 2018.
In perfect application to Freidman’s proposed scenario for expanding Turkey’s influence over the region, Turkey has been cleverly using every opportunity to militarily intervene into the Arab countries, exhausted by political turmoil or torn by civil wars, in the aftermath of Arab Spring revolutions, under the flag of re-instating stability in the region or fighting terrorism. This was the case of Turkey’s military intervention in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and Sudan. In other regions, Turkey purposefully re-awakened muted conflicts to make a space for its military troops to intervene, as was the case in the eastern Mediterranean and the war over Nagorno-Karabakh region, last year. Right now, Turkey has tens of thousands of military personnel and military bases in northern Syria, northern Iraq, western Libya, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Qatar, and Northern Cyprus, which has been occupied by Turkey, since 1970s.
Still, Turkey is unable to control, neither by soft power nor military power, the one country that Freidman highlighted as the gate, through which Turkey can manifest his expectations into reality, by 2050. This country is Egypt. In his speculations, Friedman drew a scenario wherein Egypt should go through a political turmoil, which allows Turkey to deploy its military troops to Egyptian territories, under the guise of bringing stability to the region. Then, Turkey wins control over the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. As a result, Israel will find itself obliged to cooperate with Turkey. Then, through the Red Sea, Turkey will expand its power into the Arabian Peninsula and control Arab Gulf countries oil wealth, up to the borders of Iran. Freidman claimed that “by the middle of the century, Turkey’s influence will extend deep into Russia and the Balkans, where it will collide with Poland and the rest of the Eastern European coalition. It will also become a major Mediterranean power, controlling the Suez Canal and projecting its strength into the Persian Gulf. Turkey will frighten the Poles, the Indians, the Israelis, and above all the United States.”
Honestly, Turkey had already got a golden opportunity, in 2011-2013, to manifest Freidman’s speculations into reality, by abusing Egypt’s weak state, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. However, three unexpected developments made it impossible for Turkey to benefit from this opportunity. They are:
(1) Egypt’s fast recovery from the political turmoil that followed the revolution of 2011, thanks to the Egyptian Armed Forces, which enjoys a state of autonomy, that enabled the military institution to preserve the economic and political well-being of the state, during the post-revolution political transitions. The Egyptian military and the Turkish military are continuously competing over the highest two position of Global Firepower Index of the strongest militaries in the Middle East;
(2) The impossibility of Egypt going through a severe political division that initiates a civil war. Even during the strongest phases of post-revolution political polarization, during which other Arab Spring countries fell into the trap of civil war, the Egyptian people remained strictly unified over their Egyptian national identity, despite their many demographic differences;
(3) The Egyptians’ rejection to political Islamism ideology and the people’s active role in removing the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power, in mid-2013, which consequently led to removing the Turkish influence over Egypt, which had been exerted in post-revolution years.
During the past decade, the Arab Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and UAE, which fall under the claimed area of Turkey’s influence in Stratfor’s map, developed their military powers to unprecedented levels. UAE, for example, has been described by renowned military analysts as “Little Sparta” for the highly advanced technology imported to its military, in the past ten years. UAE military is currently fighting against the Turkish military in Libya, Syria, and even in the eastern Mediterranean on the side of Cyprus and Greece.
Given all the aforementioned facts, it has become almost impossible for Turkey to intervene into Egypt or the Arab Peninsula, on its way to Europe and Asia, as Freidman noted in his forecast from 2009. Many events and developments, mostly hard to foresee, took place since the release of Stratfor predictions. The countries, which Stratfor’s map highlighted in red as areas of Turkey’s influence in 2050, are currently, in 2021, acting as tough political, economic, and military competitors to Turkey. Therefore, the only opportunity left for Turkey to be influential in its region, is through good faith diplomacy, cooperation, and good neighborly relations with important countries in MENA and southern Europe; and not through illegal military interventions hunting on the political and security fragilities of other states.
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