Turkey's Grand Plans for Middle East Primacy

December 21, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Middle East Watch Tags: TurkeyStrategyErdoganPoliticsMiddle East

Turkey's Grand Plans for Middle East Primacy

Ankara’s grand strategy can be seen as combining military, political and economic initiatives into similar frameworks and having a willingness to use threats to achieve its goals.

Ankara’s message to NATO was clear after the meeting. It had largely skirted concerns over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 and used the Baltics issue and YPG to make Ankara appear that NATO needed to cater to its demands. After the summit, Turkey’s AKP party spokesman Omer Celik said: “Everyone in the NATO summit emphasized Turkey’s power and its indispensability.”

Turkey wants the EU states to not critique its Syrian offensives. It has demanded its role not be called an “invasion” and threatened in October to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe if it was accused of “occupying” Syria. The EU has been sending Turkey up to $6 billion to keep refugees from crossing in the waves they did in 2015, leading EU states to realize they lack leverage over Turkey today. $1.6 billion was sent in July to Turkey from Europe. Ankara uses the refugee issue and trade to secure its needs in Europe. For instance, in the UK, which is facing leaving the EU under Brexit, Turkey secured support from Boris Johnson. Johnson said the PKK was a real threat on December 4. Only France’s Macron is particularly tough on Turkey today. Ankara has carved out other special relationships in Europe, such as with Hungary. Despite tensions with Greece and other Mediterranean countries, Turkey’s Cavusoglu was in Rome for a Mediterranean Dialogues conference on December 6.

On the Libya and Mediterranean issue, Turkey has sought to expand more than a year of increasing operations in the sea. Naval exercises in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean in February and March concerned Athens. As with Turkey, raising the Adana agreement with Syria in January, the naval operations raised discussions about a 1996 crisis with Turkey that almost led to conflict. Turkey was seeking to expand its “blue motherland” Greek reports indicated. In October, Turkey sent a drilling ship off the coast of Cyprus to show that it could operate in areas off Cyprus due to Turkey’s support for Northern Cyprus. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Turkey’s drilling as unacceptable and illegal. Turkey says it doesn’t recognize the “Greek Cypriot administration.” This is the opposite of Turkey’s dealing with Libya, where it works with the UN-recognized government in Tripoli to secure deals off the coast of the unrecognized government of eastern Libya.

Turkey says it is ready to talk to Greece and have “multilateral” agreements. But the reality is that Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and Greece appear to more closely linked in their understanding of the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece, Cyprus and Egypt have increasingly cooperated, on naval issues, calling on Turkey to end provocative actions. Greece wants NATO support over the dispute.

Turkey’s ability to get Libya to sign off on an agreement in the Mediterranean is linked to its larger Middle East policy. Turkey has been a close ally of Qatar for many years, a relationship that grew dramatically after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut relations with Qatar in 2017. Erdogan went to Qatar on November 25 to discuss a new military base that it said would improve regional security. Both Turkey and Qatar oppose Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Turkey was a keen supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi who was pushed from power in 2013. Turkey’s ruling party and Qatar also both enjoy warm relations with Hamas. This is part of a larger fondness for parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s TRT notes that many senior Brotherhood exiles live in Turkey. Turkey also hosted Jamal Khashoggi, the exiled Saudi Arabian former insider who was murdered in 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, who appeared on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, had supported parties rooted in political Islam, according to a November 2017 Al-Jazeera interview with him. After his murder, Turkish-Saudi relations, already cold, grew worse.

This is the regional security framework that puts Turkey and Qatar on the side of the Tripoli-based Libyan government and in opposition to the LNA. The LNA is backed by Egypt and reportedly backed by Russia, the UAE and other states. UAE’s The National describes Haftar’s war in Libya as being “determined to oust the militias and extremist groups they say run the capital.” Turkey is accused of supplying drones and vehicles to Tripoli. Turkey’s Anadolu accuses the UAE of supplying drones to the LNA. Libya is more than just a proxy war though, it’s part of that larger regional struggle that pits Turkey and Qatar against the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others. It is no surprise therefore that this links up in the Mediterranean where Turkey sides with Tripoli and Egypt sides with Greece. The struggle also plays out in east Africa as Turkey and others vie for influence in Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and other states. Here again, the Turkey-Russia relationship may find them sometimes on the same or different sides in places like Libya.

All of the conflicts summarized so far could be portrayed as Ankara believing it is a victim on the defensive and choosing an aggressive offense as its best response. That is how Erdogan and his close allies, such as Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, Hakan Fidan of the National Intelligence Organization, advisor Ibrahim Kalin and Yasin Aktay, sometimes portray Turkey’s role. They both articulate Turkey’s strength and unwillingness to compromise on issues like the YPG, while arguing that Turkey is merely insisting on its rights in places like the Mediterranean and in dealing with NATO.

Turkey was able to convince Trump that Obama-era policies angered Turkey and that Turkey was forced to buy the S-400 because it didn’t get the Patriot system. Under this logic it got the United States to offer the Patriots in December 2018. But the deal was pulled in August 2019 because of the S-400 delivery. Nevertheless, Ankara continues to insist that it was the former U.S. administration that harmed U.S. relations due to supporting the YPG against ISIS, rather than just working with Turkey. That’s why pro-government media like Anadolu run analysis claiming that “the US no longer behaves toward Turkey and its region with the vision and wisdom that guided decisions made in WWII’s immediate aftermath.”

The end result is a Turkish foreign policy that has also strayed. It has gone far from the “zero problems” concept of 2008, passing the “neo-Ottoman” concepts to a regional role that is predicated on a few allies but a much larger gambit involving Russia and muscular actions stretching from Tripoli to the border with Iran. In this area, Turkey is expanding its own indigenous defense industry, and trade deals. It is also trying to project itself as involved in global Islamic causes. Turkey has criticized China’s treatment of Uighurs in February and slammed India for its role in Kashmir. It led criticism of Trump’s Jerusalem decision in December 2018, hosting a session of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to oppose it. Erdogan compared Israel to Nazi Germany at the UN in September, part of its attempt to champion the Palestinian cause. It is important to Turkey’s ruling party to play a role in these various “Islamic” issues using both rhetoric and also soft power, such as inaugurating a new mosque in the UK. Ankara said it wanted to work with Pakistan and Malaysia on a new global TV network to “fight Islamophobia” in September. Ankara has also transformed TRT into part of its soft power, like Al-Jazeera is for Qatar or RT for Russia, to push programming that is uncritical of Turkey’s leadership but improves Ankara’s image abroad.

Ankara’s grand strategy can be seen as combining military, political and economic initiatives into similar frameworks and having a willingness to use threats to achieve its goals. This includes both bluster and action. For instance, Ankara has shown its willingness to go beyond normal diplomatic behavior in attacks on protesters in Washington in May 2017 during a presidential visit, and controversial extraditions from places like Kosovo of those Turkey claims are linked to a 2016 coup attempt. Turkey expects to get what it wants from NATO in relation to Syria, much as it got the US to withdraw in October. Ankara is very good at encouraging countries and groups like NATO, the EU or the United States to see its alliance and cooperation as essential to regional security. Turkish media openly acknowledges this, with Daily Sabah noting on December 4 that “NATO countries are making the same mistake that the Soviets made” in the 1940s, allegedly leading to Turkey being willing to risk the alliance over perceived maltreatment. Ankara’s message is NATO needs Turkey more than Turkey needs NATO.

So far Turkey’s grand strategy of extending its influence from the Mediterranean to Iran and acting on a global scale regarding causes such as Kashmir or Jerusalem, while pushing the EU, UN and NATO to sign off on its policies, has not harmed Ankara. It thrives off of constant crises on all fronts while saying that it is winning every file. That’s partly because its adversaries are either in disarray or those who oppose Turkey’s actions tend to think that provoke Ankara will only make the tension worse. Like Iran, Turkey has gained over the last several years from weak neighboring states and worsening relations between Russia and the West. It has also won out due to the Gulf dispute drawing Qatar closer. Turkey now needs close relations with Russia and Iran, as well as to maintain its base in Qatar, and keep the Tripoli government afloat if it is to achieve its regional ambitions and the global role that flows through them.