The Brazilian Marxist Ruy Mauro Marini coined the concept of “sub-imperialism” back in the 1960s. He was trying to make sense of the dynamic of capitalist development in a society like Brazil. The country was then in the process of industrialising and expanding, but still operating within the economic, political, and military limits set by the leading global powers.
The concept of sub-imperialism applies perfectly to Turkey under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Over the past 30 years Turkey has developed into a significant industrial economy, integrated into productive networks centred on the European Union (EU).
Erdogan’s political dominance since he first became prime minister in 2003 reflects the self-assertion of a new pious Muslim capitalist class emerging from this industrial transformation. He saw the 2011 Arab revolutions as an opportunity to assert Turkish leadership.
He is now bumping up against the limits of Turkish sub-imperialism. He put plentiful resources into trying to engineer the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
This has been a complete failure. Thanks to the intervention of first Iran and then since 2015 Russia, Assad has managed more or less to regain control of Syria. The remnants of the revolutionary forces are bottled up in the north western province of Idlib.
One of the cleverest tactics used by Assad was to put pressure on Erdogan by pulling his forces out of the Kurdish areas along the border between northeastern Syria and Turkey.
The vacuum was filled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), politically linked to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which have fought for self-determination against the Turkish state for decades. Under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Front, the YPG became a key ally of the United States in the campaign to defeat Isis in Syria.
But the collapse of Isis strengthened the hand of Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers. Meanwhile, Erdogan wanted to stop the consolidation of Kurdish autonomous areas in his border. Rather than risk conflict with Turkey, Donald Trump last autumn pulled US forces out of the Kurdish areas, leaving the YPG at the mercy of invading Turkish troops.
Erdogan faces a difficult military task in Syria. He wants to contain or destroy the YPG, but his troops are also trying to prop up the surviving rebels in Idlib. Assad, with the backing of Russian air power and technical assistance, has been mounting a devastating and indiscriminate bombardment of an area packed with refugees as well as fighters.
This is taking Turkey dangerously close to confrontation with Russia. Last week 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib by an airstrike that Erdogan is blaming on Assad but in which Russia was almost certainly involved.
Turkish sub-imperialism is suffering from overstretch. Erdogan recently sent troops to Libya to prop up the nominal government that controls little more than the capital, Tripoli.
Russia is on the other side in Libya as well, backing the forces of general Khalifa Haftar, which are advancing on Tripoli. Erdogan signed a deal with the Tripoli government that gives him right of access to energy-rich Mediterranean waters. He is quarrelling over them with a yet another bloc of states—Greece, southern Cyprus, and Israel.
No wonder Erdogan is looking westwards for help. As the Stratfor intelligence website puts it, “What Ankara really needs is a clear and consistent signal from its major allies strong enough that it convinces Russia to push for de-escalation in Idlib sooner rather than later.”
Erdogan drew close to Russia in order to give him leverage against the Western powers. To US fury he bought the Russian S-400 air defence system. But now, squeezed in Syria, he is pleading for US help—for example, Patriot missiles to contain Russian air power in Idlib. He’s also trying to pressure the EU by allowing refugees and migrants to cross into Europe from Turkey.
It’s hard to feel any sympathy for Erdogan now that he has overreached himself. The real victims are the peoples of countries such as Syria and Libya that are being torn apart by rival sub-imperialisms and by the great powers lurking behind the scenes.