Turkish Corridors Are a Tool of Imperialism; It’s Time to Turn the Tables

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Published originally under the title “Corridors Are a Tool of Turkish Imperialism; It’s Time to Turn the Tables.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made no secret of his desire to revise Turkey’s century-old borders. He has made claims to portions of Bulgaria, Greece, and Cyprus, and Turkish troops occupy portions of Cyprus, Syria, and Iraq. Turkish Special Forces, meanwhile, assist their Azerbaijani counterparts who now occupy several dozen square miles in Armenia proper.

If China salami-slices to further its imperialism and Russia carves out proxy states among its neighbors, then Turkey’s strategy appears to leverage demands for corridors as a means to advance its imperial interests.

Consider Turkey’s actions in northern Iraq. After weeks foreshadowing military action, Turkey has begun a concerted bombing and occupation campaign to eliminate the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Turkey’s hatred toward Kurds in general and the PKK in particular is no secret. When his own proxies cannot win at the ballot box, Erdoğan accuses victorious Kurdish politicians of sympathy to the PKK to justify replacing opponents with his own supporters. Erdoğan understands, though, that naked racism is a bad look and so he sells aggression in other ways to the international community.

Enter the economic corridor. Turkey justifies its military action under the guise of enabling an economic corridor from Turkey through Iraq to the Persian Gulf. The PKK might endanger trade, Turks argue, and so Turkey needs to eliminate them, never mind that the corridor’s roads transits neither the territory nor villages that Turkey now bombs. Indeed, just as late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein built highways that purposely bypassed Shi’ite cities, the proposed Turkey-Iraq corridor avoids Iraqi Kurdish cities.

Ankara has also turned the demand for corridors into a potential casus belli with Armenia. Turkey and Azerbaijan say unless Armenia allows them to carve a corridoracross southern Armenia to link the two countries, they may seize the land by force. The corridor in question at a minimum would be 40 miles long, roughly the distance between Washington, DC and Baltimore.

Armenia is reluctant to accede to such demands because the Turkish corridor would bifurcate the country into more easily digestible pieces and cut it off from other trade partners. Armenians are also correct that should Turkey and Azerbaijan simply open their borders to normal trade, the need for a corridor would disappear. This simple fact underscores the cynicism with which Turkey uses the corridor demand as a mechanism for imperialism rather than an enabler of trade.

The same is also true in Cyprus. In August 2023, Turks on Cyprus attacked U.N. peacekeepers in the buffer zone that separates Cyprus from the Turkish-occupied region of the island. Turks and their apologists justified their action in Cypriot refusal to allow Turks to build a direct road to Pyla through the buffer zone, in essence creating a corridor to one of the few towns where Greek and Turkish Cypriots live together. Legally, however, neither Turkey nor their proxy government in the occupied zone had any right to do so, as the buffer zone remains sovereign Cypriot soil even if the Cypriot government agreed not to deploy its army there. Turkey knew this but calculated they could use the corridor argument to cover for yet another land grab.

The pattern to Turkish behavior is clear, even if the West seldom recognizes it because of the artificial bureaucratic divisions that pigeonhole Western diplomats and analysts. Turkish corridors are today a Trojan horse draped in the language of diplomacy and development.

Turkey, however, has an Achilles’ heel. Erdoğan is a tactically brilliant politician, but he is a fundamentally stupid man whose track record of scholarship puts him well below even the valedictorian of the summer school class. He is, in essence, a glorified street thug who failed to qualify for Turkey’s elite let alone middle range school. His sense of history rests in polemic rather than fact, and so he does not understand that revisions can work against Turkey.

The most effective diplomatic way, for example, to reject Erdoğan’s demands for the revision of the 100-year-old Lausanne Treaty that established the borders of modern Turkey was to use any revision as a means to reclaim Greek territories lost unjustly after ethnic cleansing. Erdoğan wants to void the Lausanne Treaty? Fine, then let Izmir once again become Smyrna.

The same holds true with Armenia. In the wake of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched Gen. James Harbord to report on Armenia-Ottoman relations after the Armenian Genocide with an eye toward the possibility of establishing a mandate in which the United States could be the protecting power. The result was a comprehensive report that argued, in part, that Armenia’s survival required a corridor to the sea. Harbord was correct and still is. If Turkey opens the door to corridors, then the West should swing the door open the other way. Armenia needs a corridor to survive. Trabzon (Trebizond) was historically Armenia and represents a logical choice for a corridor terminus.

As Erdoğan embraces corridors, it is time for the West to assert its own to right historical wrongs. Erdoğan opened the door; the United States and France should walk through it.

*Michael Rubin is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.