By Bill Park, is Visiting Research Fellow in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College, London.
The list of Turkish actions in its neighborhood that have caused antipathy amongst others in that neighborhood, and beyond, is long. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, France, Armenia and Israel have all been rattled by Turkish behaviour in recent days, weeks, months and years. They includes its active involvement in the Libyan and Syrian crises; its disquieting relationship with or relative passivity towards Islamic State (IS) and other jihadi groups, in Syria in particular; its deep military penetration into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and the creation of yet more bases there; its insistence on its right to survey for and exploit possible energy resources in disputed waters off the Cypriot coastline; its heightened challenge to Greek territorial waters in the Aegean; the acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-air missile system; its weaponisation of the migrant issue in its relationship with the EU; its emphatic siding with Qatar – and the establishment of a military presence there – in that country’s intra-Arab stand-off; the establishment of a military presence in Somalia and perhaps Sudan too in the near future; its championing of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) throughout the region but most provocatively in Egypt; its claim to represent Jerusalem – a claim normally conceded to Jordan – and its incessant rhetorical campaign against Israel; its ‘culture war’ against the west, most recently manifested by the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque; and its high-profile support for Azerbaijan in its renewed tensions with Armenia.
In Turkey’s relationships with its NATO allies, the unease that such behaviour has produced has developed against a backcloth of recent or ongoing irritants. In the US case, these include the treatment of Pastor Brunson, the behaviour of Erdogan’s bodyguards in Washington DC in 2017, the pursuit of US Embassy staff in Ankara for alleged Gulen links, and the ongoing Iran sanctions busting/Halkbank/Zarrab scandal. In Europe there is frustration with Ankara’s inclination to play out its domestic politics on European streets, which in 2017 caused a serious diplomat rift with the Netherlands and the mutual withdrawal of ambassadors, and what are regarded as the Ankara-sponsored activities in Europe of troublesome bodies ranging from the state religious body Diyanet to the militantly nationalist Turkish Grey Wolves.
Many of these issues have deep roots and predate the rise of the Adelet ve Kalkinma (AK) Party in Turkey. Thus, during the 1990s Turkey mounted a series of military incursions into northern Iraq, and established a number of military bases there. Ankara was fiercely unhappy with the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) following the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and with its consolidation after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Turks of all political persuasions had opposed that invasion, and some mused aloud about the injustice of the loss of Mosul to British Iraq in the 1920s. In 1998, Turkey threatened military action against Syria, thereby obliging Damascus to expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. In 1963 US President Lyndon Johnson issued the so-called ‘Johnson letter’ aimed at dissuading Turkey from invading Cyprus, which happened anyway in 1974. Turkish forces have remained there ever since, and, in 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was formally established. Only Turkey recognises it. Ankara has refused to sign the 1982 UNCLOS agreement that would require Turkey to acquiesce in Greek territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) rights in the Aegean. The 1996 Imea-Kardak crisis, in which Greece and Turkey almost came to blows over an uninhabited island off the Turkish coastline, offers just one of many stand-offs that reflect Turkey’s unwillingness to accept the UNCLOS-sanctioned Aegean status quo. More recently, Turkey’s AKP government was vocal in its disapproval of the 2011 France-UK initiated attack on Libya aimed at the overthrow of Muammar Ghaddafi, with whom Turkish President Erdogan had established close personal, political and economic ties.
Turkey has never been an easy ally, or neighbour, and this perusal of the country’s past foreign policy record prompts the question – is Turkey really a more problematic country today? And if so, why?
In answer to those questions, the first observation worth making is that recent years have witnessed significant geopolitical shifts that have been largely external to Turkey but have impacted upon it. The Cold War’s end offered new threats and opportunities to Turkey, but also became associated with a shift in US attention away from the Soviet menace towards supposed threats from Iraq and Iran, theatres in which Washington and Ankara did not see eye to eye. The immediate post-Cold War years was also associated with transformations in the post-Soviet space, where tensions between Ankara and Moscow arose over developments in Crimea and Chechnya. On the other hand, Turkey’s growing energy dependence elevated the significance of its ties with Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan, amongst others. The Arab Spring and its resultant regional turmoil, including the flow of refugees, the rise of IS and external involvement – notably in Syria, Iraq and Libya – would have attracted the attention of Ankara even if it had remained in the hands of a Kemalist establishment whose instincts were to remain aloof from the quagmire of the Arab world. The Arab Spring also served to raise the profile of the region’s Kurdish issue, not least via the emergence of Kurdish self-administration in Syria’s north. Furthermore, recent US administrations – not only that of President Trump – have given rise to a sense of US disengagement, weakness, inconsistency, unreliability and lack of credibility.
A second factor to consider is the across-the-political-spectrum feeling in Turkey that its interests in the region have frequently been disregarded, perhaps especially by its western allies. Thus, although Ankara is often blamed for the lack of progress on Cyprus, it is not necessarily incomprehensible for Turks to believe that the Greek side cannot be trusted to respect Turkish Cypriot rights, hence Ankara’s insistence on a highly decentralised arrangement for any reunified Cyprus that might emerge. After all, it was disruptive Greek behaviour that led both to the 1963 crisis and to Turkey’s 1974 invasion, in which it exercised its right as a Guarantor. Ankara also notes, bitterly, that (Greek) Cyprus was rewarded with EU membership after having overwhelmingly rejected the UN Annan Plan for unification in a 2004 referendum – thereby adding an additional possible vote against Turkey in the EU – while the TRNC remained ostracised despite the considerable support for the Plan that its people had expressed in their referendum. With respect to the demarcation of the Aegean, Turkey is not on strong legal grounds, but Turks can be forgiven for squirming when confronted with a map that obliges them to enter Greek sea and air space almost as soon as they leave their own territory – a space that consists of often uninhabited islands, some of which were once home to Turkish populations and all of which were once under Ottoman control. Ankara’s proposed solution to is that a media line be drawn through the Aegean. Turks have concluded that there is little prospect of progress in resolving these issues beyond a near-total capitulation to Greek and Greek Cypriot preferences. So, why not play hard ball? The prospect of an energy bonanza around Cyprus and in the Aegean has served only to raise the stakes of these long-standing disputes.
It is hard for others, westerners especially (beyond their security establishments perhaps) to comprehend Turkish sensitivities regarding the Kurdish issue. Why not negotiate some kind of devolution, as with eg Scotland or Catalonia? But Kurdish self-determination is seen as an existential issue for many Turks, representing a challenge to Turkey’s territorial integrity, and to the official state and societal ‘mythology’ of the Republic. Ankara hoped that its western allies would appreciate that enabling the emergence and consolidation of the KRG, and support for the PKK-affiliated PYD in Syria in the struggle against IS, represented ‘red lines’ for Turkey. Furthermore, European liberal and leftist sympathy for Turkey’s Kurds has served as an obstacle to Turkey’s EU accession aspirations and has on occasion led to arms embargoes on Turkey by some of its NATO allies – Germany, for example. Indeed, this largely explains Turkey’s determined effort to maximise self-sufficiency in military procurement. Ankara also feels that there is little it can do to counter the ‘civilisational’ basis for much opposition in Europe to Turkey’s EU accession. Nor was Turkey’s economic stake in Libya taken into account – it was barely even consulted before France and the UK initiated action. In short, Turks across the spectrum have become frustrated that the regional order that its western allies are seen as having created or upheld fails to take Turkey’s interests into account, and this has given rise to a revisionist strain in Turkey’s security and foreign policy approach that is not at all confined to AKP circles.
Thirdly, there have been profound changes inside Turkey, most especially the dominance of the political scene by the AKP since 2002 but also the country’s emergence as a serious economic power, at least in its more immediate region. In contrast to its mainly Kemalist predecessors, the AKP embraces Turkey’s middle eastern and Islamist (or at least Sunni or MB) character. This has given an ideological flavour to Turkey’s external conduct, associated with the thinking of the now out-of-favour but formerly foreign and then prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. This ideology rejects Kemalism’s aloofness from the region’s affairs, and also rejects its distancing from the region’s shared Ottoman past. Its neighbourhood, in which Turkey is seen as a ‘central’ rather than a ‘peripheral’ component, is now regarded as Turkey’s economic, security, cultural and historical ‘near abroad’, a region in which it is bound to engage actively – although it cannot be said that Turkey’s neighbours necessarily hold such fond memories of the Ottoman era. The AKP’s cultural differentiation from, and even aggression towards, the west is part of this ideological shift. Furthermore, domestic political developments have pushed the AKP towards an alliance with the nationalistic MHP, which has long championed a revisionist, militarised, assertive and self-reliant approach to Turkey’s external relations. A ‘Eurasianist’ strand of thinking has also found favour, at least with President Erdogan, which further helps push Ankara towards Russia and Asia and away from the west. Furthermore, MB sympathies have put Turkey at odds with many of its Muslim neighbours, most notably the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey now resembles a revisionist or even irredentist country that seeks its ‘place in the sun’ – that is, one that demands and expects a place at the diplomatic top table and that its interests and perspectives be taken into account. It has little commitment to an existing order that has ridden roughshod over its concerns and that fails to reflect its preferences. The expansive ‘Blue Homeland’ maritime doctrine reflects this thinking, as does the occasional ranting over the injustices of the Treaties of Sevres and Lausanne.
All of the above suggests that we should not be surprised that Turkey has emerged as an increasingly problematic actor in its neighbourhood. However, President Erdogan’s personality is a fourth, and arguably the most significant, explanatory factor when we look at Ankara’s recent and current foreign policy behaviour. Analysts are inclined to look for calculation, rationality, and consequentialism in the foreign policy behaviour of governments and politicians, but does this work well in the case of the authoritarian and illiberal Turkish president? Rather than adopt a diplomatic tone, he behaves in a bullying, narcissistic, impulsive, confrontational, manic and risk-taking manner. His order to election monitors, journalists, and Iraqi and UAE leaders, among others, to ‘know your place’, offers a telling insight into his mind-set and character. He appears to devote little time to worrying about the foreign policy consequences of his actions. In so far as he does calculate, he might genuinely believe that assertiveness will protect and enhance Turkey’s interests across the range of tense scenarios that he confronts or has helped generate. What, he might well wonder, will the array of adversaries to Turkey’s behaviour in the eastern Mediterranean, or in Libya, Syria or Iraq, actually do? He might also presume, thus far with good reason, that his faith in personal relationships – with Trump and Putin especially – might limit the steadfastness of any unified opposition to his foreign policy adventures.
Many observers explain his behaviour with reference to domestic political pay-offs. It is certainly the case that much of his core support base relishes his strutting on the world stage, but it does not necessarily follow that that is the primary reason why he does it. He can hardly be said to have managed Turkey’s economy, or so transparently lined his own pockets and that of his family and associates, with domestic opinion in mind. In any case, he might calculate that the electorate have few options. AKP voters are unlikely to switch to the secular (and troubled) CHP, his control over the media and the courts ensure that he can make life difficult for the Iyi Party and others that have been established by former associates such as Davutoglu and Ali Babacan. The Kurdish HDP has been largely suppressed, its leadership and a third of its membership behind bars, and its elected officials mostly removed from their posts. That leaves the MHP as an alternative home for his voters, but he is in an alliance with them already. In any case Turkey’s electoral system imposes a 10% threshold for a party to achieve parliamentary representation, which few of the opposition parties look likely to achieve. In 2002 the AKP was able to form a single-party government with just 34% of the vote.
There are indications that in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is opposed by a bloc consisting of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and Israel, and in Libya, where Egypt, the UAE, France and Russia find themselves facing Ankara, a more determined resistance to Turkey might be shaping up. Thus far, however, the US has been reluctant to pit itself too firmly against Erdogan, Russia’s President Putin has generally shown willing to find forms of words and arrangements that patch up Moscow’s undoubted differences with Ankara, and the EU has remained weak and internally divided. If Erdogan’s guess is that serious resistance to his actions would only lead to the negotiating table, and that other parties to these disputes might be more obliged to take Turkey’s position into account than would have been the case if its stance had been less aggressive, he might not be proven wrong. He has served notice that the time for riding roughshod over Turkey’s concerns has passed. Only time will tell, possibly quite soon.