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Episode 78. Turkey's Strategic Goals in the Middle East (The Death of Kemalism?)

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Turkey is attempting to reassert itself back onto the world stage but stands at a crossroads as to which direction to extend its influence. Europe has blocked Turkey's entry into the EU for decades now and Central Asia remains a little out of reach, so should Ankara turn toward the Middle East for adventurism?

With this question in mind, we ask our experts what are Turkey's short and long-term goals in the Middle East and whether we will see Turkey once again use its geography to dominate the energy industry.


Episode Overview:

Part 1: Forsaking the Father (4:08)

  • Gönül Tol compares President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's policies to those of Turkey's founding president and political compass Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, interrogating if the present day policies are still in the spirit of Kemalism.

  • Tol dissects the critical moments in 2015 and 2016 that many analysts identify as the turning point for Erdoğan's rule, including an alliance with the National Party that has allowed Erdogan to consolidate his rule and the 2016 coup attempt.

  • We evaluate the potential for Erdoğan repairing his relationship with the Kurdish population, following his effective criminalising of Kurdish political opposition in recent years, noting that his alliance with the Nationals may be waning. We also hypothesise if the Kurds would reciprocate any reconciliation attempt.

  • Tol notes that the failed military coup of 2016 has led to a degrading of the Turkish military through the politicisation of the institution and defence industry, with key allies noting an erosion in standards and capabilities. We unpack the consequences of this development, including the declining public trust in the military.

Part 2: Contentious Comrades (27:48)

  • Rich Outzen explains the differences between Kemalism and Ataurkism, before diving into the pantomime between the EU and Turkey over membership that has been occurring for over a decade.

  • Outzen provides insight into the evolution of the Turkish military over the last decade, including their actions in Syria through Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch and and the professionalisation of the military, and asserts that the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt were reforms that have transformed the military from praetorian to a power projection military capable of asserting itself in the Middle East.

  • Our discussion turns to Turkey's concept of 'strategic depth' or Turkey's self-perceived ties to many regions including the Middle East and Africa, and their non-separation of military operations from diplomatic and economic engagement with these nations.

  • This multipolar perspective leads to some external confusion as to where Turkey wishes to be considered a part of, noting pragmatic deals with nations such as Russia, Iran, Israel, and the Gulf states. We consider Turkey's aims in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a tangible example of this.

Part 3: An Exhausted Empire (52:29)

  • Matthew Bryza notes the fractious relations between Greece and Turkey, and by extension the EU, as well as the clash with the US leading to the withdraw of Turkey from the F-35 program. These contrast with Turkish efforts to improve relations in recent years with the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

  • Bryza posits that from Ankara's perspective, Turkey plays a crucial stabilising role in the Middle East and generates significant cultural and economic investment for Turkic nations and the wider region.

  • We note that Erdoğan's monetary policies to combat inflation have not worked, eroding support domestically as the economy continues to suffer.

  • Additionally, Turkey's attempts to become a player in the energy transportation space, particularly connecting Middle Eastern gas to the Balkans and Europe, have not advanced as far as some expected to date.

Part 4: A Sharpening Shoreline (1:09:01)

  • James F Jeffrey states that the Turkish population view themselves as more European than Middle Eastern in cultural identity, and as a result Erdoğan's policies reflect this reality.

  • Jeffrey notes that while Turkey forms part of the West, its size and geographical location leave it demanding a certain amount of autonomy and independence. This is reflected in its bilateral relationships with other states in the Middle East, including through Turkey's gas developments.

  • Turkey's arms exporting has grown significantly; Jeffrey notes that this can be seen as a direct consequence of Turkey being subjected to military sanctions by the United States. This has led to significant investment in capacity building and establishing new markets.

  • We conclude by trying to interpret if these recent bold foreign adventures would continue post-Erdoğan or if these can be seen as specific to the current administration's approach.


Episode Guests:

Gönül Tol

  • Founding Director of the Middle East Institute's Turkey Program

  • Senior Fellow, Frontier Europe Initiative of the Middle East Institute

  • Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies

Rich Outzen

  • Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Turkey

  • Colonel Outzen (Ret.) is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer, including postings working in and directly with Turkey

  • Served in the US Department of State as both a military and civilian advisor, working in the Policy Planning Office and later the Office of the Special Representative for Syria

Matthew Bryza

  • Former US Diplomat, with postings including US Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, with responsibility for the South Caucasus, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and Eurasian energy

  • Former Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and the Atlantic Council in Turkey

  • Ambassador Bryza simultaneously served as the US co-chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and as US mediator of the Cyprus, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia conflicts

James F. Jeffrey

  • Chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center

  • Former US diplomat, including as United States Ambassador to Turkey (2008–2010)

  • Ambassador Jeffrey served as the Secretary’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS


The Red Line's Turkey Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of Turkey.


Erdoğan's Empire

Soner Cagaptay

Religious Politics in Turkey

Ceren Lord

The History of the Middle East

Peter Mansfield


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Phillip.



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