Turkey’s militarised foreign policy puts Ankara on collision course with Russia

“Erdogan’s nationalist allies are pushing for military activism in the eastern Mediterranean against Greece over Cyprus,” says Mustafa Gurbuz.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Making no friends. Turkish soldier patrols the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad, on the border with Turkey, in October . (AFP)
Making no friends. Turkish soldier patrols the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad, on the border with Turkey, in October . (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey is increasingly relying on military capabilities in its foreign policy, triggering regional and international tensions the latest being with Russia over potential troop deployment in Libya.

Largely isolated in Europe and the Middle East, with Qatar as the only staunch ally, Ankara is flexing muscles in Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and now in Libya.

Ankara seems to be on a collision course with Moscow over Turkey’s plans to deploy troops in support of the Islamist-backed Tripoli government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan assailed the presence of the Russian private military company Wagner in Libya on the side of Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

“Through the group named Wagner, they are literally working as Haftar’s mercenaries in Libya. You know who is paying them,” Erdogan was quoted December 20 by broadcaster NTV. He added: “It would not be right for us to remain silent against all of this.”

Russia earlier said it was “very concerned” by the possible Turkish troop deployment in Libya, the Interfax news agency reported.

Erdogan recently stated Turkey was ready to send troops to Libya to back the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, which is already a recipient of Turkish military support.

“We will be protecting the rights of Libya and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean,” Erdogan told A Haber television channel on December 15. “We are more than ready to give whatever support necessary to Libya.”

Citing military sources, the internet publication Haberturk reported that Turkey may build a military base in Libya like the ones in Qatar if the Libyan government asks for a Turkish troop deployment. Feasibility studies for the Libyan base had been completed, Haberturk columnist Cetiner Cetin wrote. There was no official confirmation.

The Turkish government said it is trying to make its voice heard in a region where conflicts pose threats on Turkey’s doorstep and where other players ignore Turkish interests but the approach is not winning Turkey any friends and is a far cry from the idea of having “zero problems with neighbours” that is the official mantra promoted on the website of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at Arab Centre in Washington, said an alliance between Erdogan, Turkish nationalists and the country’s military leadership is part of the reason for the militarisation.

“Erdogan’s nationalist allies are pushing for military activism in the Eastern Mediterranean against Greece over Cyprus,” Gurbuz said by e-mail.

To some extent, military power has always played a role in Turkey. Its fighter jets and ground troops have been confronting militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in northern Iraq since the 1990s but, in recent years, unilateral military action has become a much more regular feature of Turkey’s foreign policy, putting the country on a collision course with neighbours, regional powers and other NATO members.

When Erdogan spoke October 1, during parliament’s opening session of the new legislative term, he greeted “security forces that proudly hoist our flag in Syria, Iraq, Qatar and many other places.”

Since 2016, Turkey has staged three military interventions in Syria. In November, Erdogan announced the construction of a second military base in Qatar. Turkish soldiers are deployed in Somalia. Lately, Ankara added a drone deployment in the Turkish part of Cyprus.

A decade ago, soft power and the “Turkish model” of a “Muslim democracy” were at the centre of Turkey’s foreign policy.

“It set an example for the rest of the Middle East as a Muslim nation that was democratic, secular, integrated into the world economy and part of key Western institutions like NATO,” Turkey analysts Gonul Tol and Birol Baskan, of the Middle East Institute in Washington, wrote last year. “The Middle East welcomed the ‘new Turkey’ and its newfound involvement in the region.”

Turkish soap operas became hit shows throughout the Middle East and Turkey received an increasing number of tourists from the region.

The picture has changed, however. Eruptions of violence, such as the Syrian war on Turkey’s southern border, demonstrated the limits of soft power. In Syria, Erdogan ended his friendship with Syrian President Bashar Assad and started support for rebels fighting against Damascus. Turkey’s bond with the Muslim Brotherhood and its neo-Ottoman rhetoric alienated governments in the Middle East while Ankara’s relations with the European Union and the United States soured.

“Behind Turkey’s increasing military activism is the fall of what was once called the ‘Turkish model,’” Gurbuz said.

On Turkey’s domestic scene, a decrease of voter support for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party has made the president reliant on nationalist allies who secure a pro-government majority in parliament and have pushed him to the right.

Gurbuz said Erdogan’s slide towards authoritarianism and his lack of non-nationalist political partners in Ankara have strengthened the influence of nationalist bureaucrats and the Turkish military in foreign policy matters. Some of his new allies promote a Eurasianist vision that argues Turkey should seek closer cooperation with Russia and China. Others are nationalist followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder.

“The shift in Syrian policy, for example, was an outcome of Erdogan’s new alliance with Eurasianist, nationalist and Kemalist generals,” Gurbuz said.

Turkey’s latest Syria intervention triggered a confrontation with the United States because Washington has been supporting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia in northern Syria, a group seen as a terrorist organisation by Ankara. At the same time, Turkey threatened military action to stop gas exploration by other countries off Cyprus, driving up tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara says its robust style is designed to make other players listen to the Turkish position. When a recent controversial maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya sparked EU criticism because it ignored what Greece regards as its own territorial waters, that was exactly the outcome intended by Ankara, a Turkish official said.

“With this signature, we can negotiate,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It created an opportunity to negotiate.”

Some observers say it is doubtful that the abrasive approach will turn out to be to Turkey’s advantage.

“When a country’s diplomatic style is confrontational, what do you get? Confrontations,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in an analysis for the Washington publication the Hill. “It has become Turkey’s signature style.”