Can Turkey overcome its legacy of military and strategic failings?
Despite a series of disastrous attempts to further its influence in the region, Turkey has, it seems, landed on its feet.
The unrest that rocked the Middle East since 2011 presented Turkey with an unprecedented opportunity to establish itself as the single regional influencer, an opening it managed to completely foul up.
It stood by as Russian warplanes entered the Syria conflict, allowing for the subsequent resurgence of the Assad regime and its proxies. In Egypt, it backed Muhammad Morsi, who, having failed to establish his own form of one-man rule, languishes in prison. More recently, it chose to spring to the defence of Qatar, the underdog in the dispute with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.
When it — rightly or wrongly — insisted Kurds in northern Syria not be allowed to govern territories with large Kurdish populations there, Ankara sacrificed a nascent peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that had been attempting to end an intractable 40-year-old conflict. This unleashed a series of bomb attacks across Turkey in 2015 that threatened to unravel the fabric of Turkish-Kurdish social relations.
In 2012, it miscalculated utterly by backing Syrian rebel groups that soon morphed into jihadists, leaving Ankara without a legitimate proxy in the Syrian war and, for several years, a terrorist state on its lengthy southern border.
It chose to shoot down a Russian jet in November 2015, which resulted in crippling major sectors of its own economy when Russia reacted by refusing to buy Turkish agricultural products and banned its tourists from holidaying in Turkey.
“Turkey is now in a more vulnerable position diplomatically and is viewed with increasing suspicion by its traditional allies,” wrote Simon A. Waldman, a co-author of “The New Turkey and Its Discontents.” “Turkey chose to become an actor in the worst civil war the Middle East [Syria] has ever seen and the decision was a bad one.”
By all accounts, Turkey’s attempts to gain leverage in the region seem to have backfired catastrophically.
However, while events in Kirkuk have been hailed as a major bump for Iranian influence in Iraq, Ankara stands to gain even more by the pushing back of Kurdish territorial claims. The West’s refusal to back the Kurds as Iraqi troops took over Kirkuk places Ankara on the side of the powerful: Iran, Baghdad and, crucially, Washington. Turkey is deeply worried by any event that may lead to the establishment of an official Kurdish state in northern Iraq. With Western blessing for the Kurdish independence effort officially not forthcoming, Ankara’s fears may not come true.
Considering the litany of failures, does this matter now? Is it too late for Turkey’s aspirations to be the major regional force?
The Kurds’ ill-fortune in Iraqi Kurdistan certainly has Turkey well positioned. It has been forcefully beating a drum against Kurdish autonomy for several years and, when Erbil made its play vis-à-vis its referendum, the major regional and international powers chose not to champion its cause. Turkey was elated but it should be wary that if it finds itself on the same side as Washington, the European Union and regional heavyweights, it’s not because they agree with Turkey but despite of that.
Whether Turkey’s catastrophic regional policies were the work of a perverse bout of self-sabotage or simply an inability to foresee where events were headed, it now seems to have finally seen the light. As it became clearer the Assad regime would not be toppled, Ankara enacted a major change of course by warming up to Iran and Russia, its erstwhile opponents in the Syrian war.
However, the underlying failings that coloured its calamitous military and strategic planning for the past decade remain. Turkey must change that if it is not to suffer further embarrassment.