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Perspective: Why Turkey is stretching its muscles abroad

From Gonul Tol
Center for Turkish Studies, MEI

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A photo taken by the Turkish province of Hatay shows children greeting soldiers with Turkish flags during a Turkish military convoy of approximately 300 armored personnel carriers on their way to the observation posts in Idlib, Syria, on February 8, 2020 in Hatay, Turkey

image copyrightGetty images

caption of the imageIn recent years, Turkey has launched three invasions of Syria and is increasingly engaged abroad

Immediately after a long-running conflict in the South Caucasus erupted in open warfare late last month, Turkey came to the aid of its Turkic allies in Azerbaijan. He delivered weapons and allegedly fighters transferred from Syria, although this was denied in Ankara.

Unlike most foreign forces, which called for an immediate ceasefire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to continue fighting.

The Caucasus is just the latest venture for a more muscular Turkey, whose military commitments extend from Syria across the Mediterranean.

Where has Turkey joined?

In the last few years, Turkey has:

  • began three military invasions in Syria
  • sends military supplies and fighters to Libya
  • deployed its fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean to assert its claims in the region
  • expand military operations against PKK Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq
  • sent military reinforcements to the last rebel-held province of Idlib
  • recently threatened a new military operation in northern Syria to counter “terrorist armed groups”.

Turkey also has a military presence in Qatar, Somalia and Afghanistan and maintains peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. Its global military footprint is the most extensive since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

  • Why the outbreak of the Caucasus risks a wider war

  • The Karabakh war left citizens shocked and upset

What is behind Turkey’s new foreign policy?

Turkey’s reliance on a strong force to secure its interests is the cornerstone of its new foreign policy doctrine, which has been in place since 2015.

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

It is anti-Western. He believes the West is in decline and Turkey needs to develop closer ties with countries such as Russia and China.

image copyrightReuters
caption of the imagePresident Erdogan inaugurated over Turkish drilling rights in Eastern Mediterranean

He is anti-imperialist. He challenged the Western-dominated order of World War II and called for a major overhaul of international institutions such as the United Nations to give a voice to countries other than Western countries.

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

He therefore urged Turkey to pursue a proactive foreign policy based on the use of preventive military power outside its borders.

This is far from Turkey’s previous focus on diplomacy, trade and cultural engagement in relations with other countries. The change is a function of several domestic and international developments.

What has changed?

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

To regain the ruling party’s majority, Mr Erdogan has formed an alliance with nationalists on both the right and the left.

They backed him as he resumed fighting Kurdish rebels.

How the focus shifted to the Kurds

Turkey’s conflict with the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, was largely halted after the group’s imprisoned 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 neo-nationalists on the left support a firm approach to the Kurdish problem. They also give priority to national security at home and abroad and uphold strong anti-Western views.

image copyrightReuters

With their support, Mr Erdogan also switched the country’s parliamentary system to a presidential one, giving him broad powers.

This alliance with the nationalists and the consolidation of his power has become the key driving force behind Turkey’s unilateral, militaristic and assertive foreign policy.

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

How the coup changed the story

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

This strengthened Mr Erdogan’s alliance with the nationalists.

Its large-scale purge of government officials suspected of links to the Gulen movement has led to the dismissal, imprisonment or removal of about 60,000 people from the armed forces and the judiciary and some other state institutions.

image copyrightEPA
caption of the imageThe failed coup ultimately strengthened the position of President Erdogan and his alliance with nationalists

The void left by the purges was filled with Erdogan’s loyalists and supporters.

The failed coup also reinforced the nationalist coalition’s account that Turkey was besieged by domestic and foreign enemies and that the West was part of the problem. This justified unilateral action, supported by the precautionary deployment of a strong force outside Turkey’s borders.

How the approach has changed in Syria

The Assad regime’s decision to give a free hand to Syrian Kurds in the north led to an autonomous Kurdish zone along Turkey’s border, and in 2014 the United States decided to drop weapons on Kurdish fighters considered by Turkey to be a terrorist organization. All of this fuels the story that Turkey must act alone and deploy military forces to protect its borders.

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

Through purges, he carved out institutions, removed key foreign policy players such as the foreign ministry, and discouraged the military, which had put an end to his previous calls for military operations in neighboring countries.

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

image copyrightEPA

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

The move was applauded by the president’s nationalist allies, who fear an independent Kurdish state built with US aid along its border. To limit Kurdish influence and compensate for the American presence in Syria, he is working with Russia.

How Turkey shifted its focus to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean

Libya has become another theater for hard power tactics.

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

media captionThe BBC Africa Eye is investigating secret arms shipments to Libya.

Turkey’s main goal in Libya was to secure the support of the Seraj government on an issue important to Mr Erdogan’s nationalist allies: the Eastern Mediterranean.

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

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

Mr Erdogan’s aim was to redraw the maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean, which he said provided a disproportionate advantage to Turkey’s enemies, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.

Turkey, meanwhile, has sent warships to accompany its drilling vessels to the eastern Mediterranean, risking a military confrontation with NATO partner Greece.

Is it a success?

Turkey’s persistent policy in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean has not yielded the results that President Erdogan’s ruling coalition had hoped for.

Turkey has not been able to completely free Kurdish militia forces from its border with Syria. Neither Ankara’s maritime agreement with Libya nor its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean have changed the anti-Turkish status quo in the region.

On the contrary, Turkey’s military involvement in these conflicts solidified anti-Erdogan sentiments in the West and united a diverse group of actors in their determination to oppose Turkish one-sidedness, eventually forcing the Turkish leader to back down.

image copyrightEPA
caption of the imageTurks 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 witnessing the emergence of a stronger Russian response and a Russian-Western front against Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan.

What next?

But Mr Erdogan’s nationalist allies want him to continue fighting. A prominent neo-nationalist, retired Rear Admiral Chihat Yaychi, said Greece wanted to invade western Turkey and urged Mr Erdogan never to sit down with Athens for talks.

And the president has little choice but to listen to him. As he loses his position in sociological research, the nationalist intensifies his domestic and foreign policy only increases.

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

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