Turkey's Imperialist Aggression Threatens to Set More than the Mediterranean Alight

As well as exacerbating the decline in living conditions of the international working class the deepening world economic crisis is sharpening imperialist competition. More and more wars, either direct or proxy, are being waged day by day. From Syria(1) to Nagorno-Karabakh(2), the tragic fault lines of imperialist aggression are getting deeper. Unless a strong, decisive world revolutionary movement arises to stop it we risk falling into a wider and even more devastating generalised conflict.

Since August Turkey has been acting provocatively in the south-east Mediterranean. Oil and gas fields have been discovered in the waters off Cyprus and in the area between Cyprus and Crete. Not only does Turkey intend to be in the game to exploit them, it is playing hard and dirty. It has sent its battleships into the area, and is vociferously demanding the right to revise the old maritime borders with Greece which it is threatening to attack. In simple terms, Turkey claims the islands of the Dodecanese, in particular Kastellorizo (or Megisti, where oil has been discovered) which both the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the subsequent 1947 Paris accord assigned to Athens. It is claiming maritime jurisdiction far beyond the current 12 miles and demands immediate repossession of the aforementioned 21 islands of the Dodecanese which were lost when the Ottoman Empire broke up. Meanwhile, it has sent the Oruc Reis reconnaissance ship, escorted by four warships, to the coast of Cyprus, ready to start drilling, without prior agreements and in open conflict with the rival powers. Alarmed, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Cyprus and Malta have formed an Anti-Turkish "consortium" aimed at dissuading Turkey from carrying out its imperialist plan. At stake for all of them are the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean and the increased revenues accruing from the control of strategic transport routes, as well as remunerative taxes on their sales.

And that's not all Erdoğan has been up to. In November 2019 he had already signed an agreement with the al-Sarraj government in Tripoli for the exploitation of Libyan oil(3), a blow to the expectations of France and Italy. These Mediterranean rivals have long competed for their share of Gaddafi's black gold. This included overthrowing the regime of the Libyan dictator in 2011 (as France did, with British collaboration and American support), leading to today’s crisis of the most important oil producer in North Africa. Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan has recently intensified his attack on the Paris government by siding with the protests against Charlie Hebdo's caricatures of the Islamic religion thus helping to inflame Turkish, Pakistani, Moroccan and, more generally, Asian street protests. In so doing he is promoting himself as the new avenging champion of Turkish-style Sunnism, pinning the medal of "Islamic supremacist" on his chest: in opposition to the "corrupt and corrupting" West. In the same vein he had already transformed former churches like Aghia Sofia into mosques, emphasising his role as a leader in the Muslim world.

At the same time as these tensions with Greece and Cyprus, Erdoğan has made an agreement with Putin over the future of Libya, despite their formal support for the competing forces: Ankara for al-Sarraj and Moscow for Haftar. No big deal, if elimination of the competition between them and the prospect of joint control and exploitation of the chief oil producing area in the Mediterranean is the prize. Moreover, if the agreement succeeds, the partition of Libya would give Moscow and Ankara commercial and military naval access to Libya which, for opposite and opposing reasons, would give them considerable advantages over those excluded from this inter-imperialist game.

We did not have to wait long for American imperialism’s response. On 15 September Washington formally established a coalition between the Gulf Emirates (the UAE), Al Khalifa of Bahrain and Israel. The Coalition's triple purpose is:

  1. To oppose Russian ambitions in the Mediterranean, given Moscow’s "victory" in Syria and its intrusion into Libya;
  2. To check Turkish aggression;
  3. Last but not least, to prevent Iran — an ally of Moscow, a dangerous competitor and sworn enemy of the US — from entering the Mediterranean.

This Coalition has cemented closer military and intelligence relations. The Emirates have conceded military bases to the US and the latter will sell sophisticated weapons to the Emirs. Abu Dhabi and Dubai will also employ NSA (National Security Agency of the USA) officials and elements of the Israeli Secret Service within their own services. The American-led Coalition was thus formed directly in opposition to the Russia-Turkey agreement over the destinies of the EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) so that now there are two flocks of vultures circling the carcass of Libya, ready to throw themselves on whatever energy resources can be torn from their defenceless prey.

Turkish Imperialist Ambitions Go Beyond the Mediterranean

Erdoğan's goal of being a hegemonic power in the Mediterranean is beginning to take shape. We have already seen this in Syria(4), where he still arms and defends the jihadist groups, including the remains of ISIS, with the double purpose of keeping north-east Syria free from Kurdish control in Rojava and continuing to be a thorn in the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime. In the Mediterranean, he wants a card to put on the table of maritime hegemony against all opponents, even if, from Portugal to Cyprus, via belligerent France, there are many — perhaps too many — enemies for a single leaden-footed imperialism to deal with. So he has continued with Libya and the recent agreement with Russia whilst seeking to make Turkey’s military and religious weight felt in the strategic Gulf area.

In 2011, during the "Arab Spring", Erdoğan had already posed as the shining light of Sunnism, gradually bringing him into conflict with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates (UAE). His goal of achieving Sunni leadership in the Gulf would allow him to have a say in oil issues, to participate in decisions about the quantity of oil to be extracted and marketed, to have a say in fixing its price and tactically discriminating against other possible buyers, even if Turkey is not part of OPEC. The game has not yet succeeded, but he perseveres. On the other hand, when he allied with Qatar to embark on a collision course with Saudi Arabia and the UAE the project was too ambitious and inevitably forced Erdoğan to retreat. This does not nullify the danger of a character, who, in order to "justify" his intentions, accused Ben Zayid of Abu Dhabi (the leading state of the UAE) and the other Emirs of the Gulf, of being the organisers of the failed coup in Turkey of 15 July 2016. The following year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE forced al Thani, ruler of Qatar to break off relations with Turkey and stop financing Turkish "military campaigns" in Syria. Moreover, behind the friction between Doha and Abu Dhabi there remains the attempt by both the UAE and Turkey, alongside Qatar, to make themselves transit points for the Chinese “Silk Road” on its long journey towards the commercial conquest of Europe.(5)

In this context, numerous economic and military issues stand between Turkey and the UAE such as the management of ports of the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan) as well as Libya and Tunisia. Given the extreme volatility of the imperialist kaleidoscope, this suggests more shifting alliances in the future with deals being struck to suit the tactical interests of the moment, a scenario Turkey has always been entirely comfortable with.

Ankara's military intervention in the umpteenth Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan can be seen in the same light. While Russia immediately defended Armenia by proposing a negotiated solution, Turkey has funded the Azerbaijan assault, again with Qatari money, whilst providing Turkish "experts" to work alongside Azerbaijani troops. Whilst Moscow has intervened diplomatically in an attempt to strengthen relations with one of "its" former Caucasian republics, Turkey has aided and abetted a war which has the declared aim of breaking the isolation into which it has fallen. It absolutely needs to support an oil power from whose alliance it hopes to obtain an economic advantage (oil and gas at favourable prices) and to be militarily present in the Caspian Sea which, after the Persian Gulf, is the Asian basin and a trade route for Siberian oil from Russia as well as from Kazakhstan. Moreover, a Turkish presence in that basin would seriously annoy its bitter Iranian enemy which controls its southern part. Last but not least, the clash against neighbouring Armenia is yet another attempt to wipe out the Kurdish presence in the area, not to do Yerevan a favour, but to permanently eliminate it from the southern Caucasus, as a warning to the Kurdish community inside Turkey, and its PKK party, in order to destroy their “dream” of political autonomy and, above all, of the birth of a Kurdish state on Turkish soil.

To sum up, Erdoğan's imperialist hyper-activism is taking him from Syria and Libya in the Mediterranean, to the Black Sea where he is more at home, down to the Persian Gulf and up to the Caspian, in a chain of wars in search of oil, to control its trade routes through the military presence in the four sea basins linked directly or indirectly to highly profitable oil revenue and its enormous strategic value. You could say he is playing the role of a great power. But Erdoğan's Turkey, aside from its host's pathological political ambition, could not economically do it without the financial help of its ally, Qatar.

Ankara’s Economic Disaster

One of Erdoğan's main political aims is to regain the support of a part of the electorate which turned its back on him in the last elections (3 March 2019). On that occasion, Erdoğan lost control of the most important cities in Turkey, to the few democratic parties tolerated in Erdoğan's monochromatic constitutional structure. He even approached Abdullah Oçalan for an attempted truce with his party (PKK). Despite this, he even lost in Istanbul, where he began his political career as mayor. He was also defeated in the capital Ankara, in Izmir and Antalya. Only the most backward and bigoted part of his old electorate, scattered in the countryside where the most obtuse Sunni fundamentalism rules, remained attached to him. In anticipation of the upcoming elections – which he cannot afford the luxury of losing if he wants to avoid political oblivion – he has turned to imperialist aggression, in an attempt to use nationalist issues (revanchism against Greece, military mobilisation in the four corners of the region as a symbol of Turkish power, etc.) to recover some of his lost domestic credibility, which even includes some in his own powerful party organisation. He has thus allied himself with the more conservative religious parties to relaunch the slogan that "Sunnism is Turkish" and that he is its undisputed leader.

But there is also an internal enemy called the economic crisis. This has led to a substantial part of the urban bourgeoisie, the middle classes and a part of the working class itself to distance themselves from him. Thus his re-election will be difficult even without an economy devastated by the pandemic and by the lack of capital needed for the productive investment needed to reverse national economic decline. One more reason to kick sand in the face of the democratic opposition and, also a proletariat which is quiet today but could raise its head at any moment.

Erdoğan hopes that the smokescreen of Sunni superiority, his imperialist agitation in search of oil, and the exaggerated nationalism that pervades his every move, can act as a panacea for all internal ills, including the economic. However, things are not going the demagogue’s way, but are turning against him, at least in economic terms.

In 2018 the Turkish economy had just emerged from a very deep currency crisis which literally brought the entire credit system to its knees. This has now mixed with the current crisis induced by the pandemic, highlighting the long term weaknesses of an economy without raw materials, advanced technology, or an industrial infrastructure worthy of the name whilst supporting the exorbitant expenses for its military.

Statistically the crisis is merciless and is directly proportional to the frantic search of Ankara for an imperialist solution to its internal economic and political woes.

In August 2020, inflation rose to 11.3%. In the same month a year earlier it was already 8.6%. This made its few exports even less competitive, reducing them by 11%. Furthermore, double-digit inflation slowed domestic consumption, especially of basic necessities — food, clothing, etc. — by 6%, weighing mainly on the weakest social categories, such as office workers, industrial workers and pensioners.

Unemployment is expected to reach 17% by the end of the current year. There are no official forecasts for 2021 (the government is silent) but everything points to a drastic increase.

The Turkish lira collapsed by 30% against the dollar, which should, at least in part, have favoured exports. Instead, as we have seen, they fell by 11% and imports of basic necessities increased by 7%.

According to a study by Koç University, GDP will drop from the current -5% to -17%, with the relative closure of small and medium-sized enterprises and a consequent increase in unemployment, while the public debt will climb from 31% of GDP in 2019 to 40.5% by the end of 2020. Small compared to other capitalist countries, but too high a jump and dangerous for such a fragile economy.

The government plans to deal with this through severe monetary tightening against inflation which will probably have the main effect of raising interest rates thus making investments more difficult, with all the likely repercussions for the shaky economy.

In the wake of the 2018 currency crisis, which has never been resolved but only magnified by the current pandemic crisis, there are $22 billion in the form of loans received but that have become bad debts in Turkish banks, corresponding to billions of equally bad corporate loans, due to bankruptcies or negative balance sheets, which suggest the establishment of a Turkish Bad Bank would give a breath of fresh air to the entire credit system. In addition, there would be $169 billion to be returned to the “munificent” Qatar, with a lot of interest to pay. Note: the Minister of the Treasury, or the head of Turkish finances, is Albayrak, Erdoğan's son-in-law, from whom he takes orders without question, otherwise the career of “Homo economicus” and perhaps the husband of the boss's daughter would end.(6)

Foreign debt has risen to $172 billion on top of the $169 billion that Turkey owes Qatar. A figure destined to rise given the fundamentals of the Turkish economy and its need to raise capital from abroad in order not to sink completely into the darkest abyss of the recession. Tourism has lost $34.5 billion (2019) and by the end of 2020, tens of billions more in lost revenue will have to be added.

Foreign exchange reserves have shrunk to $25 billion from $75 billion before the 2018 currency crisis and the flight of foreign and domestic capital has become an irrepressible haemorrhage, annihilating both the entire real and financial economy and pushing the little capital which remains onto the road to speculation which, in its turn, will only make things worse.

This hunger for capital is giving Erdoğan and his finance minister, Albayrak, sleepless nights. The spasmodic search for loans to patch up state finances, to settle the foreign and public debt has had limited success so far. Refusing to use the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Erdoğan turned primarily to the United States. So far Trump has given no sign of responding to this unreliable ally who, despite being a member of NATO and therefore an ally of the United States, has taken such tortuous and contradictory paths such as to make a face-saving loan in hard currency from the USA unlikely (though not impossible). Erdoğan then turned to China, which obviously responded positively (the size of the loan is not known). Both states are hoping that Turkey could become one of the nodal points of the "Silk Road", with economic and strategic advantages for both Beijing and Ankara. Without it Turkey lacks the necessary liquidity to close the yawning gaps in its economy and continue to fuel its dreams of greatness in the Mediterranean and, as we saw earlier, beyond. For Chinese imperialism, the loan is a kind of insurance for its ambitious economic and strategic project.

But it's not enough. Erdoğan thus also turned as usual to Al Thani (Qatar) who, for the reasons we have seen previously, not only did not press for the repayment of the previous $169 billion loan, but also granted $15 billion more. Oil revenue makes even the smallest imperialism great.

In conclusion, for the man who aspires to restore the Ottoman Empire, on the basis of objectives we have described, the frantic search for capital is the necessary condition to try to achieve this by means of force, as well as inter-imperialist agreements, and contradictory alliances of convenience. A high-risk game. At a time of crisis like this, it is like taking a plough across a field strewn with mines. Turkey’s military presence in Syria alongside Islamists of various kinds; the agreement with Russia for the sharing of Libyan oil; the threat of aggression against Cyprus and Greece; the commercial and military clashes with the Emirates for political supremacy in Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan; military intervention in the Nagorno Karabakh war in support of Azerbaijan and against Russia-backed Armenia. These are the facts that make Erdoğan's ambitious gambling dangerous.

Rejected by Europe, its military agreement with Israel broken, at loggerheads with NATO “allies”, pressured by upcoming presidential elections and a disastrous internal economic situation, all Erdoğan can do is look for oil and gas in the Mediterranean, claiming to lead the Sunni Muslim world and playing the card of frontal confrontation anywhere and with almost anyone, even at the cost of losing the game.

Domestic Opposition with Little Class Response

Repression has been a constant throughout Erdoğan’s Presidency. However, it is getting worse, thanks to two different situations which have the same consequences for his opponents. The first crackdown took place after the failed coup in 2016. On that occasion, the "institutional emergency" made it possible to make a clean sweep of the opposition parties and those linked to the Kurdish population leading to thousands of arrests and a few hundred dead.

The second started with the coronavirus crisis and is ongoing. Erdoğan transformed the "state of emergency" into open repression against all political elements that, to some extent, challenged his management of the crisis and the repression he had already imposed on the Turkish population. Journalists not aligned with the regime, lawyers, political dissidents, not necessarily Kurds, and intellectuals of the bourgeois left are most likely to fall under the repressive axe. Erdoğan, and his AKP party, have monopolised the policy of health management and aid to the less well-off. These are the policy areas on which he has focused for the next election, to the point of not allowing any criticism of his work as it is detrimental to his aim of staying in power.

Despite that, a survey from the University of Istanbul revealed a desperate picture of the less well-off classes: 52% of the inhabitants find it difficult to buy basic necessities, including food. 68% are unable to pay taxes and gas, water and electricity bills. 42% have at least one unemployed person in their family. To this must be added, as we have already reported, the increase in unemployment to 17% and a reduced purchasing power of wages and salaries by about 25%. Moreover, on May 1 this year a small group who broke the ban on demonstrations were dispersed by riot police, and some union representatives were gaoled. On 15 May, four elected mayors were dismissed under the false accusation of terrorism. On 22 May, a large police operation in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir arrested numerous political activists. On 4 June, three opposition parliamentarians were first suspended and then arrested, Enis Berberoğlu (CHP), Musa Farisoğulları and Leyla Güven (HDP — the legal Kurdish Party), the latter militant already detained in 2018 due to a long protest to induce the police and judiciary to end the solitary confinement of Abdullah Öçalan. Other opposition representatives belonging to the HDP, such as Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş, find themselves in prison without trial. In the Kurdish-majority region of eastern Turkey the arrests of local HDP politicians are numbered in the thousands. On 4 June, a small group of demonstrators on the Bosphorus, on their way to the US embassy to denounce police violence, were violently dispersed and 29 of them arrested.

On the other hand, on 7 April, Erdoğan passed a resolution in parliament which released 90,000 prisoners, including many mafiosi and common criminals, due to Covid. However, none of the regime’s political opponents, such as the mayors linked to the HDP, journalists, workers and trade unionists were able to take advantage of that amnesty.

On the ground the working class response is minimal. The Turkish and Kurdish proletariat are, for the moment, under the heavy heel of their respective bourgeoisies. The Turkish workers are partly taken in by Erdoğan's imperialist aspirations and great power pretensions. The democratic and conservative bourgeoisie, even if it declares itself to be “the left”, only acts to defend “civil rights” and "sacred" democratic values. The Kurdish workers are chained to the nationalist hope of a political-administrative autonomy which in this historical phase of absolute imperialist domination is utopian. At most, such aspirations (see the birth of Iraqi Kurdistan under Massoud Barzani) are the convenient "realisation" of a nationalism in feud with the imperialism that invented it (in this case American) solely as a function of its own strategic and economic interests. It is a sort of vassal country whose formal independence is strictly tied to the interests of the imperialism that sponsored it.

The Turkish and Kurdish proletariat should ditch the flags of their respective bourgeoisies and set out on the road towards their own independent class struggle, opposed to the interests of all class enemies. Although small but significant episodes of the struggle against Erdoğan's dictatorship have occurred, by simply fighting repression in the name of "recoverable" democratic freedoms, they still remain completely within the capitalist framework, and don’t get near the real objectives of the masses who are exploited by the perverse mechanisms of capitalist production and swindled on an ideological level.

The proletarian masses, once set in motion by the wounds inflicted by the economic crisis and the harassment of a repressive regime, must not limit themselves to invoking democracy as their goal. A democratic regime is just another version of the management of the capital-wage labour relationship in disguise. In a period of deep economic crisis and social upheaval involving proletarians all over the world, there can be no real economic improvement nor a more democratic form of capitalism. In opposition to them we need to build an alternative society in which production is not for profit, not for the interests of capital, but for the needs of society as a whole. A society in which the producers themselves decide how much to produce, what to produce and at what social and environmental costs to produce. Then, and only then, will it be possible to redistribute the wealth we produce without economic crises and without the wars necessary for capital to recreate, with devastating destruction, the conditions for a new cycle of accumulation, the essential purpose of its existence.

But achieving this social organisation demands a revolutionary break with bourgeois schemes and institutions, as well as their perverse political dynamics, in order to completely sever the unfair relationship between capital and labour. The international proletarian masses have to organise themselves into their own party, outside and against any form of bourgeois conditioning. Its political programme is communism and not a bourgeois-democratic version of capitalism or, worse, a state capitalism of Stalinist memory, disguised as communism.


25 October 2020

(1) See the coverage of the war in Syria on our website: leftcom.org

(2) Nagorno-Karabakh War: For Workers the Real Enemy Lies at Home

(3) The New Imperialist Alignments in Libya

(4) The Turkish Invasion of Syria

(5) China: Long Held US Fears Becoming Reality?

(6) As we were preparing to post this article Albayrak announced his resignation as Finance Minister yesterday after the central bank governor Murat Uysal was abruptly sacked by Erdoğan on Saturday 7 November. ft.com

Monday, November 9, 2020