CAIRO – 19 February 2018: Turkey’s foreign policy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led Ankara astray from its western allies and has done little to build bridges with its easterly neighbors. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey’s foreign ambitions have taken precedence over forging new prosperous strategic relationships, and Ankara is instead looking inward for support and legitimacy. As of late, Erdoğan has been unable to rally support from the West or the East for his aggressive foreign policy playbook which puts a plethora of regional stakeholders at odds with one another.
Turkey’s newfound confidence to use military pressure in the Middle East follows the path in which the state has transitioned from a passive observer – as it adopted during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 for example – to an active interferer. This new position that favors hard power is based on the conviction that intervening and spreading influence across the region is more beneficial than sitting idly by, however it has led to a growing grey area between Turkey and its allies.
Erdoğan’s confidence in using military pressure was largely born in the Syrian civil war, where perceived threats to Turkish national interests became paramount, and where a reliance on hard power has become commonplace. The Turkish army’s operations in Syria have seemingly introduced a growing air of confidence in Ankara, leading to Erdoğan’s resurgent breath of belligerence has also been directed towards Cyprus.
Putting Turkey’s ambitions into context
While Turkey has grown used to sourcing legitimacy and political pressure from its western allies, in the eyes of Erdoğan the EU, the United States and NATO, are losing their influence and prosperity, and
German Chancellor Merkel meets Turkish President Erdogan during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou – REUTERS/Jesco Denzel
Turkey joined NATO in 1952; however the influence that NATO and its members exerted over the Middle East is waning. The United States is finding the Middle East less receptive to its maneuvering, and it is less able to act with the freedom it once enjoyed. Military bases and aircraft carriers are only half the story. The balance of power in the Middle East on the brink of shifting. The U.S. is mostly on the sidelines, while Russia’s interference in Syria has assured its continued influence in the region and Iran is successfully entrenching a crescent of influence stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey is losing its neighborhood security, and the incentives to operate regardless of NATO concerns have increased. This being said, a
by the Centre for American Progress found that Russia is more popular in Turkey than the U.S. or NATO. However, only 28 percent of respondents viewed Russia favorably.
As the Cold War wound down and NATO-Warsaw aggravations came to a conclusion, Turkey no longer found itself caught amongst the political and military tensions which shaped the bipolar global order. Turkey has enjoyed membership of NATO since the early-Cold War era, and has a long standing relationship with the EU dating back to the Ankara Agreement of 1963, however neither organization offers the distinct rewards they once did.
Changing economic balances have also played an important role in Turkey shift from the West. While Turkey used to sit on the periphery of the West, the potential economic opportunities of the EU diminished as the probability of Turkey gaining
. As power shifts over time from the G7 to the BRICS and emerging economies, theoretically Turkey is able to take advantage of its geographic centrality. As emerging actors demand a power shift to the periphery from the old power of Europe and the exhaustive influence of the United States, Turkey can harness this shift to advance its regional ambitions.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes his speech during a rally against recent Kurdish militant attacks on Turkish security forces in Istanbul, Turkey, September 20, 2015 – REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Turkey, under Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been growing hostile to the West in favor of self-serving unilateral action. In turn the West is at risk of losing Turkey as a strategic ally. But, the fear than Turkey would move east to find new allies has not materialized, and Turkey has been unable to forge meaningful relations with the likes of Russia and Iran, who are more entrenching their influence in receptive countries. Turkey’s taunting of its eastern neighbors leaves Ankara in a tough position in which it must balance its national interest with its desire to bolster strategic relationships.
Syria has evolved as a battleground in which Turkey’s sovereign interests stand in stark contrast with other major stakeholders in the conflict, which has driven a wedge between Ankara and the likes of Iran, Russia, Syria and the United States. As the so-called Arab Spring unfolded, Turkey was forced to
as many of its allied strongmen in the region fell. It found favor in the tide of political Islam which swept the region, which saw Turkey begin to lean away from many of its allies.
For example, Turkey largely stood in harmony with ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. While the Obama administration decided to play ball and work with his successor President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Erdoğan favored the Islamic tide. He went as far as to adopt the
in Turkey, which served as a characteristic icon of the Muslim Brotherhood. Not only did this put Turkey at odds with the United States, Turkey stands against the likes of the UAE and Egypt who also oppose political Islam, and
during the ongoing crisis.
How has Turkey’s military aggression isolated it from the world?
In the context of the so-called Arab Spring, Erdoğan opted against using Turkey’s military strength until the war in Syria showed no sign of abating. When conflict broke out in Syria, Erdoğan maneuvered the state position to side with the United States and much of the international community; he has
opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces and
. While the international community focused on ISIS, Turkey has stayed rooted in this position.
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters hold a mortar outside of Afrin, Syria February 17, 2018 – REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
(OOB). To Ankara’s alarm, the Trump administration
as its preferred partner on the ground against ISIS. The U.S. has armed, trained, and supported the People's Protection Units (YPG) – part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – with special forces and substantial air support. Fearing the newfound confidence of the YPG and its associated Kurdish militia and political groups, Turkey reframed its foreign policy in Syria to directly confront Kurdish forces and remove the possibility of an independent Kurdish state in Syria. The Iraqi government forces and Iran-backed Shiite militia
to diminish support for Iraqi Kurdish independence after the September 2017 referendum, and Erdoğan wants to replicate this success in Syria.
The Kurdish question is a fault line between Turkey and the United States; far from pushing a multi-lateral resolution, the Turkish military campaigns have exacerbated divisions and instability. As Turkish and its allied Syrian rebel forces push through Afrin as part of OOB, Turkish and U.S. forces are dangerously close to clashing militarily. Turkish forces are close to the YPG-held territory of Manbij where many U.S. forces are based, and
that Kurdish militia and U.S. forces withdraw to east of the Euphrates river in Syria. Turkey sees the YPG as one and the same with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a designated terror organization in the eyes of Turkey, the U.S. and the EU, and a threat to national security.
“Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born,” said Erdoğan in response to plans from Washington to form a 30,000-strong “terror army” on its southern border. Consisting of predominantly Kurdish forces, Washington hopes this force will help protect territory held by the YPG in northern Syria.
Although U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that the relationship was at a “crisis point,” there are signs the hostile back and forth is subsiding and the two sides are trying to close the grey-zone. “We’re going to act together from this point forward,” Tillerson went on to say. However, he made it clear that “it’s not just Manbij. We have to think about all of northern Syria.” Turkey has proposed that Turkish and U.S. forces
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara, Turkey February 15, 2018 – REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer
Ten steps back and a half step forward; the future of the U.S.-Turkish relationship is a matter of rebuilding broken bridges, and not bi-lateral benefit. Rebuilding broken bridges will not come easily, and there have been
to remove Erdoğan’s Turkey from NATO on account of its hostility. According to a
by the Centre for American Progress, 83 percent of Turkish people view the United States unfavorably.
Turkey in the face of Russia, Iran and the Syrian Government
Neither Russia nor Iran, have been able to compensate Turkey for its weakening relationship with the U.S., and neither seem willing to support Turkish interests. In fact, they have stood directly against each other on the battlefield.
Idlib province, one of the “de-escalation zones” set out during the Astana process, has become a hot spot for disagreement and conflict between the three pillars of the process – the Trio: Russia, Iran and Turkey, and the Syrian government. The Syrian government’s objective is to control the entire province, and most importantly the city of Idlib. The first phase of the new Russian-backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA) operation to recapture the territory began in late December. The Turkish Foreign Ministry, uneasy that the operation is confronting moderate opposition groups,
the Russian and Iranian ambassadors on January 9. Turkey considers the operation a
of the Astana process.
Turkey sees the situation different to Russia, Assad and Iran. Erdoğan has pledged to protect civilians and moderate opposition group; groups which Turkey has supported as a means to overturn the Syrian government. All-out war in Idlib province could prove completed for Turkey, with the risk that many of the province’s 2.6 million people
to relative safety.
Relatives of a Kurdish herder who was killed in a Turkish airstrike on their village in Syria’s Afrin region mourn on January 28, 2018 – AFP
Russia, Iran and the Syrian government do not accept that the cease-fire applies to all elements of the opposition. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group with ties to al-Qaida, must be eliminated in Russia’s point of view to maintain the integrity of the de-escalation zones. Russia expected Turkey to pressure HTS into withdrawing from Idlib; however with its growing confidence Turkey has adopted an opposing position. In fact, Turkish troops
through Idlib, in response.
When a MANPADS downed a Russian Su-25 fighter jet over Idlib on February 3, HTS claimed responsibility. In retaliation Turkish aircraft were
from operating in Syrian airspace and Turkish artillery bombarded areas of Idlib.
Even a bird needs Russian permission to fly over Syria these days, and it is certain that Turkey was granted permission by Russia to conduct its campaign against the Kurds in Afrin, north of Idlib. Erdoğan’s announcement of OOB on January 20 coincided with Syrian troops seizing the strategically important
airbase from rebels in Idlib governorate, indicating that a territorial swap was at play and Turkey was given a green light by Russia to interfere.
Nevertheless, in Afrin, tensions between the Trio, Syria and the U.S., are close to breaking the surface. Turkey’s brash actions against the YPG in Afrin severely risks pitting Turkey directly against the SAA, and its allied Russian and Iranian forces. While it is likely a Russian-led deal was in place, Turkey’s operation was publicly condemned, and
Russian, Iranian and SAA support for the YPG. The SAA and Kurdish dominated SDF forces have clashed previously, but realities change at light speed in Syria, and currently they share a common interest in quashing Turkish advances.
Turkey is fighting the YPG in northern Syria and has declared it a terrorist organization – AFP
Despite finding consensus in Iraq regarding the Kurdish nationalist aspirations, the rivalry between Turkey and Iran is growing. Turkey views Iran as a long-term rival that has gained a remarkable advantage over Turkey in Syria, which needs to be cut back down. Iran on the other hand has tied itself to the Syrian and Russian governments, following the “status quo” in Syria in order to improve its opportunity to influential a political resolution.
Iranian-built Toophan anti-tank missile systems
by Kurdish forces, as well as 107-mm artillery rockets, which are characteristically used by Iranian-backed forces. In addition, for weeks Damascus has assisted Kurdish forces moving through its territory in eastern Syria, toward Afrin.
“There are different ways to get reinforcements to Afrin but the fundamental route is via regime forces. There are understandings between the two forces ... for the sake of delivering reinforcements to Afrin,” Kino Gabriel, spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, stated to Reuters.
This stems from the fear in Damascus that Turkey is using national security concerns as a cover to consolidate territory in northern Syria, as well as improving supply lines to rebel groups which the SAA are engaged in fighting. For these reasons, both the Syrian government and Iran aim to bog Turkey down in Afrin. A
between Kurdish fighters in north-western Syria and Damascus on February 18, will see army troops deploy along some border positions and could enter the region within the next two days, senior Kurdish adviser Badran Jia Kurd said to Reuters. Turkey’s military is facing new and more ferocious opposition in north-western Syria.
If Afrin and Manbij are won and Kurdish forces are pushed east of the Euphrates, the victory over Washington would be greater than that over the Kurds, and would alienate Turkey further from the U.S., the West, and the Syrian government. The Syrian government
it will resolve the Kurdish question in Syria after conflict in the country has subsided. However, if the Turkish campaign fails to push back the Kurds, the PKK/YPG threat will remain and the Turkish army will be dealt a major reputational blow.
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter stands on rubble in Northern Afrin countryside, Syria, February 16, 2018 – REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Turkey’s resurgent military interference has left Ankara with few allies. The mismatched “alliance” within the Trio is a perfect example of the old adage: two’s company, three’s a crowd. The alliance was formed on limiting the West’s aspiration to hold leverage over a political resolution to the conflict; however it has brought together three states with competing ambitions into a tenuous alliance. Ankara’s inability to coordinate with the Trio, the Syrian government and the U.S., as well as its support for disputed “moderate” groups in Syria, leaves Qatar as its only remaining regional ally.
But why has Erdoğan embarked on a path which favors an independent and brazen foreign policy, with little pragmatic concern for regional alliances? Much like “Resurgent Russia,” there is a desire in Turkey to reclaim its position as a major regional state. Turkey has been deeply invested in forging ties with the West for many decades, and has been under intense scrutiny from its allies in the West to follow the status quo. Erdoğan dreams of Turkey returning to the leading global position it held during the Ottoman Empire era, meaning expansionism is a fundamental aim. However this comes at the cost of neighboring national sovereignty; national security is the justification, and Syria the starting point. Erdoğan has led the country to believe it has a duty to expand. However expansion requires a strong military force, and will pit Turkey against powerful competitors with actionable alliances.