Turkey Recalibrates Its Hard Power
Turkey Recalibrates Its Hard Power
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (3rd L) looks on next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) as NATO Heads of the states and governments pose for a family photo prior to a NATO summit. YVES HERMAN / POOL / AFP
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 8 minutes

Turkey Recalibrates Its Hard Power

Ankara believes it has reaped strategic benefits from military involvement in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet it has paid a price as well, discomfiting both allies and adversaries. Now, Turkey hopes to rebuild ties so as to consolidate its new gains.

Since 2016, when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan survived a coup attempt, the Turkish leader has added a military edge to his foreign policy. Turkey’s subsequent interventions in Syria and Libya and support for Azerbaijan in its mid-2020 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh have paid dividends for Erdoğan, not only in those conflicts but also at home, shoring up his nationalist support. Ankara’s activism abroad has, however, unnerved not just rivals, but also some of Turkey’s allies, particularly Western powers already troubled by Erdoğan’s domestic policies and relations with Russia. To mitigate the fallout, Ankara has sought to smoothe ruffled feathers in the West. But even if Turkey and its Western allies can put some of their differences behind them, their divergent interests and worldviews suggest that tension and mistrust will persist.

The Benefits 

From its own perspective, Turkey has done well from its military operations abroad.

From its own perspective, Turkey has done well from its military operations abroad. Its multiple cross-border incursions into northern Syria since 2016 have clipped the wings of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian group that Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its enemy in nearly four decades of ruinous conflict at home. Turkey’s involvement in Syria has also prevented – at least for now – a regime advance backed by Russia into north west Syria that could have driven millions of refugees and retreating jihadists across the border into Turkey and beyond. Ankara has managed to turn what otherwise would have been a certain win for Damascus into a frozen conflict.

In Libya, Turkey intervened just as the UN-recognised government in Tripoli came under siege by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces. If Ankara had not sent military assistance, as well as Syrian mercenaries and its own officers, Haftar would likely have captured the Libyan capital. Had that happened, Turkey would have had no chance of settling billions of dollars worth of old infrastructure contracts in Libya or securing new ones. It also would not have been able to conclude the maritime delimitation agreement it signed with Tripoli in late 2019, an accord it sees as a game changer in its dispute with Greece over jurisdiction in the eastern Mediterranean, even if no other country recognises the deal. Turkey’s economic and geostrategic interests aside, Ankara believes – arguably with good reason – that by changing the tide of the war while at the same time showing restraint in not pushing too far east, which might have provoked Egyptian intervention, it paved the road to the UN-brokered peace deal and unity government.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey supplied military advisers, armed drones and more Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan, which used them to regain territories it had lost to Armenian forces in the early 1990s. By aiding Baku in the six-week war, Erdoğan showed himself to be a valuable ally. He also bolstered his own political clout by making possible what had long seemed out of reach: a land corridor between Azerbaijan and Turkey.  

Turkish officials argue that in all three conflicts Ankara’s military decisiveness compensated for Western inertia. They believe they have proven wrong Western critics who argued that Turkey’s intervention in Libya and Syria would merely prolong the wars and cause more bloodshed. They are also proud of having stood up to Moscow, which is a principal backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a supporter of Haftar and an ally of Armenia. The interventions also won the Turkish military valuable operational experience and showcased advances in the Turkish defence industry – particularly drones – all at little cost in Turkish casualties. The financial toll is substantial, particularly the cost of providing food, electricity and water to the pockets of northern Syria that Turkey controls, but officials point out that hosting more refugees would be a greater burden. Moreover, the expense may be offset over time: Turkish companies are eyeing reconstruction opportunities in all three of these countries. Meanwhile, states including Albania, Kazahkstan, Morocco, Poland, Qatar, Serbia, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine have purchased Turkish drones – or plan to do so.

The Costs

But every silver lining has its cloud. Other powers are unhappy with Turkey’s interventions. Although Ankara argues its military advisers in Libya were invited by the Tripoli government and should remain until indigenous forces can maintain security, many European governments and regional powers – notably Egypt, one of Haftar’s main supporters – want Ankara to withdraw them, seeing Turkey’s forces as foreign troops on Libyan soil. In Syria, especially in the north-western Idlib enclave, where they help monitor a tenuous ceasefire, Turkish troops face the constant threat of Russian-backed regime assault. Though Ankara has given signals that it is ready to re-establish relations with Armenia, many Armenians distrust Turkey more than ever, and look even more to Russia for protection. Besides, whatever Turkey’s accomplishments in the South Caucasus, it is Russia, the dominant external player in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict even before the war, which has now consolidated that position with a new peacekeeping presence there.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies view Ankara’s course as cause for worry, particularly in combination with other factors. Although they view each of the interventions differently – and don’t necessarily themselves all agree – they are perturbed by Ankara’s apparent readiness to use force abroad to pursue its interests. Many are also highly critical of Erdoğan’s domestic policies, which they see as increasingly authoritarian, and of Turkey’s 2017 purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles. With NATO deeply at odds with Moscow over a range of European and global security issues, some allies look at these weapons and wonder which side Ankara is on. To them, Turkey’s standoffs with Russia in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh look more like cordial detente than geostrategic rivalry. Allies were further discomfited by Turkey’s July 2020 contretemps with fellow NATO member Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, when many European Union (EU) capitals threatened Ankara with sanctions.

Those sanctions have not yet come to pass, but Ankara is aware that issues besides the maritime dispute with Greece could trigger them. They would be particularly unwelcome now, with the 2023 general election looming. Since 2016, Erdoğan has stayed politically strong thanks to his alliance with staunch nationalists, but recent polls show his numbers falling. One path to greater popularity would be to attract foreign investment to generate growth, which would mean, first and foremost, averting new U.S. or EU sanctions.

Mending Fences

Western partners are ... Ankara’s top priority for fence-mending.

Western partners are thus Ankara’s top priority for fence-mending. Turkey is, first of all, trying to impress upon Washington and other Western capitals that it is a geopolitical asset. One line of reasoning is that Ankara’s interventions have earned it expertise that should be valuable to its allies. As a Turkish diplomat told Crisis Group: “We are the only NATO country with experience manoeuvring against Russia in real life – we know how they function, we know their weapons. This is more valuable than any amount of military exercises”. Ankara also points out that it contributes to NATO security sector development programs in Iraq, and has instituted security cooperation with Ukraine, a Western friend and Russian adversary. With U.S. and NATO soldiers departing from Afghanistan, Turkey has offered to protect the Kabul airport (and perhaps do more). Lastly, proving its capacity not to overreact to what it has traditionally seen as Western provocations, Ankara kept mum when President Joe Biden followed the U.S. Congress in describing the Ottoman Empire’s massacre of Armenians during World War I as genocide.

Yet Ankara has not shifted its strategic calculus to seek alignment with its NATO allies on every issue. For one thing, those allies are themselves far from fully aligned with one another: in Libya, most European governments supported the Tripoli-based internationally recognised government, though some in practice also lent support to Haftar; while, separately, Greece has itself purchased Russian weapons. Turkey’s actions reflect real interests in what it sees as an evolving multipolar world order. Ankara is not confident that it can trust anyone save itself to look out for its essential security needs. Allies, it notes, either lack the resolve to get deeply involved in conflicts in Turkey’s neighbourhood or, in some cases, are bent on limiting Turkey’s influence. That Turkey needs to pull itself up by its own bootstraps is a line repeated frequently in Ankara – and not just by government officials.

That means maintaining a reasonably genial relationship with Russia. Ankara is wary of countering Moscow too strongly, lest Russia retaliate by working against Turkish interests in Syria or the Caucasus, imposing bans on Russian tourists to Turkey or cutting imports of Turkish foodstuffs, as it did in 2016 with devastating impact after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft for allegedly violating Turkish airspace on the border with Syria. As it recalibrates its positions, Ankara will be mindful of doing minimal damage to its ties with Russia.

If Erdoğan were to cave in to Western pressure ... nationalists would rise up in opposition.

Domestic political concerns also keep Turkey on its independent course. Turkish society has long rewarded leaders able to stand up to Western partners to pursue an autonomous, multi-dimensional foreign policy. If Erdoğan were to cave in to Western pressure to open more space for the Kurdish political movement, for example, nationalists would rise up in opposition. Already, some are arguing that the West will use Erdoğan’s fading poll numbers to force Ankara to make concessions. The president may judge that his political future is better assured if he adheres to hardline positions and thus maintains nationalists’ support.

Agreeing to Disagree?

Ankara’s preferred outcome is that its NATO allies simply agree to disagree where it will not compromise, and then everyone cooperate where interests align. This includes Afghanistan, as noted above, as well as the places where Turkey has become militarily involved. In Syria, Ankara is instrumental to several Western goals: keeping Idlib out of Assad’s hands, making sure humanitarian aid continues flowing there, curbing Iranian and Russian influence and keeping new flows of refugees – or even potentially jihadists – away from Europe’s borders. In Libya, having been crucial to enabling the UN peace process to take its course, if Turkey can mend ties with Haftar supporters inside and outside the country, it may be able to play a continued and more widely accepted role, potentially in helping professionalise the security sector. In the South Caucasus, Turkey should establish diplomatic relations and open roads for trade with Armenia, which, after three decades of closed borders and no official relations, can yield dividends for all involved and would like be welcomed by Turkey’s Western allies.

Turkey’s allies are, however, unlikely to back away from criticism of those of Turkey’s actions with which they disagree. An uneasy and likely unstable detente remains the most probable scenario, at least for the near term, as Turkey and its allies pursue shared goals in some places, but can’t paper over their differences elsewhere.

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