Turkey Deepens Imprint in Central Asia

Turkey is strategically positioning itself as the key player bridging NATO and the SCO.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, 2010
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, 2010 (UNAOC)

By adding Turkey as a partner and Afghanistan as an observer, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization pushed forward with its initiative to strengthen the regional powers’ ability to combat terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking.

Turkey has been a major factor in Central Asia’s development in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse and has expressed interest in creating even stronger ties with the region.

Turkey and Afghanistan will be an asset for Central Asia as it struggles to overcome and destroy the expansive drug trade that is undermining national institutions. By increasing aspects of cooperation, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization hopes that regional interdependence will grow and the region will be able to modernize.

Although much of its involvement in Afghanistan has been as a part of the largely Western coalition operating in the country, Turkey has taken a leadership role in many aspects of NATO operations and has stated that it will pursue independent, close political ties with Afghanistan even after the rest of the coalition packs up and heads home.

As a new SCO dialogue partner, Turkey has expressed particular concern about curtailing international terrorism in the region, as well as crimes such as human and drug trafficking.

Analysis

Turkey is strategically positioning itself as the key player bridging the SCO in the east and NATO in the west through its unique relationship to Central Asia. Partnering with the SCO marks a logical step toward Turkey’s pan-Turkic economic and strategic expansion into the region.

Turkish expansion into Central Asia is driven by geopolitical forces of Turkic identity, strategic interest and economic profitability. As Turkey geographically bridges Asia with Europe, so will it bridge the strategic blocs of NATO and the SCO in Central Asia. Moreover, as the perceived standard-bearer of Turkic ethnic identity, Ankara is uniquely positioned to play a central role in Central Asia.

This could be beneficial for both NATO and the SCO, as Turkey can facilitate productive avenues for cooperation between the two security blocs. There are, however, several regional political entities that will not be happy to see Turkey consolidate its spheres of influence across Central Asia — Armenia, the Kurds and Iran.

Since the forced expulsion and unacknowledged genocide of ethnic Armenians from Turkey in the early twentieth century, Armenia has had a bitter relationship with the Turkish government. Armenian diasporas in Western countries, as well as in Russia, have proven to wield considerable political influence in foreign policy decisions. The violence and territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is one issue that may put Turkey at odds with SCO member state Russia.

Ethnic Kurds throughout eastern Turkey, Iraq and Iran also have reason to fear a Turkish partnership with the SCO. Ankara has long refused to fully recognize Kurdish ethnic identity within its own borders and has long fought against Kurdish nationalist and terrorist groups, even going so far as to launch incursions into neighboring Iraq.

Iran is also interested in pursuing a similar strategy of expansion into Central Asia, following historical ethnic paths to make strategic inroads with ethnic Persians (i.e., Persian related speakers in Afghanistan and Tajikistan). Iran, however, is already a key partner with several SCO countries and an observer country itself.

As the only NATO member country within the SCO, Turkey could well position itself as a useful dialogue state. With no credible assurance of European Union membership and a unique NATO status, a place at the inner circle of the SCO may leave Turkey with no other choice but to become a third party broker state linking strategic blocs, if not becoming a regional power unto itself.

Wikistrat Bottom Lines

Opportunities

A linkage with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization gives Turkey unique access to a wide swath of Asia.

With Turkey, Central Asian nations can use ties of faith and nationality to find an alternative to China and Russia.

Risks

Getting involved with Central Asia and the SCO means involvment with weak regimes and powers that feel they have special priority in the region.

Overextension is always a risk even at an early stage of engagement such as this.

Dependencies

Can Turkey offer tangible benefits that will make it a welcome partner?

How will Russia and China react to a third party actively seeking influence and ties?

Ian Andrews, Michael Breen, Patrick Hall, Alexandra Manthey, Michael Moreland and Ricky Piper contributed to this analysis.