A century before, West Asia was carved out of the defeated Ottoman empire. The turn of 21st century is witnessing a far more complicated wave of turmoil and instability. The political structures and regimes in the region are in fast-track of erosion, decline and debilitating state. The period witnesses the simultaneous rise, resurgence and strategic penetration of Turkey. The latter provides the model of democracy, development and stability to the region.
The region has been the historical backyard and strategic frontline for the Ottomans for centuries. Thus their historical familiarity and politico-administrative experiences give Turkey an assured edge in this region of turmoil to make new forays with definite results. The Republic of Turkey has undergone drastic transformation in its responses, ambitions and identity assertions as a democratic, prosperous and a Muslim nation with regional leadership claim and global role pursuit.
This article is aimed at a critical analysis and examination of Turkish ambition, vision and actions to understand Turkish politico-military expansion in West Asia and its implications and prospects on the following areas-
- Turkish role as a mediator in the regional issues and problems from Syria, Iran Nuclear Deal, Palestine Question, Qatar Blockade
- Accommodation with Powers like Russia and USA in the region
- Failure of Turkish pursuit of European Membership
- A Strong voice for Palestine
- Turkish Responses to the Saudi Misadventures
- Military cooperation with Qatar and Kuwait
- Davutoglu Doctrine and the pursuit of New Turkey of Vision 2023
- ‘National Vision movement’ of Necmettin Erbakan and the rise Justice and development Party (AKP)
Turkish Mediation in the regional issues
The region of West Asia and its countries since the time of their separation after World War I have not assumed autonomy of their own and are suffering from numerous challenges and complicated problems. Mediation in the disputes is the most important instrument of peace, security and stability. The end of the Cold War has not been the end of problems and disputes. Rather situations seem to be more complex and full of tension in this region of West Asia. Mediation needs political will and psychological involvement. Neutrality is essential but empathic understanding is the most important aspect where Turkey is more suitable mediator in the region. It has immediate stake as a neighbour and sufficient understanding to play an effective mediation role in the problems and disputes in the region.
In the Syrian crisis, being a stake holder Turkey used its influence and diplomatic acumen to find the diplomatic solution of this vexing issue. Turkey is the important player in the Astana peace process of the Syrian crisis. The three-way mechanism was established in early 2017 with the objective of reducing the violence, eliminating terrorist elements and boosting a political solution.
The Foreign Ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey as recently as on 22nd April, 2020 hold a teleconference meeting to maintain a fragile ceasefire between the Turkish and Syrian army in Idlib province.  It has played an important role in dealing with interests of both Russia and the USA. It has strengthened its stature as a diplomatic force and negotiator for other problems in the region like the stalemate between the USA and Iran over the Iran Nuclear deal and the blockade of Qatar by the quartet of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. Such role in the present scenario does not have an alternative of Turkey in the region.
Turkish approach towards Iran & its Nuclear Deal
In its pursuit of expansion in the region, Turkey’s stand on the major issue of the region has been increasingly vocal and clear. The Iran nuclear issue is one such issue which has regional and international implications. Turkey sounds firm in the side of diplomacy and established international mechanism and tradition to resolve the differences among the parties involved.
The Turkish official position makes it clear that US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal will set a wrong precedent for the future course of diplomacy and will promote the trend of breach the international deals in such a manner with the change governments of the signatories. The Turkish President, Tayyip Recep Erdogan has put it very unambiguously that the US withdrawal from the deal will have serious destabilising implications for the region and the world at large. In an interview with CNN in response to the question he said that “we don’t need new crisis in the region”. “States must stand by the treaties they have signed. If they don’t, all international treaties of the past could be suddenly ignored one day,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara. 
The emergence of ISIS threat appears to have created convergence of interests in Turkish and Iranian Foreign policies. Both Ankara and Tehran are interested in preserving their geopolitical position as well ae their political influence in the region and security of the energy routes which are under threat from the ISIS.  Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu said that “we have started an operation with Iran aimed at the PKK on our eastern border”.  This indicates the Turkish capacity and strategic diplomatic prowess to have joint operation with different stake-holders in the region in different fronts as per its national interests and geopolitical objectives.
Palestine and Arab-Israeli conflict
The major change in Turkish policy under AKP was towards Israel and Palestine. Turkey expanded its scope of relations with Israel by greater cooperation in the economic arena, mainly in the energy sector. It also tried to paly mediation role in the vexing Palestine issue. This growing approach received a jolt with the 2008 Gaza war. Since then Turkish-Israel relation assumed a proportion of political clash in the public domain. But the essential cooperation between the two countries and strategic ties remained unaffected. Besides the AKP government extended political ties all other actors of the dispute- the Palestinian authority and Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. This diversified approach on the part of Turkey spurred its political standing domestically and international position.
The impending West Bank annexation Plan of Israel has once again provided Turkey an opportunity to expand its influence by gaining support in the region over this very emotive issue. The Turkish President made it loudly on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr that “Turkey is the only voice defending the Palestinians today,” in a televised address. He remarked emotionally that “The world order has let down the Palestinians and has not successfully brought peace, justice, security and order to this part of the world.” He referred that “We are witnessing a new plan of occupation and annexation by Israel that threatens Palestinians sovereignty and is contrary to international law,” and made it trenchantly “We won’t allow the transfer of Palestinian land to anyone.” 
Popularity of Recep Tayyap Erdogan in the region
Erdogan has managed to gain appeal across the region by emphasizing his independent foreign policy and successful economic policy and religious stewardship while still maintaining an appearance of electoral democracy. 
Structural change and transformation of Turkish economy from a reclusive economy into a export driven economy. The Turkish economy started transformation under the leadership of Turgut Ozal which changed the location of economic centres from the traditional area Istamble and Izmir to the Anatolian hinterland led new conservative business elite. This business group is the core support base of the AKP rise and progress. This change in the economic arena found the region a better and profitable market comparatively.  Diversification of economic engagement and political relations in the region has been the core of Ozalean restructuring in the region. AKP’s victory in 2002 and its ambition are to transform Turkey into strong regional power with international clout and stature to shape the region into a stable backyard for its economic needs and political power. The policy of ‘Zero Problem’ with neighbours has been its primary concern for its domestic requirement and stability in the region.
Turkish Disillusionment with its European Union ambitions
Since the time it signed an ‘association agreement’ with the European Economic Community in 1963, Turkey has been working continuously and progressively towards joining the European Union. Its formal application for full membership in 1987 led to EU’s acceptance of Turkey as a candidate for membership in 1999. All the successive government in Turkey worked towards requite political, constitutional and legal reforms like abolition of death penalty, freedom of press and civil society and progressive grant voice and say to the minorities in the media and promotion of their language and culture.
After the elections in 2002, even the AKP also pursued the path towards accession to the European Union. The European Union in 2004 said that Turkey had done enough to satisfy the Copenhagen criteria for accession and decided to initiate the negotiation process for membership. But soon situation turned reverse when the EU decided to impose sanctions on Turkey due to the Cyprus dispute and the Republic of Cyprus was accepted as EU member. Since then Cyprus has become a ‘single issue member-state’, using its seat at the Brussels table to gain advantages vis-à-vis Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot part of the island. 
The turn of the century has witnessed a new stream on turmoil and instability in the region of West Asia. The invasion of Iraq and destruction of its military power and political leadership in the region has created a vacuum, which has provided space to expansion of Turkish influence. The Arab Spring and its concomitant state of flux in the region have made the Turkish pursuit in the region timely and with minimal résistance. No country in the region can match Turkey in handling the interests of the Western powers and Russia. The Syrian Crisis has thrown up new challenges as well as opportunity for Turkey. The crisis, however, has spurred the image of Turkey as a reckonable power, a strong regional actor for mediation and sustainable solution. Its influence can be estimated with its capacity of dealing with both US and Russia on the high table of diplomacy.
The issue of Kurds and their training by the US in Syria to fight against the ISIS in the country has been a matter of great concern as the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Force (YPG) has contact with the Turkish Kurd group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) which Turkey considers as a terrorist organization. There is another cause of consternation for Turkey as there are credible information that the PKK fighters will join the Syrian regime forces along with Iran and Russia to retake Adlib. Turkey is actively dealing with all the factors and actors in the crisis to protect its national interest and expanding its role in deciding the future course and solution of the crisis.
NATO Turkey and its Relations with Russia
‘Ever since our NATO membership in 1952, the North Atlantic Alliance has played a central role in Turkey’s security and contributed to its integration with Euro-Atlantic community. Turkey, in return, has assumed its responsibilities in defending the values of the alliance’, says the site of Turkey. 
Turkey is an ardent advocate of the strategic partnership of NATO and EU. It views this partnership as mutually reinforcing to deal with the threats and maintain security and stability. Turkey also supports the cooperation between NATO and Russia for a genuine peace in the Euro-Atlantic region. The centuries old fear of Russian invasion and annexation of Dardanelles has finally been over after the collapse of the USSR in 1990. It has been effectively over with the growing cooperation with Russia in the post-2016 shooting of Russian fighter jet. The recent cooperation of the two powers in the Iran nuclear deal and Astana process, an essential step to help resolve the blazing conflicts in Syria and beyond in the region.
Turkish Regional Ambitions and Adjustment with US
These Turkish views are based on its EU membership perspective which seems to out of the sight now. The conflict-ridden Syria in particular and West Asia at large in its backyard have played an important role in changing the strategic thinking of Turkish government. Its recent spat on arrest of the US pastor, extradition of Mohammed Gulen and purchase of S-400 from Russia are the sufficient pointer to the growing Turkish autonomy from its NATO values and commitment. In the very recent exchanges over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles, President Erdogan has made it very clear that Turkey is determined without heeding to the pressure from any quarter and subsequently plan to buy the Russian S-500 as well.
It was further added that Turkey was open to the purchase of US Patriot missile defence system but it was unhealthy and wrong on the part of United States to discipline Turkey through measures responding to the intent of the US to end Turkey’s preferential trade treatment. These steps are the obvious expression of Turkish transformation from an US client state to the assertion of a regional power with greater ambition in the region and beyond. When Russia began delivering the component of S-400 to Turkey in July, 2019 the United States responded with the announcement that Turkey would not receive the planned purchase of F-35 joint Strike Fighter aircraft and no longer be part of manufacturing its components.  This surely manifests its new trend of strategic autonomy and Middle power tactics with regional ambition as well as global importance.
Blockade of Qatar and Turkish Responses
The Qatar blockade by the quartet of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE has provided the opportunity Turkey was looking for long. It has led to the willing cooperation of Qatar for close relation with Turkey which resulted in the first Turkish overseas military base in the country with the motto of peace and stability in the region. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Causoglu, in his address to the students in the Qatar referred Qatar as second home, and therefore the security and stability of Qatar was like the security and stability of Turkey. The joint Turkish-Qatari military base represents Doha’s strategy of diversifying its defense partners for raising the stakes of influential countries in a stable and prosperous Qatar. 
Only two days later on 7th June, 2017, the Turkish Parliament has ratified two agreements between the two countries agreed earlier for the deployment Turkish troops in Qatar and military training cooperation. The relation has been consolidated by the exchange of visits at the highest level and the Qatari investment in Turkey exceeds 20 billion dollar which is soon going to be augmented. The Qatari Turkish relations are distinct and can serve as model for other countries.
The Qatar base of Turkey is a long-term strategic move which involves deeper implications of Turkish political influence and hard military power for the Gulf and the wider region of West Asia. This Defence partnership entails rise of a new political vision and shifting of psychological bond of trust for the security and stability of the region. 
Turkey’s Cooperation with Kuwait
The relation between the two countries warmed in the year 2017 with political visits at highest levels and signing of several agreements in the areas of cooperation. In March, 2017 the Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah paid visit to Ankara and the Turkish President visited the Sheikhdom in the November. The significance lies in the fact that the letter visit came after the Qatar blockade of 5th June, 2017. The cooperation has been growing since then. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been named as the most popular President with the 64% of the Kuwaitis, as per the poll conducted by the local newspaper, Al Qabas on 10th March, 2019. The Turkish- Kuwaiti Cooperation Committee deliberation on 9th & 10th October, 2018 led to the signing of ‘Joint Defence Plan’ between the two countries which aims at enhancing military cooperation, exchanging experiences and know-how with a view to enhancing military coordination.  This is a marked success of the Turkish soft power on the way to be a credible hard power in the region.
Turkey and Its Power Projection
The turmoil in the early 20th century had led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire but the present wars and disturbances in the region of West Asia have detrimental consequences and implications for the region and Turkey in particular. This is also notable that this state of flux holds prospects of Turkish chance regaining its strength and respect in the region with wider say in the politics of the world.
Turkey is intruding into the unruly region to consolidate its strategic ambitions and seeks to establish military footholds in the Red Sea. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced during a December visit to turbulent Sudan that Khartoum had ceded the Red Sea island of Suakin and its port, Sudan’s second largest, to Turkey for 99 years. Suakin had been the Ottoman naval base and regional centre of power in the past from 1821 to 1885. This new agreement with the Sudanese government will give Turkey an added economic and geopolitical advantage in the region and regain its lost power and prestige which has pushed others in the region like UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the quandary.
In line with its strategic vision in the Red Sea, Turkey has been making consistent efforts to deepen its engagement in the Somalia. Turkey and its leadership showed deep focus for the same and led to the visit of the Turkish Prime Mnister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the strife-torn country. It was the first high profile visit by any non-African leader. Turkey has undertaken systematic effort towards aid, education and reconstruction in the country. Such humanitarian help of Turkey are taking the shape of a strong strategic engagement. The Somalian political establishment has responded very positively and the relation in the deeper current confidence, trust and cooperative engagement. The most notable result is that Turkey now its largest military base outside its territory in Somalia and its largest embassy in Mogadishu. 
Djibouti has become home to key military bases due to its strategic location on the Horn of Africa. The small country on the Red Sea hosts the largest permanent U.S. military base in Africa as well as military bases of France and China and Japan’s only foreign base. The country lies on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which is one of the busiest shipping routes. “In East Africa, the potential that we have is huge, and Turkey has great potential, as well. Building a strong partnership will benefit both sides. Today, this area is booming,” he said. In line with efforts to enhance the security of the region, the ambassador said that “possible steps from Turkey to build a military base in the country would be welcomed”. 
In his speech in 2011, then Foreign Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu has laid out four visions of the Republic. The first two visions are focused on the region of West Asia. He says, “we want to integrate with our neighbours…in 2003 we declared zero problems with our neighbours…to have a belt of stability, security, prosperity in the surrounding regions-Middle East (West Asia)”. 
The massive Turkish Naval exercise, codenamed “Mavi Vatan” (the Blue Homeland) from 27th Feb, 2019 to 8th March, 2019 was first of its kind for the country. The exercise is the expression of its ambitious power projection based on its three pillars. First is the assertion of its power in the region of West Asia and establishment forward bases to expand its national interest and influence in the region. Second is an active Turkish role in the geopolitics of energy and its competition. Third is to ensure promotion and fast-paced competitiveness of its indigenous defence industries and production to sustain its goal of power projection and global role. Thus, “the Blue Homeland is not merely an exercise codename; it is a geopolitical concept that manifests Ankara’s politico-military agenda in the coming decade”.
Turkish Hard Power Ambitions and Defence Self-reliance
Instability and threats of terror in West Asia is the biggest challenge to the Turkish power ambition in the region and beyond. In this scenario, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Turkey must be powerful politically, economically, diplomatically as well as militarily. We must increase our deterrence by improving our technology. Turkey will be a global power… the focus is on our Defence industry to achieve this aim.”
Turkey has achieved substantial success in this regard. Its defence imports have reduced from 80 percent in 2002 to 35 percent in 2018. It aims to become completely self-reliant by 2053 with an export capacity of 50 billion and at least 10 Turkish Defence industries in the top 100 companies of the world.  Turkey has gained a huge strength in its drone industries. Turkey might not be able to produce its own stealth fighter but its Anka-S drones produced by Turkish Aerospace Industries are almost analogous to the Reaper drones of the US Air Force which is the bigger variant of its iconic drones, the Predator. Thus in the contemporary military technology Turkey is set to become a drone super power of the region wielding considerable power and influence.  Turkey has been pushing hard for building a powerful defense sector. Its indigenous high altitude, long-endurance Bayraktar Akincidrones are critical asset in the Turkish Air Force. Such efficient unmanned vehicles were produced only by US and China. 
Saudi Misadventures and Turkish Surge in Leadership
Saudi Arabia is in a spree of misadventures both in the domestic arena and in the entire region which has caused extreme loss in its prestige in the region and the wider world. The invasion of Yemen caused incalculable destruction to the poorest country of the region. The Saudi military actions are always in controversy for alleged violation of war convention and human rights. The invasion has caused displacement of almost half the population of the country and destruction of its infrastructures. It has attracted international disapproval and the scepticism of the Muslim world about the Saudi intent of the invasion.
The Saudi regime’s promotion of the Crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman as a reformer and liberal face of the kingdom who will take the country to democratic rights and human rights progress. There is perceptible absence of sincere social and political reform. The powerful prince is projected in the pursuit in the diversification of the economy. The very high propaganda about the NEOM project as the leader of the future course of technology-driven modern city life has not picked up the requisite progress. These are nothing but the expression of financial extravaganza draining the wealth and prestige of the kingdom in the region and beyond.
But soon the kingdom was gripped by spree of suppression of liberal voices and any semblance of opposition. The arrest of several notables in the name corruption crackdown and the information about the alleged humiliation, torture and confiscation of their properties found wide coverage in the media all around the world. This has further nosedived the image of the kingdom attracting scathing scrutiny of the democratic forces and human right voices of the world. The detention of the Lebanese Prime Minister in Riyadh and alleged use of force to announce his resignation from the Saudi capital and physical torture exhibited the scary unruly behaviour of the kingdom and its bizarre sense of dealing with such issues of utmost diplomatic care. These are the growing of impression of diplomatic despondency and process of decline of the kingdom as leader and credible country to deal with.
The unconvincing denial and layered acceptance of the pre-mediated murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Ankara is not dying out. The defence of Saudi regime does not match with the context of the crime. The Turkish media and government are raising the curtain slowly from the mysterious murder and disappearance of the Washington Post journalists which bring the issue closer to the Saudi Crown Prince.
Fatigued US Policy of Unwillingness
The current US policy in the region reflects a growing fatigue and unwillingness of deeper engagements in the conflicts of this devastated region. It is looking for disentangling from its endless wars and conflicts like Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Its failure to resolve conflict among its GCC members (Qatar Blockade) is clear indication of its fast dwindling capacity to deal with the region’s problems. The recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel has left US alienated among the allies in the region and beyond.  The US disengagement and withdrawal from the region needs effective presence of some to fill this increasing power vacuum. The Turkish deployment of force and acquiring of bases are seen as a complementary pattern which finally may take over the bases of the US and its role. 
The US seems to be no longer carry the burden of military engagement. President Donald Trump tweet manifests it when he says that, “Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains.” He went on to add that the Turkish leader “has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”.  This statement indicates two things- first US unwillingness to remain engage in the region and second, the US is handing over the remaining task to credible regional power, Turkey and its leadership.
Davutoglu Doctrine and Turkish “Strategic Depth”
The “New Turkey” of Davutoglu is an example of a democratic, secular Muslim nation integrated into the world economy and part of the key western institutions like NATO for the region of Middle East and beyond.  Here comes the opportunity for the new Turkey with its vision and policy of ‘Zero Problem” with neighbours in the region.
The Turkish popular psyche is awakened with their historical influence in the region which has been the factor of the Turkish influence in the world. The consciousness has found resuscitation in the Davutoglu Doctrine of “Strategic Depth” of Turkish history and geography. The Doctrine provides for three principles- domestic, Middle East and Central Power (Turkey as one of the 10 Central/ Major power). The Doctrine emphasises the domestic peace and stability and engagement and cooperation in the Middle Eastern region as the factor of Turkish strength in the comity of powers at the world stage. According to this Doctrine, Turkey has “Strategic Depth”, which allows it to implement a multi-dimensional foreign policy and claim a central role in global politics. 
This approach has gained currency in the backdrop of its failure to be accommodated in its long pursuit of European Union membership. This situation has also finally undermined the Kemalist pursuit of Euro-ward and Westward and has turned Turkey eastward with vision and mission in the region. The British support to the creation of Saudi Arabia in the last century and the subsequent US strategic preference for Saudi Arabia has been the cause of loss of Turkish influence in the Islamic world which was gradually further drifted away from the Turkish psyche by the Kemalist Euro-centric secularisation sheding its Islamic culture and consciousness. The growing NATO ness of Turkish politics and security perception during the Cold War separated from its historical connection in the region.
The Dominance of Kemalism and its defender, the Turkish army slowly faced the growth of this suppressed Turkish consciousness with the ‘National Vision movement’ of Necmettin Erbakan. This domestic duel continued with the military coup and New parties (1970: National Order Party, 1971: National Salvation Party, 1983: Welfare Party, 1997: Virtue Party, 2001: Felicity Party and 2002: AKP (Justice and Development Party) with Necmettin’s ideology of National Vision. He represented an alternative path for Turkey other than Kemalism with a new vision for Turkey in its role in the world. He inspired the generations and set Turkey to the pursuit it is trying achieve with active role in the region and beyond. 
The US declaration of withdrawal from Syria with the corollary that remaining task of defeating the ISIL would be undertaken by Turkey is very significant in the Turkish pursuit in the region. It reflects its leadership in the region as well as the willing capacity to deal with the festering conflicts and crisis in the region. The failed military coup of 2016 is final blow to the Kemalist European pursuit. This manifests the popular support of the civil government and the changing content of the country with Islamic flavour of democratic process which the AK Party describes as ‘Muslim Democrat’.
Turkey possesses the geopolitical power and strategic pursuit to become a West Asian power with global influence. In the last decade, the region has been seen as contest between the two regional rivals Saudi Arabia camp and the Iran camp. But a closer perusal of the changing geopolitical situations markedly exhibits the steady and firm rise of Turkey as strong regional power in the region with sufficient linkages with the West and respectable position in such international organization as NATO. It has political maturity to use a soft power strategy with military might. Turkish deployment of force in Qatar is an astute move in consonance with its geopolitical vision for expanding its sphere of strategic influence in the region. It also played significant role in bringing Iran and Russia to its policy perspective for the region at large and for the Syrian crisis in particular. Being unsuccessful in fulfilling its European Union membership so far, Turkey is on the path to reclaim its leadership of the Muslim world, which find regular mention in the speeches and expressions of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Turkey only can lead the Muslim world. “This is the direct rejection of the implicit claim of Saudi Arabia and the explicit claim of Iran to global Islamic leadership”. 
Turkish geostrategic position and its ambition will be spurred by its pragmatic accommodation with the Russian and Iranian interest. The pursuit would create cracks in the ranks of the Iran-opposing Sunni group and eventually Kuwait and Jordan would swing to the Turkish way rendering the Saudi Arabia too weak to contest the Turkish leadership in the region. Thus current syndrome of Turkish responses and politico- military initiatives and actions are in consonance with the Turkish ‘Strategic depth’ of the Davutoglu Doctrine and the ‘Vision 2023’ is surely a true trajectory of a regional power with global ambitions and capacity. It has assumed further significance in wake of receding US engagement and commitment from the region. The impact of Covid-19 pandemic, shifting geopolitical focus of US to Indo-pacific and the growing Turkish influence in the eastern Mediterranean are preparing a favourable ground. The new Turkey, in this backdrop, can be a credible stabilising force to this war- ravaged region of West Asia.
*Dr Khushnam P N, Independent IR and Regional Security Researcher & Analyst, Bengaluru, India
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