Confusion in Turkey’s Regional Foreign Policy

US President Donald Trump has surprised many by giving a green light to Turkey’s military operation in Syria’s eastern Euphrates against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Addressing the United Nations on September 24, 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted on a major safe zone plan to relocate up to three million Syrian refugees to that area. There is still no clarity on the scope of the Turkish operation, as American troops will now be withdrawn and the Trump Administration has declared that Ankara is responsible for captured Islamic State (IS) fighters.

With such an ambitious safe zone plan, however, Turkey may risk alienating all parties involved in the puzzle, if they are not already alienated. The Syrian refugees in Turkey are afraid to be resettled in a potentially conflict-ridden zone. Members of the Syrian opposition believe that Turkey is preparing the stage to fully abandon the mission to protect the Syrian people. For their part, the Syrian Kurds feel the threat of being forced to migrate to Arab-majority towns. The United States vehemently opposes any plan that would threaten American presence in northern Syria. And the Assad regime and its backers in Tehran do not support a Turkish military incursion into Syrian territory. To be sure, if Turkey acts alone, Ankara would risk its own domestic security; the attacks by IS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside Turkey in recent years illustrate this reality. Thus, by heating up the border with Syria, the relocation policy likely will not serve Turkey’s main goal in the Syrian war—i.e., to secure the borders from the PKK and its affiliates.

Turkish foreign policy confusions are not confined to Syria. From Libya to Sudan, Turkey has found itself in intense competition and military conflicts at multiple fronts. As Turkey’s “Muslim Democracy” model and soft power have been fading away, Turkish military activism now dominates its foreign policy vision. A trust in hard power, however, requires a match between capabilities and aspirations. Despite the ambitious nature of Turkey’s regional plans as an aspiring hegemon, Ankara has long suffered from the lack of skill in delivering successful outcomes.

A sketch of Turkey’s current policy choices in the region indicates two contradictory trends: 1) a willingness to push the neo-Ottomanist agenda with Arab Spring ideals, i.e. the resistance to the status quo; and 2) an impulse to prioritize Turkish nationalist interest over the ideals of the Arab Spring. 

A sketch of Turkey’s current policy choices in the region indicates two contradictory trends: 1) a willingness to push the neo-Ottomanist agenda with Arab Spring ideals, i.e. the resistance to the status quo; and 2) an impulse to prioritize Turkish nationalist interest over the ideals of the Arab Spring. In Libya, Ankara is on the defensive to protect what could be its last bastion in northern Africa against the Egypt-UAE-Saudi Arabia alliance. In the Red Sea region, Turkey lacks a long-term vision; indeed, will Ankara normalize relations with the new Sudanese regime to protect its economic interests and investments, or will it choose to continue sheltering the high-level bureaucrats from the regime of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir?

Turkey’s Downfall in Syria

The confusion is most apparent in Turkey’s Syria policy, which may offer a clear example of how contradictory steps have hurt Ankara’s own interests as well as those of its Syrian allies. Since Russia’s direct intervention in the Syrian war in 2015, Turkey’s military operations in the conflict were very problematic for the Syrian opposition. The fall of Aleppo, for example, was a direct outcome of Turkey’s strategic choice to counter the Kurdish belt in northern Syria. Turkey’s priorities did not always match the Syrian opposition’s best interests—especially after the 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan, which led to an ultranationalist tone with a nativist sentiment in Turkish foreign policy. Turkey has used the Russia-led Astana process to criminalize the Syrian Kurds first and foremost, making the opposition’s demands secondary. Turkey’s recent deportations of Syrian refugees back to Idlib as well as a massive relocation planning in the eastern Euphrates have raised questions about Ankara’s long-term objectives.

Shifting policy orientations and Turkish nationalism also do not serve Turkey’s well-being in securing its borders. By potentially forcing Syrian refugees to settle in a conflict zone and coercing Kurds to migrate from northern Syria, Turkey would certainly be playing with fire. Such demographic engineering may backfire as survey data indicate that the majority of the Syrian refugees would like to remain within Turkey. If Turkey chooses to deport them en masse, it may cause a major uproar that could damage Erdoğan’s image in the Arab world. At any rate, a forced deportation of three million Syrians may be technically impossible.

Erdoğan’s United Nations speech signaled that Turkey would pursue a carrot-and-stick approach. On the one hand, by building attractive towns with newly established homes, Syrians would be allowed to claim their new land at the expense of the Kurdish population in these areas. On the other hand, the Turkish government is likely to cut financial aid to Syrian families, thus increasing the multifaceted pressures: Syrian refugees’ temporary status, recent government policies to restrict health services, language barriers, and other public pressures may be unbearable for the refugees to remain in Turkey.

Such a carrot-and-stick policy is especially appealing to Erdoğan. The planned reconstruction would cost at least $27 billion (to settle one million refugees) and the government contract would reenergize the construction sector that is dominated by the ruling party’s cronies. Turkey’s domestic political context is still a powerful factor in shaping foreign policy choices. In addition to financial benefits, the safe zone plan may consolidate Erdoğan’s nationalist block in the Turkish parliament against the rising threats of two new parties that are currently being formed by Erdoğan’s old friends, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Ali Babacan. Moreover, Erdoğan’s move would likely disrupt the rapprochement between the main opposition Republican Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) after the Istanbul municipal elections.

Turkey’s domestic political context is still a powerful factor in shaping foreign policy choices.

Erdoğan’s gambit, however, may end with self-humiliation; relocating millions of refugees would not be smooth and the Turkish unilateral military operation may be faced with stiff resistance by Kurdish factions in northern Syria. There is already bipartisan support in the US Congress to implement the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which aims to deter Turkey’s defense partnership with Russia. Moreover, even if American troops leave Syria, Turkey’s unilateral takeover of Syrian territory will never be tolerated by Damascus, which will then support the Kurds in checking Ankara.

Slippery Slope in Libya?

In the Libyan context, Turkey is more consistent compared to the Syrian scene: the Turkish government has long been supportive of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army who is backed by the Egyptian-Emirati-Saudi alliance. Ankara, however, appears to be confused about the level of military engagement that will be required to sustain the balance of power in Libya. Haftar’s forces now control vast territory in Libya and his military campaign to capture Tripoli has drawn Turkey into a seemingly endless conflict. Turkey has been delivering armored vehicles and armed drones to the GNA with a contract of $350 million worth of military equipment.

Ankara perceives its involvement in the Libyan civil war as an act of defense to secure its interests—not only in Libya but also in the region where the Egypt-UAE-Saudi Arabia axis has pursued aggressive policies. Yet, how long Turkey can handle the arms race with the wealthy Gulf states is a major question for Turkish policymakers. Turkey does not want to repeat its mistakes in the Syrian war with another slippery slope policy in Libya. With tens of millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and military aircraft deliveries by the UAE and Egypt, General Haftar is likely to wage a long war.

Ankara perceives its involvement in the Libyan civil war as an act of defense to secure its interests—not only in Libya but also in the region where the Egypt-UAE-Saudi Arabia axis has pursued aggressive policies.

Turkey’s Libya policy is not only driven by Erdoğan’s Islamist ideological affinity with the GNA’s leadership but also by Turkish geostrategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean power game. In the past few years, Greece filled the vacuum in the Mediterranean waters north of Libya and achieved a stronger position for reaching an agreement with Greek Cypriots on sharing the naval sovereignty areas, which threatens the Turkish Cypriots’ naval zones. Disturbed by the Greece-Egypt-Israel alliance to share rich hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey perceives Libya’s GNA as a strategic partner to preserve its interests. The GNA’s apparent weak position vis-à-vis General Haftar, however, complicates Turkey’s projections in the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey’s hesitation to escalate the Libyan war was also a source of confusion for the pro-GNA militias, who reported frustration about half-hearted support.

Lack of Foresight in the Red Sea

With expansion of military and economic ties, Turkey has emerged as a major player in the Horn of Africa in the past decade. In Somalia, where Turkey opened its largest embassy in the world, Turkey’s footprints are most remarkable—from development projects to schools and Turkish companies that enjoy lucrative business ties. Ankara was also targeted during the Gulf crisis after the blockade of Qatar in 2017 and thus was confronted with increasing challenges as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have exerted pressures in Somalia and Sudan. Turkey’s response was opening the largest overseas military base in Mogadishu and appointing a special envoy for Somalia and Somaliland talks. The militarized competition with the Gulf regimes, however, has put Turkey in a most difficult position.

Ankara is struggling to define its new policy orientation in the Red Sea, especially after the fall of Bashir’s regime in Sudan. Turkey’s close relations with his regime were rooted in the ideological alignment of Islamist leanings; therefore, Erdoğan initially equated the coup in Sudan as “a coup against Turkey,” orchestrated by rivals in the Gulf. Turkey, then, stepped back to moderate its tone and supported the civilian opposition to the Sudanese military council. Later, after the power-sharing deal in Sudan, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoğlu met with the military leader Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, indicating Ankara’s willingness to cooperate with the Sudanese government.

Turkey hopes to secure its deal with Bashir’s regime over rebuilding Suakin Island in the Red Sea, which was a historical Ottoman port that is strategically located as the nearest Sudanese port to Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah seaport. Despite Ankara’s emphasis that its goal is tourism for Muslim pilgrims, the deal may raise eyebrows in Riyadh with a fear that Turkey may want to increase its military presence in the region. Turkey’s other financial agreements with the previous Sudanese regime included a new airport in Khartoum, a free-trade zone in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and private sector investments in power stations, cotton production, grain silos, and meat processing.

Turkey hopes to secure its deal with Bashir’s regime over rebuilding Suakin Island in the Red Sea, which was a historical Ottoman port that is strategically located as the nearest Sudanese port to Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah seaport.

Given that Sudan’s new leadership is effectively on good terms with the Saudi axis, it is unclear how Turkey will scramble to protect its economic interests successfully. Important questions about this situation have arisen, such as what happens if Sudanese military leaders push extradition requests for Bashir’s closest deputies who are currently sheltered by the Turkish government. Will the Turkish government take an ideological stance or will it use them as a card for deal-making with the new government in Khartoum? Contradictory signals from Ankara indicate that Turkey has employed a wait-and-see approach instead of a proactive agenda.

Confusion in the NATO Axis: Did Washington Lose Turkey?

Turkey’s confusing foreign policy choices—as well as its rapprochement with Russia and increasing disputes with the United States—have generated serious discussions in Washington. Turkish government officials believe the strategic value of an Ankara-Moscow engagement as a balancing act that serves Turkey’s interests. The confusion in the NATO axis over the Kurds’ future in Syria and Iraq has become a staple of foreign policy meetings on Turkey, a country that hosts the second largest standing military force in NATO. Russia skillfully exploited the rift by selling the S-400 defense system to Turkey and is now offering Su-35 and Su-57 as an alternative for the American F-35 aircraft.

Perhaps the division among the Washington elite on how to deal with Turkey is partially due to the contradictory statements from Ankara about Turkey’s vision for the future.

Perhaps the division among the Washington elite on how to deal with Turkey is partially due to the contradictory statements from Ankara about Turkey’s vision for the future. After the S-400 purchase, Erdoğan offered reassurances regarding Turkey’s commitment to NATO. Later, however, he issued remarks on Turkey’s right to acquire nuclear weapons. Given that Turkey is already one of the five NATO countries where nuclear weapons are deployed—although they cannot use them unilaterally—Erdoğan’s comments raised questions about Turkey’s foreign policy orientation.

The confusion in Turkey’s approach stems from the mismatch between the country’s aspirations and capabilities. Turkey’s ambitions to become a regional hegemon do not mesh with its current realities. The Syrian refugee issue has destabilized the Turkish economy and compromised domestic harmony. Regional alliances have been reshaped in new ways after the Arab uprisings, leaving Ankara to recalculate its political and military positions in the region. Until Ankara redefines its strategic priorities with a clear and realistic vision, Turkey will continue to conflate the power it wants to project with what it is actually able to accomplish as well as to perplex its allies.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here