Perspective: Why Turkey has wrapped its muscles abroad

By Gonul Tol
Turkish Study Center, M.E.I.

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  • Syrian Civil War

In a photo taken from Turkey's Hatay province, children greet soldiers with the Turkish flag during a Turkish military convoy of about 300 armed personnel carriers, heading to an inspection point in Idlib, Syria, on February 08, 2020 in Harte, Turkey.

Image copyright pyriteGetty Images

Image CitationIn recent years, Turkey has launched three invasions in Syria and is increasingly involved abroad.

Turkey came to the aid of its Turkish allies in Azerbaijan soon after an open war broke out in the South Caucasus late last month. He has provided weapons and, allegedly, evacuated fighters from Syria, although this has been denied in Ankara.

Unlike most outside powers calling for an immediate ceasefire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to fight.

The Caucasus is the latest venture for a more muscular Turkey, whose military engagement extends from Syria to the Mediterranean.

Where is Turkey associated?

In the last few years, Turkey has done this:

  • Launched three military invasions in Syria
  • Sent military supplies and fighters
  • Deployed its navy in the eastern Mediterranean to prove its claims in the region
  • In northern Iraq, the Kurdish PKK expanded its military operations against the rebels
  • Sent troops to Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-ruled province
  • It recently threatened new military action in northern Syria to counter “terrorist armed groups”.

Turkey 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 Global Toman Empire.

  • Why Caucasus flares risk widespread war

  • The Karabakh war has left civilians in shock and shock

What is behind Turkey’s new foreign policy?

Turkey’s strong reliance on force to protect its interests is the basis of its new foreign policy principle, which has been in place since 2015.

The new principle is deeply skeptical of multilateralism and urges Turkey to act unilaterally when necessary.

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

Image copyright pyriteReuters
Image citationPresident Erdogan is clear on Turkey’s drilling rights in the East Mediterranean

It is anti-imperialist. It challenges the Western-dominated World War II tuna order and seeks to replace international bodies such as the United Nations, so that countries other than the West have a voice.

The doctrine of the new foreign policy is abandoned by Turkey as a country surrounded by global actors and by its Western allies.

It therefore urges Turkey to adopt a proactive foreign policy that relies on the use of pre-emptive military force outside its borders.

This is a huge blow to Turkey’s earlier focus on diplomacy, trade and cultural integration in its relations with other countries. Change is a function of many local and international developments.

What has changed?

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

To regain the ruling party’s majority, Mr Erdogan formed a right-wing alliance with the nationalists.

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

How attention turned to the Kurds

Turkey’s conflict with the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – has largely stalled since the group’s jailed leader, Abdullah Okla, called for a ceasefire with the Turkish state in 2013.

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

Image copyright pyriteReuters

With his support, Mr Erdogan also turned the country’s parliamentary system over to the presidency, which allowed him power.

This alliance with the nationalists and the consolidation of its power became the main reason behind Turkey’s unilateral, militaristic and resolute foreign policy.

The failed 2016 uprising played a major role in this process.

How the rebellion changed the story

According to President Erdogan, the Boxed uprising was led by Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Pennsylvania’s self-exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, and he did a number of things to pave the way for Turkey’s militaristic foreign policy.

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

Nearly 60,000 people were fired, imprisoned or suspended from the armed forces and judiciary and other state institutions in the wake of their apparent cleansing of civilian employees suspected of having links to the Gulen movement.

Image copyright pyriteEPA
Image citationThe failed coup promoted President Erdogan’s position and his alliance with the nationalists.

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

The failed coup also reinforced the story of the nationalist coalition that Turkey was surrounded by domestic and foreign enemies and the West is part of the problem. It justifies unilateral action, supported by the pre-sham deployment of hardliners outside Turkey’s borders.

How attitudes changed in Syria

The Assad regime’s decision to give free rein to the Syrian Kurds in the north led to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish zone on the Turkish border, and in 2014 the U.S. decided to airlift weapons to Kurdish militants considered a terrorist organization by Turkey. All this fueled the statement that Turkey had to work alone to secure its borders and deploy military forces.

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

Through purges he dismantled institutions, sidelined key foreign policy-making actors such as the State Department, and disbanded the military, which broke his previous call for military action in neighboring countries.

Before the coup attempt, he hinted at his intention to launch a military operation in Syria to prevent a “terrorist threat” from the Kurdish army there. But the Turkish military, which has traditionally been very cautious about deploying troops outside Turkey’s borders, was opposed.

Image copyright pyriteEPA

A few months after the coup attempt, President Erdogan’s wish came true. In 2016, Turkey launched its first military operation in Syria to curb Kurdish influence in the north, followed by two more invasions.

The move was applauded by the president’s nationalist allies, who fear a US-backed independent Kurdish state on its border. He worked with Russia to contain Kurdish influence and to balance the US presence in Syria.

How Turkey focused on Libya and the E. Mediterranean

Libya became the second theater for the hard-hitting tactic.

In January, Turkey provided military support to Libya’s UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Seraj’s government to prevent an attack by forces allied with General Khalifa Haftar.

Media CitationBBC Africa I is investigating the shipment of secret weapons in Libya.

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

Turkey, along with Greece and Cyprus, is divided between the island of Cyprus and the coastal areas of the region, which are struggling for energy drilling rights.

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

Mr Erdogan’s aim was to re-establish maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean, which he said provided disproportionate benefits to Turkey’s arch-enemies – Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.

Turkey, meanwhile, sent warships to escort its drilling ships into its former Mediterranean, jeopardizing a military confrontation with its NATO partner Greece.

Has it been a success?

Turkey’s resolute 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 clear Kurdish military forces from the Syrian border. Neither Ankara’s maritime agreement with Limbia nor its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean have changed the anti-Turkish situation in the region.

On the contrary, Turkey’s military involvement in the conflict has fueled anti-Erdogan sentiment in the West, and its determination to oppose Turkey’s unilateralism has united a diverse group of actors, eventually forcing the Turkish leader to retreat.

Image copyright pyriteEPA
Image citationTurks have taken to the streets in support of Azerbaijan during the Karabakh conflict

The same fate awaits Turkey’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is seeing a stronger Russian response to Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan and the emergence of the Russian-Western front.

What then

But Mr. Erdogan’s nationalist allies want him to fight them. A leading neo-nationalist, retired Rear-Admiral Sihat Yassi, argued that Greece wanted to invade western Turkey and urged Mr Erdogan that he could never sit down to negotiate with Athens.

And the president has little choice but to listen to them. As he loses ground in opinion polls, the nationalist increases his influence over domestic and foreign policies.

Gonul Toll Washington D.C. Is chair of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute

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