Turkey’s Activist Regional Policies Are a Double-Edged Sword

In recent years, Turkey has embarked on a more active stance in the Arab region. It is part of what has been dubbed a neo-Ottoman foreign policy that reflects President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to be the leader of the Sunni Muslim world and extend Turkish influence in Arab lands formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Ankara has achieved some tactical victories, most recently in Libya where it helped to reverse the military gains by the self-proclaimed commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), General Khalifa Haftar, and shore up the Government of National Accord (GNA). At the same time, Turkey has also engendered hostility from a bloc of influential Arab countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) that strongly opposes Erdoğan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and his desire to establish military bases and security relationships in the region. With its domestic economy on a downward spiral, Turkey is also hoping that this enhanced regional role will yield financial benefits.

Reviving Ottoman Symbols and Championing the Palestinian Cause

Erdoğan’s world view reflects both grievance and ambition. As head of Turkey’s ruling Islamist party, Justice and Development (AKP), Erdoğan sees his mission as championing the cause of aggrieved Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. For ideological reasons, he also wants to tout himself as a leader of the Sunni Muslim world who supports fellow Islamist parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, against their many detractors.

For ideological reasons, [Erdoğan] also wants to tout himself as a leader of the Sunni Muslim world who supports fellow Islamist parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, against their many detractors.

Erdoğan’s recent decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque is symbolically tied to this posture. This former Byzantine cathedral was converted into a mosque when the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453. It remained so until Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic, turned it into a museum in the mid-1930s. Many writers have suggested that  Erdoğan made this decision for domestic reasons: to shore up his Islamist base and elicit the support of Turkish nationalist parties to deflect popular anger over the economy. However, in his decree on July 10th he sent a message to the larger Muslim world stating, in part, that “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the harbinger of the liberation of Dome of the Rock”—a reference to Al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam that has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.

This reference to Jerusalem was undoubtedly connected to his advocacy of the Palestinian cause.  Erdoğan has been outspoken in support of Palestinian rights and in his criticism of Israeli policies, particularly those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has long had an acrimonious relationship. Significantly, Erdoğan has maintained good relations with both Hamas, an ideological ally, and the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by the secular-oriented PLO. These positions have earned Turkey a considerable amount of goodwill in the Arab world, for which the Palestinian cause still resonates even though attention to it in recent years has been sidelined, to some extent, by internal Arab conflicts as well as antagonism to Iran.

Moreover, Erdoğan has shown that despite being a NATO ally of the United States, he is not reticent about criticizing Washington over the Israel/Palestine issue. For example, he strongly criticized the decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. His unequivocal championship of the Palestinian cause and his strong criticism of Israel have also contrasted with the position of some Gulf Arab states that have sought closer and unofficial ties to Israel in recent years in their effort to oppose Iran.

However, trying to revive the Ottoman past and its symbols does not always work to Turkey’s advantage. In parts of the Arab world, the Ottoman legacy is not viewed kindly. The existence of a “Martyr’s Square” in both Beirut and Damascus, named for Arab nationalists of both Muslim and Christian backgrounds who were hanged by the ultra-nationalist Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, is a reminder of a troubled history. In addition, the Arab Revolt, led by the Hashemite tribe against the Ottomans during this same conflict, is remembered in many circles as a glorious chapter in modern Arab history.

Turkey’s Multi-faceted Syria Policy

Although Erdoğan initially courted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the latter came to power in 2000, the two became bitter enemies after 2011 when the Syrian regime brutally cracked down on protesters, a situation which then morphed into the civil war. Erdoğan took up the cause of the Syrian rebels (most of whom were Sunni Muslims) and allowed more than three million Syrian refugees safe haven in Turkey. In addition to wanting the fall of Assad and his Alawi-dominated regime and its replacement by a pro-Turkish Sunni regime (which now seems unlikely), Turkey has pursued other agendas.

In addition to wanting the fall of Assad and his Alawi-dominated regime and its replacement by a pro-Turkish Sunni regime (which now seems unlikely), Turkey has pursued other agendas. 

For several years, Turkey allowed thousands of Islamist extremists from Europe and the Middle East to traverse the country to join the so-called Islamic State (IS). Many of these extremists would fly to Istanbul and then take a bus to the Syrian border, where they easily crossed into Syrian territory with the knowledge of Turkish authorities. Why Erdoğan pursued this policy may be related to a desire to avert IS attacks on the Turkish state or, perhaps, as a way to hasten the demise of Assad. His strategy may also have been related to the Kurdish issue.

During the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Kurds were able to carve out an autonomous enclave in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border. They called it Rojava, meaning “west” in the Kurdish language, a reference to the western part of aspirational Kurdistan. Turkey has adamantly opposed this statelet because the dominant Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party(PYD), and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have links to the Turkish-based Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. Erdoğan also did not want the creation of Rojava to give inspiration to Turkish Kurds. For the past six years, the US military has partnered with Syrian Kurds because it considered them very effective fighters against IS; in October 2019, however, Erdoğan persuaded President Donald Trump to pull US troops from this corridor, which enabled the Turkish military and its Syrian Arab allies to occupy this area and force tens of thousands of Kurds to flee their homes. Although the United States, with a reduced force, still works with Syrian Kurds against IS cells, the Turks and their allies now occupy the border region where Erdoğan has said he wants to relocate one million Syrian Arab refugees as a “safe zone”—though only a fraction of them has actually gone there.

Turkey has maintained military units and observation outposts in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, which contains as many as three million internally displaced Syrian refugees. 

In addition, Turkey has maintained military units and observation outposts in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, which contains as many as three million internally displaced Syrian refugees. In an agreement between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, Idlib was supposed to be a safe haven for these refugees while Turkey has pledged to go after terrorists in the area. In late 2019 and early 2020, the Assad government, backed by Russia, sent troops into Idlib in what was considered by Ankara as a breach of the agreement and clashed with some Turkish troops and their allies. Despite its warmer relations with Turkey, Russia—along with the Assad government—had accused the Turks of not cracking down on Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda-linked force that is prominent in the province. In March 2020, Russia and Turkey came to an agreement to halt the Assad government’s air and ground campaign in Idlib. While some small clashes in the province have occurred since then, there are now joint Russian-Turkish patrols to try to stabilize the area. Ankara is using this partial occupation of Idlib, along with its participation in the so-called Astana process (named for the capital of Kazakhstan, where Russia, Turkey, and Iran have met to discuss Syrian issues), to remain a player on the future of Syria and to keep refugees in Idlib from crossing into Turkey.

Turkey’s enemies in the Arab world, particularly Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, have been critical of Ankara’s role in Syria, believing that it should not intervene in Arab affairs. They see Turkey’s tolerance of HTS in Idlib, as well as its previous, indirect support for IS, as part of a radical Islamist agenda that Ankara wants to impose on Syria as well as the region as a whole.

A Tactical Win in Libya but a Regional Backlash

Although Turkey was not the first outside power to involve itself in the Libyan civil war, its recent intervention has proved decisive, at least in the short term. The Libyan situation is not only an internal conflict between the House of Representatives, based in Tobruk (and backed militarily by Haftar’s LNA) and the United Nations-supported GNA based in Tripoli, it is also an ideological proxy war, with Turkey and Qatar supporting the GNA, while Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are backing Haftar for the opposite reason.

In late 2019, Turkey and the GNA reached an agreement whereby the former would send troops and military equipment (including drones) to Libya to stem and roll back Haftar’s offensive while the latter would support Turkey’s claim to areas of the eastern Mediterranean Sea where large gas deposits have been found. Turkey may have also secured promises of oil and other commercial contracts from GNA officials. Ankara not only sent its own military officers but some 3,800 Syrian Arab mercenaries (many of whom are radical Islamists) to fight in Libya, paying each of them $2,000 a month and offering them the promise of obtaining Turkish citizenship. This military intervention was effective in stopping Haftar’s offensive, forcing him to retreat to the western outskirts of Sirte, a city in the central coastal region of Libya. On the other hand, Russia has also introduced mercenaries to the conflict in Libya, organized by the Wagner group.

Turkey’s military intervention, however, has provoked a backlash from Egypt which, under the rule of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has been angered by Erdoğan’s granting refuge to many Egyptian Muslim Brothers and allowing them to broadcast anti-Egyptian government messages. Cairo is also troubled by Erdoğan’s ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, which threaten Egyptian gas fields and plans for joint pipelines in the area. Sisi has recently stated that any Turkish/Qatari-backed offensive to take Sirte would be a “red line” for him that would prompt an Egyptian military intervention; indeed, a delegation from the Tobruk House of Representatives has urged him to deploy his military there. Meanwhile, the UAE, which is equally opposed to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, may have been behind a July 5 attack on a military base in western Libya that is now controlled by the GNA. Turkey’s activist posture in Libya thus runs the risk of a wider military conflict. Although it is unclear if Sisi will intervene in Libya with ground troops, he is worried that if the GNA, backed by Turkey, moves farther east, Egypt’s western border would be vulnerable to Islamist infiltration.

Although it is unclear if Sisi will intervene in Libya with ground troops, he is worried that if the GNA, backed by Turkey, moves farther east, Egypt’s western border would be vulnerable to Islamist infiltration. 

GCC Fissures and Turkey’s Role in the Arabian Peninsula

A few years prior to the boycott of Qatar in 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, Qatar invited Turkey to establish a military base in the country. Although initially staffed with only a few hundred troops, the Turkish military presence may soon grow to a brigade of 2,000 men and it remains an irritant among the boycotting countries. In fact, one of the 13 demands that these countries made of Qatar was to close down this Turkish base. In addition, the boycotting countries are upset with Qatar for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood not only because it hosts some prominent activists at home but also lends them support region-wide. The Qatar-Turkey alliance, established in large part because of this ideological affinity, has added to the coalition’s negative views of Erdoğan who, immediately after the boycott was announced, airlifted food supplies to Qatar. With no end in sight for the boycott, particularly given the UAE’s hard-line opposition to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatar-Turkey relationship has only deepened.

The boycotting countries, however, are not only concerned about the Turkish-Qatar alliance; they are also worried about Turkey’s military expansion on the opposite side of the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past few years, Turkey has established a base in Somalia and has sought to refurbish the Sudanese island of Suakin, which had been an important Red Sea trading post as well as a staging area for hajj pilgrims on their way to Mecca and Medina during Ottoman times. Although the Suakin issue may now be in abeyance because Erdoğan negotiated it with the former Sudanese leader Omar Bashir (who is now discredited and under arrest), it is indicative of Turkey’s regional ambitions in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula. The notion of the Turkish navy patrolling these waters is not only alarming to the Saudis and the Egyptians but to the UAE as well, which has been busy in the past few years seeking control of the ports in southern Yemen and establishing its own bases in the Horn of Africa.

Implications for US policy

US policy toward Turkey’s more activist regional policies is confusing, to say the least. While the Pentagon and the State Department remain wary of Ankara’s growing political and military ties to Russia and its policies in the eastern Mediterranean and against the Syrian Kurds,  Erdoğan has been able to circumvent this opposition by his close, personal relationship with President Trump, who often agrees with him after their frequent phone calls. But with Trump down in the polls, this leader-to-leader relationship may not be a winning strategy for Erdoğan for very long; he may soon be confronted with a new US president who is unlikely to be as indulgent. That may work to the advantage of the group of Arab countries which increasingly sees Turkey not as a friend but as a regional threat.

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