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Point of view: why Turkey is flexing its muscles abroad



By Gonul Tol
Center of Turkish Studies, MEI

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  • Syrian civil war

A photo taken by the Turkish province of Hatay shows that children greet soldiers with Turkish flags as the Turkish military convoy consisting of around 300 armored personnel vehicles is on its way to observation points in Idlib, Syria, on February 8, 2020 in Hatay, Turkey

copyright of the imageGetty Images

image captionIn recent years, Turkey has launched three forays into Syria and has increasingly engaged abroad

Immediately after a protracted conflict in the South Caucasus erupted into open war late last month, Turkey came to the aid of its Turkish allies in Azerbaijan. It provided weapons and, presumably, fighters transferred from Syria, although this was denied in Ankara.

Unlike most outside powers calling for an immediate ceasefire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to keep fighting.

The Caucasus is only the latest venture for a beefier Turkey, whose military engagements have extended from Syria across the Mediterranean.

Where was Turkey involved?

In recent years, Turkey has:

  • launched three military forays into Syria
  • sent military supplies and fighters to Libya
  • deployed its navy in the eastern Mediterranean to enforce its claims in the region
  • expanded its military operations against the Kurdish PKK rebels in northern Iraq
  • sent military reinforcements to the last province of Idlib, controlled by rebels in Syria
  • he recently threatened a new military operation in northern Syria to tackle “terrorist armed groups”.

Turkey also has a military presence in Qatar, Somalia and Afghanistan and maintains peacekeeping troops in the Balkans. Its global military footprint is the largest since the Ottoman Empire.

  • Because the explosion of the Caucasus risks a wider war

  • The Karabakh war leaves civilians shocked and embittered

What’s behind Turkey’s new foreign policy?

Turkey’s dependence on hard power to secure its interests is the cornerstone of its new foreign policy doctrine, which has been in the making since 2015.

The new doctrine is deeply suspicious of multilateralism and urges Turkey to act unilaterally when necessary.

It is anti-Western. He believes that the West is in decline and that Turkey should cultivate closer ties with countries like Russia and China.

copyright of the imageReuters
image captionPresident Erdogan has been outspoken on Turkish drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean

It is anti-imperialist. It challenges the Western-dominated order of World War II and calls for a review of international institutions such as the United Nations, to give a voice to nations other than Western countries.

The new foreign policy doctrine sees Turkey as a country surrounded by hostile actors and abandoned by its Western allies.

Therefore, it urges Turkey to pursue a proactive foreign policy based on the use of preventive military power outside its borders.

This is very different from Turkey’s previous focus on diplomacy, trade and cultural engagement in its relations with other nations. Change is a function of various national and international developments.

What has changed?

The new Turkish doctrine began to take shape in 2015, when the ruling AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in over a decade due to the rise of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

To regain the majority of the ruling party, Erdogan has forged an alliance with nationalists on both the right and left.

They supported him when he resumed the fight against Kurdish rebels.

How attention has turned to the Kurds

Turkey’s conflict with the PKK – Kurdistan Workers’ Party – was largely broken after the group’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, called for a ceasefire with the Turkish state in 2013.

Despite their ideological differences, both the far right nationalist MHP and the left neo-nationalists advocate a heavy-handed approach to the Kurdish problem. They also prioritize national security at home and abroad and espouse strong anti-Western views.

copyright of the imageReuters

With their support, Erdogan also changed the country’s parliamentary system to a presidential one, granting him extensive powers.

This alliance with nationalists and the consolidation of its power has become the key driving factor behind Turkey’s unilateralist, militarist and assertive foreign policy.

The failed coup of 2016 played a key role in this process.

How the coup has changed the narrative

According to President Erdogan, the failed coup was orchestrated by former ally Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric in self-exile in Pennsylvania, and did several things to pave the way for Turkey’s militarist foreign policy.

He strengthened Erdogan’s alliance with the nationalists.

Its radical purge of civil servants suspected of having links with the Gulen movement has resulted in some 60,000 people being fired, jailed or suspended by the military, the judiciary and some other state institutions.

copyright of the imageEPA
image captionThe failed coup ended up strengthening President Erdogan’s position and his alliance with the nationalists

The void left by the purges has been filled by Erdogan’s loyalists and nationalist supporters.

The failed coup also reinforced the nationalist coalition’s narrative that Turkey was besieged by internal and foreign enemies and that the West was part of the problem. That justified unilateral action, supported by a preventive deployment of hard power beyond the borders of Turkey.

How the approach in Syria has changed

The Assad regime’s decision to give a free hand to the Syrian Kurds in the north led to an autonomous Kurdish zone along the border with Turkey and in 2014 the United States decided to throw weapons at Kurdish militants, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey . All of this fueled the narrative that Turkey should have acted alone and deploy military forces to protect its borders.

The failed coup also paved the way for the consolidation of power in Erdogan’s hands.

Through the purges he emptied institutions, sidelined key foreign policy actors such as the foreign ministry, and emasculated the military, who had held back his earlier calls to launch military operations in neighboring countries.

Before the coup attempt, he had signaled his intention to launch a military operation in Syria to stem the “terrorist threat” emanating from the Kurdish militias there. But the Turkish army, which traditionally had been very cautious about deploying troops outside Turkish borders, was against it.

copyright of the imageEPA

A few months after the coup attempt, President Erdogan granted his wish. Turkey launched its first military operation in Syria to curb Kurdish influence in the north in 2016 and two more raids thereafter.

The move was applauded by the president’s nationalist allies, who fear an independent Kurdish state built with US help along its border. To curb Kurdish influence and counterbalance the US presence in Syria, it worked with Russia.

How Turkey shifted focus to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean

Libya has become another theater of hard-power tactics.

In January, Turkey stepped up military support to the Libyan government of UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj to stop an offensive by allied forces of General Khalifa Haftar.

multimedia captionBBC Africa Eye investigates secret arms shipments to Libya.

Turkey’s main objective in Libya was to secure the support of the Serraj government in an important issue for Erdogan’s nationalist allies: the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has been at loggerheads with Greece and Cyprus over energy drilling rights off the coast of the divided island of Cyprus and the area’s maritime borders.

Ankara signed a maritime border agreement with Serraj in November in exchange for military support to the Tripoli government.

Erdogan’s goal was to redraw the maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean which, in his view, offered disproportionate advantages to Turkey’s bitter enemies: Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.

Meanwhile, Turkey has sent warships to escort its drill ships to the eastern Mediterranean, risking a military confrontation with NATO partner Greece.

It was a success?

Turkey’s assertive policy in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean has not produced the results hoped for by President Erdogan’s ruling coalition.

Turkey has failed to fully liberate the Kurdish militia forces from the border with Syria. Neither Ankara’s maritime agreement with Libya nor its actions in the eastern Mediterranean have changed the anti-Turkey status quo in the region.

Conversely, Turkey’s military involvement in these conflicts has reinforced anti-Erdogan sentiment in the West and united a diverse group of actors in their resolution to oppose Turkish unilateralism, ultimately forcing Turkey’s leader to back down.

copyright of the imageEPA
image captionThe Turks took to the streets in support of Azerbaijan during the Karabakh conflict

A similar fate awaits Turkey’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is already seeing the emergence of a more vigorous Russian response and a Western-Russian front against Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan.

And then?

But Erdogan’s nationalist allies want him to keep fighting. A prominent neo-nationalist, retired Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci, argued that Greece wanted to invade western Turkey and urged Erdogan not to sit down with Athens to negotiate.

And the president has no choice but to listen to him. As it loses ground in opinion polls, nationalist power over its domestic and foreign policies is only increasing.

Gonul Tol is director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC

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