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Viewpoint: Why Turkey is pulling its muscles abroad

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By Gonul Tol
Center for Turkish Studies, MEI

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  • Syrian civil war

A photo taken from Turkey's Hatay province shows children greeting soldiers with Turkish flags during a Turkish military convoy of about 300 armored personnel carriers on their way to checkpoints in Idlib, Syria, on February 8, 2020 in Hatay, Turkey.

copyright to the imageGetty Images

image captionIn recent years Turkey has launched three incursions into Syria and is increasingly involved abroad

Shortly after a protracted conflict in the South Caucasus erupted into open warfare late last month, Turkey came to the aid of its Turkish allies in Azerbaijan. It has supplied weapons and, allegedly, fighters transferred from Syria, although this has been denied in Ankara.

Unlike most foreign powers calling for an immediate ceasefire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to fight further.

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

Where is Turkey included?

In recent years, Turkey has:

  • launched three military incursions into Syria
  • sent military supplies and fighters to Libya
  • deployed its fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean to assert its claims in the region
  • expanded its military operations against Kurdish PKK rebels in northern Iraq
  • sent military reinforcements to the last rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib
  • recently threatened a new military operation in northern Syria to confront “armed terrorist 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 most extensive since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

  • Why the Caucasus outbreak threatens wider war

  • The Karabakh war leaves civilians shocked and bitter

What is behind Turkey’s new foreign policy?

Turkey’s strong support to secure its interests is the foundation of its new foreign policy doctrine, which has been in place since 2015.

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

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

copyright to the imageReuters
image captionPresident Erdogan has been open about Turkish drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean

Anti-imperialist. It challenges the order prevailing from World War II and calls for an adjustment of international institutions such as the United Nations, to give 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 pre-emptive military force outside its borders.

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

What 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 majority of the ruling party, Mr. Erdogan formed an alliance with nationalists on both the right and the left.

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

How the focus shifted to the Kurds

Turkey’s conflict with the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – came to a halt after jailed group leader Abdullah Ocalan called for a ceasefire with the Turkish state in 2013.

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

copyright to the imageReuters

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 became the main driving force of Turkey’s unilateralist, militaristic and affirmative foreign policy.

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

How the coup story changed

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

He strengthened Mr. Erdogan’s alliance with the nationalists.

His sweeping purge of civil servants suspected of links to the Gulen movement led to some 60,000 people being fired, imprisoned or suspended by the armed forces and the judiciary and several other state institutions.

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

The gap left by the purges was filled by Erdogan loyalists and nationalist supporters.

The failed coup also reinforced the nationalist coalition’s narratives that Turkey was surrounded by internal and foreign enemies and that the West was part of the problem. That unilateral action justified, supported by the preliminary deployment of strong power beyond the borders of Turkey.

How access to Syria changed

The Assad regime’s decision to give a free hand to the Syrian Kurds in the north led to a Kurdish autonomous zone along the Turkish border and in 2014 the US decided to lay down arms for Kurdish militants, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey. This all fueled the confession that Turkey had to 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 ousted institutions, sidelined key actors in foreign policy-making such as the foreign ministry, and whitewashed the military, which had put a brake on his earlier calls to launch 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 military, which had traditionally been very cautious about deploying troops outside Turkey, was against it.

copyright to the imageEPA

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

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

How Turkey shifted its focus to Libya and the Mediterranean

Libya became another theater for strong power tactics.

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

media inscriptionBBC Africa Eye investigates clandestine arms shipments to Libya.

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

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

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

The purpose of Mr. Erdogan was to review the maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean which, in his view, gave disproportionate advantages to the enemies of Turkey – Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.

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

Has it been a success?

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

Turkey could not completely clear Kurdish militia forces from its border with Syria. Neither Ankara’s naval 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 sentiment in the West and united a diverse group of actors in their determination to oppose Turkish unilateralism, eventually forcing the Turkish leader to step down.

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

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

What else?

But Erdogan’s nationalist allies want him to fight further. A prominent neo-nationalist, retired Admiral Cihat Yayci, argued that Greece wanted to invade western Turkey and urged Mr Erdogan never to sit down with Athens to negotiate.

And the president has little chance but to hear it. As he loses ground in opinion polls, the nationalist rolls over his domestic and foreign policies only growing.

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

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