Sandwiched between the West and the Middle East, Turkey is both an ally and irritant to those tied to it. It is a member of NATO, yet it continuously flouts NATO’S geopolitical strategy by purchasing Russian s-400 air defence systems. It wants to be a member of the European Union, yet continuously undermines national governments within the bloc by funding and assisting mass illegal immigration across the Aegean Sea and the Bosphorus Strait. It wants to be seen as a tough and competent power in the Middle East, yet it has recently been engaged in prolonged and costly interventions in Syria and Libya which have not produced a reward.
The country’s current political trajectory emerged 17 years ago, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2003, and was consolidated in 2014 when he became President. Erdogan’s outspoken ambition to recreate parts of the Ottoman Empire may be unachievable, but his skill in finally defeating the power of the army in the country is a genuine personal triumph for him. His crushing of the 2016 attempted coup d’état finally brought the military to heel, giving him the excuse to not only deal with the plotters, but to finally force the military to submit to the power of politicians and society. Considering that there were also military coups in Turkey in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1993 and 1997, one can’t blame Erdogan from his perspective for wanting to bring them under control.
The 2016 coup itself was only unsuccessful because the commandos who were ordered to seize Erdogan went to the wrong hotel, giving him time to urge his supporters via video-link on live television to go out into the streets and save him. Sometimes mistakes like this by your enemies can present great opportunities, although some have pointed out that perhaps the entire thing was orchestrated to bolster his rule at a time of declining support. Whatever the case, for Erdogan it was a political renewal, and his reasserted dominance allowed him to expand Turkey’s foreign intervention in Syria.
Earlier this year, the Syrian Government, backed by Russia, finally began its long-awaited offensive to push Islamists out of the Hama and Idlib provinces – areas also occupied by Turkish troops – and had medium success. The last remnants of Jihadists in Aleppo were finally expelled, and the M5 highway, Saraqib and Maarrat al-Nu’man were all recaptured. Turkey of course halted this lightning advance after a large number of its troops were killed in artillery strikes, and so the frontline once again ground to a halt. This has really been the nature of the conflict in the northern provinces since 2017, with a careful gamble being played every time offensives are launched.
Although Russia and Assad will eventually win in Syria, they have to play the long game, because Moscow’s ships need to transit the Bosphorus Strait through Istanbul to reach Syrian ports, and so Putin has to keep Erdogan sweet at least to some degree. On the flip-side, Turkey relies on Russian exports of wheat to feed its population, so any offensive by Erdogan against the Syrian Army or Kurds can only be limited as well. This reality means that small offensives launched by either side result in limited gains, and when the temperature is turned up by a large number of troops being killed, hastily organised negotiations result in temporary ceasefires. When you throw into the mix Western intelligence agencies and Israeli raids on Syrian airbases, the situation seems more of a large mess than a controlled situation. Many commentators claim that Erdogan wants territory in these areas of Syria, despite the reality that Russia and the international community will never allow him to have it. Perhaps he will attempt some annexation of the border areas where his troops are based, but he has made no definitive legislative moves as yet.
However Syria isn’t the only geopolitical playground that Turkey has got itself involved with, as earlier this year its forces set their sites on Libya, where they have been shipping militants from Syria to fight for yet another cause. The civil war in Libya (the second in 10 years), has seen Russian-backed General Haftar and his House of Representatives sweep across most of the country apart from the capital Tripoli and its satellite towns, where his enemies the Government of National Accord are encircled. Turkey decided earlier this year, rather surprisingly, to start backing the surrounded Government of National Accord – which has not only brought them into geopolitical confrontation with Russia in yet another regional conflict, but has also tied them into another cause that they will struggle to gain a victory from. Indeed, a few weeks ago, the Turkish-deployed militants in Libya staged a mutiny because their wages weren’t being paid.
Although Turkey’s flight across the Mediterranean to Libya may seem random, there is one reason that clearly explains it. In late November last year, Turkey and the Government of National Accord signed a deal which paved the way for a shared maritime boundary. In order for this deal to be made a reality, Turkey must insure that the other signatory of the deal wins the war it is fighting in Libya – and so therefore Erdogan militarily intervened just six weeks after the deal was signed. This has caused a firestorm because the deal essentially annexes Greek waters east of Crete, and completely changes the strategic situation of the region.
Greece has been battling the migrant crisis on and off since 2015, and this year tensions between Ankara and Athens ratcheted up when the former stopped blocking migrants from heading to the Greek border. The result was tear gas, rioting and the closing of the border posts, with units from other European countries being sent to help stem the tide. Erdogan’s attempt at bribing the EU for cash in return for housing migrants and preventing them from heading to Europe had been successful over the years, and this time like all other times he was simply causing a crisis in order to extract yet more money from weak officials in Brussels. However this time his luck ran out – the Coronavirus pandemic struck – and forced him not only to close the border and bring back all the migrants stuck in no man’s land between the border posts, but he also didn’t get his money from Brussels either. No doubt he will release the migrant masses again once the plague has passed, but his humiliation will definitely sting him for a while.
In many ways, the Turkey that Erdogan has created represents the classic case of a medium level state with a great past, which is enviously seeking the power and respect it once commanded in times gone by. Due to its unique location on the map, it will always be of importance. In good times, it can parlay this into sovereignty. Its foreign policy in relation to Syria, Libya and the migrant crises are clear examples of this at least to some degree, as Erdogan seeks to be taken seriously in an increasingly multi-polar world.
Throughout history states in a similar position of geopolitical medium-level standing have often moved in such ways. Indeed, the declining Byzantine Empire, which was famously obliterated in 1453 by the Turks themselves, was itself guilty of dangerous foreign policy gambles even after its territories and prestige had been greatly reduced. Whether Turkey will continue its existence as simply a regional player with a great ancestry, or develop from a regional player into a powerful entity with a great future is yet to be decided.
The answer, perhaps, lies in the continued willingness of Russia to assert its own interests in the region once Putin has gone, the willingness of Europe to repel the migrants which will inevitably return, and the ability of Turkey to transition from Erdogan to his successor without incurring instability or even civil war. Considering that the Kurdish population within the country is growing, whilst the Turkish birth rate is falling, any gains abroad in Erdogan’s current ventures may be undone by the demographic time bomb he currently sits on and has consistently failed to defuse. Only time will tell, though if one thing is for sure, Turkey will be getting its hands dirty in the region for decades to come – as well as within its own borders.