Against the backdrop of a dangerously expansionist and aggressive mood in Turkey with nationalist euphoria and religious zealotry reaching a new peak, the Islamist regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is planning to build an independent army to counter what it sees as an intervention by the West in general and the NATO alliance in particular.
That is what Erdoğan’s chief aide, Yiğit Bulut, told the audience in TV commentary aired on government broadcasting network TRT on Feb. 13, 2018. “In my opinion, the Aegean Army must be fortified with Russian and Chinese-made fighter jets because one day some NATO countries [read the United States] that provided arms worth $3 billion to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] may very well consider attacking Turkey,” he said, stressing that a non-Western air force fleet would come in handy. He also claimed that one of the reasons Turkey has purchased Russian S-400 long-range missile batteries [at least on paper as of now] is attributed to such a contingency.
The Aegean Army was established in July 1975 with its headquarters in western Izmir province as a separate force of the Turkish army in response to political and military tensions with neighboring Greece. But its roots go back to the 1960s, when Turkey, as a guarantor state, started contemplating a military incursion in Cyprus to defend the rights of ethnic Turks. The Turkish military units stationed in the northern part of Cyprus, officially called the Turkish Peace Force Command and estimated to be close to 30,000 troops, is part of the Aegean Army. The army’s jurisdiction covers the entire west coast of Turkey.
If Erdoğan is keen on building a new army on the model of the Aegean, which is detached from the NATO alliance, then Bulut’s suggestion is certainly one way to go. Given the track record of Bulut’s access to decision-making circles at the highest policy level, one cannot risk brushing aside these explosive revelations on state-run TV. Unlike many pundits who see this man as a flamboyant, self-aggrandizing advisor who Erdoğan uses as an attack dog with scandalous, off-the-cuff remarks, I view him as a man who has actually helped shape policies coming out of Erdoğan’s office. He is among the select advisors who sit in on high-level meetings Erdoğan has with foreign delegations. His ideas such as a sovereign wealth fund and reshuffling the Treasury and the central bank have all subsequently been materialized.
What is more, Bulut represents the personification of the alliance and de-facto coalition between Turkish Islamists in the government and neo-nationalists led by Doğu Perinçek, who actually leads the parallel structure nested in the bureaucracy, judiciary and security forces. In other words, Bulut, a protégé of neo-nationalist ideologue Yalçın Küçük, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2012 only to be released with Erdoğan’s intervention a year later, has been planted in Erdoğan’s office, among other figures, to drive the policy of disengaging Turkey from the Western alliance. Bulut and his associates have been pushing pro-Russian and pro-Iranian policies in the governance of Turkey.
Over the years the Aegean Army has been the bastion of neo-nationalist commanders such as Çetin Doğan, Hurşit Tolon, Şükrü Sarıışık and Nusret Taşdeler, who were all tried and convicted for their roles in coup plotting schemes but were later released with the Erdoğan government stepping in and derailing the judgments. The false flag operations such as provoking Greek navy vessels and fighter jets to engage in clashes with Turkish military elements that would bring Turkey to the brink of war with Greece were cooked up by neo-nationalist generals. The espionage cases where highly classified NATO and US documents were leaked to the highest bidders originated in Izmir. Unfortunately, all these landmark cases were overturned with political interference from Erdoğan, who struck a deal with the neo-nationalists. Having read almost all the indictments in these case files and examined the evidentiary dossiers, I don’t buy the claim that these cases were based on fabricated evidence.
Erdoğan’s open threats before, during and after a visit to Greece in December 2017 should be understood in light of this new conjecture in the power-brokering deals among Erdoğan and his partners. In 2016, he opened up to debate the long-standing Lausanne Treaty, which decided the border issues of the Turkish Republic in the post-World War I era. He has increased Turkish intelligence operations targeting the Muslim and Turkish minority in Greece’s Western Thrace and in the neighboring Balkan countries. On Feb. 13, 2018 he escalated the tension to a new level by publicly issuing the threat of a military offensive against Greece similar to what the Turkish armed forces has been doing in Syria’s Afrin region since Jan. 20, 2018.
Actually, Erdoğan is sending a message to the West and to NATO allies by bullying Greece in its neighborhood while reaping the benefits of hyped-up nationalist sentiments back on the home front that will benefit him in next year’s elections. With plans to build up the Aegean Army with non-NATO assets, Erdoğan believes he will enhance his leverage and bargaining power in dealings with the West, hoping that the move will at least act as a brake on any inclinations on the part of the US and other major NATO allies to come down heavily on his tyrannical government. Whatever the motivations are and their credibility notwithstanding, neither Greece nor other allies have the luxury of accepting such a risk of a sudden and unprovoked attack by the Erdoğan regime.
Having tasted blood in Syria with proxy battles as well as direct engagement, the current Turkish government may very well be willing to take matters to the extreme. The neo-Ottomanist narrative often invoked by Erdoğan and other Turkish officials to threaten others including US troops in Syria suggests we are facing a belligerent and not so rational actor who is bent on pursuing irredentist policies in its neighborhood. Erdoğan’s chief aide Bulut’s analogy of likening Greece to a “fly” in comparison to Turkey, which he calls a “giant,” reveals how a dangerous mindset is ruling the Turkish nation.