Turkey’s recent foreign policy actions have propelled the country to the top of global current affairs. In October 2019, Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in tandem with Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) staged Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria with the proclaimed goal of clearing its border of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey perceives as a top national security matter. Turkey made its move despite the overwhelming international opposition from the European Union (EU) and the United States. 

Turkey’s operation was so extraordinary that it shook Washington to its core. American legislators, particularly Democrats, and the US media spent no time dubbing Turkey’s operation as Trump’s biggest foreign policy blunder. In reality, America had no choice but to cave under the pressure that Turkey had been mounting for months. Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman’s remarks were reflective of this fact: “We have moved the US forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety,” he said in a tweet on October 8, 2019.

“We have moved the US forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety.”

Furthermore, in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has been flexing its military muscles against the alliance of Greece, Egypt, Greek Cypriots, and Israel (GECI) to preserve its perceived share of the maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and newly discovered lucrative hydrocarbon reserves. Ankara strongly opposes Greek Cypriots’ decision to unilaterally give out oil drilling rights to third parties on the grounds that it is a violation of the rights of the Turks of Cyprus. 

In a show of strength, Turkish warships chased the Italian ENI drillship off the coast of Cyprus in 2018. Turkey subsequently deployed its four drill ships to rebuke the Greek Cypriots’ attempt. ENI CEO Claudio Descalzi is quoted saying, “If someone turns up with warships, I won’t drill wells.” Months later, in May 2019, Turkey held the largest naval exercise in its modern history with the participation of 131 warships, 57 warplanes, 33 helicopters, and 25,900 military personnel in the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea simultaneously. Most recently, Turkish warships are said to have forced Israeli gas research vessels off of Cyprus coast.

To the dismay of GECI, in early December 2019, Turkey and Libya’s UN-recognized government officially declared that their maritime boundaries are adjacent. This move rendered the construction of an East Mediterranean gas pipeline to the lucrative European market impossible without Turkey’s consent. Desperate, Greece asked NATO for help only to be told by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “NATO is not part of the process to resolve issues between Greece and Turkey.” Finally, the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned that Turkey wouldn’t hesitate to use force to protect its perceived rights in the eastern Mediterranean. It now seems that no matter how much GECI tries to form a block to counter Turkey, they cannot get Ankara to back down. 

Three factors stand out: Erdogan’s strong-fisted leadership style, the deteriorating security environment in the region, and the decline of Western influence over Turkey. 

So, what is behind Turkey’s assertive and seemingly unstoppable foreign policy in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean? Three factors stand out: Erdogan’s strong-fisted leadership style, the deteriorating security environment in the region, and the decline of Western influence over Turkey. 

The Erdogan Factor

Tayyip Erdogan’s arrival on the political stage in 2003 marked the beginning of a fundamental paradigm shift in Turkish foreign policy. From then on, Turkey gradually abandoned the old stagnant and reactive foreign policy adopted by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, who in the early 1920s had to act cautiously to nurture the newborn republic. Under Erdogan’s tenure, the Kemalist caution was replaced by a vigorous and proactive international stance whereby Ankara would act preemptively before threats materialize. 

Furthermore, in what is also called “neo-Ottomanism,” Turkey, under President Erdogan, has aspired to re-establish its influence over the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa – the territories which the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey’s predecessor, had once dominated for almost six hundred years. Initially, soft power was the preferred choice to rekindle Turkey’s past influence over those regions. But because of the Arab Spring uprisings and ensuing security deterioration in the Middle East and North Africa, Turkish policymakers had to resort to hard power to preserve Turkey’s interests while preemptively thwarting perceived threats. However, repeated arms embargoes imposed by NATO allies taught Turks that Turkey wouldn’t have the required deterrence as long as its defense industry was dependent on foreign suppliers.

If there is one concept that may be defined as “the Erdogan Doctrine” in the current Turkish foreign policy, it is “strength through domestic military industry.”

 If there is one concept that may be defined as “the Erdogan Doctrine” in the current Turkish foreign policy, it is “strength through domestic military industry.” In this regard, Turkey has developed its own helicopters (T129 ATAK), armored personnel carriers (Kirpi), ballistic missiles (BORA) and cruise missiles (SOM) to name a few. Turkey has also been building indigenous corvettes, frigates, and submarines. For instance, four internally developed Ada class corvettes equipped with advanced electronic warfare capabilities have been ordered in 2019. Finally, Turkey is expected to commission its first domestically built aircraft carrier, TCG Anadolu, in 2020. 

It is this growing self-reliance of the Turkish military that has allowed Turkey to implement three incursions into Syria and to become a formidable naval force in the Mediterranean Sea despite numerous arms embargos from its NATO allies. Turkey’s rising influence in the region has also coincided with the overall declining power of the West and Western inability to control policy outcomes in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.

Western Power Decline and Loss of Influence over Turkey 

The European Union (EU) and the United States in the past greatly impacted and even dictated Turkey’s foreign policy. Particularly in the 1990s, at a time when Turkey’s economy was heavily dependent on EU funds, and the possible membership to the union was seen as a matter of political and economic salvation, Brussels repeatedly coerced Ankara into restricting or even halting its Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) counter-insurgency operations. 

The United States also wielded a great deal of pressure over Turkey. For instance, in 2008, Turkey had to prematurely halt one of its largest military incursions, Operation Sun, against the PKK and withdraw from north Iraq upon George W. Bush’s warning that “the Turks needed to move quickly, achieve their objective and get out.”

The current state of the European Union indicates it has greatly lost its ability to influence policy outcomes over Turkey.

The current state of the EU indicates it has greatly lost its ability to influence policy outcomes over Turkey. The 2008 financial crisis and the post-Arab Spring refugee onslaught created monumental economic, social, and political problems Brussels wasn’t prepared to handle. Also, with the United Kingdom having now left the Union, the far right is rapidly on the rise, and the economies of the remaining member states have come to a grinding halt. Dictating terms on Turkey is the last thing Brussels is worried about or able to do anything about at the moment. 

On the contrary, it appears that now Turkey has the upper hand. Nothing is scarier for the European governments than the Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghan refugees flooding their countries, and, Erdogan knows it very well. He has threatened to “open the refugee flood gates unless the EU does more for Turkey’s Syria policy.” It is this change in power parity that has allowed Turkey to increase its clout, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean. For instance, all Brussels could do, in light of Turkey’s recent gunboat diplomacy around the Island of Cyprus, was to issue weak condemnations. On top of monumental problems at home, a war with the largest naval force in the eastern Mediterranean is simply not what the EU would want.

Furthermore, the era in which Washington would deploy hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to implement policies in the Middle East is over. Americans now are “sick of the endless wars.” The military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq have depleted America’s ability and willingness to enact meaningful policies across the Middle East, creating a sense of a “military engagement aversion” in Washington. 

Both Obama and Trump made “bringing troops back home” their campaign promise. In fact, an overcautious and hesitant approach under the Obama Administration, particularly in 2015, is what gave Russia the opportunity to move into Syria, crippling America’s ability to shape outcomes in that conflict. Due to this casualty aversion, the Pentagon now chooses to utilize proxy forces on the ground alongside the symbolic presence of a few hundred American troops. 

Washington’s inability to prevent the latest Turkish incursion into areas in Syria controlled by the American proxy, the YPG, must be seen from this perspective. Before Operation Peace Spring, Turkey had amassed some 20,000 troops along the Syria border. Most certainly 50 to 100 American soldiers didn’t constitute a deterrence, nor were the YPG militia a match for the second-largest member of NATO.

Military confrontation with a NATO member and possible American casualties were definitely not what Trump wanted just months before his bid for re-election.

Military confrontation with a NATO member and possible American casualties were definitely not what Trump wanted just months before his bid for re-election. Well ahead of the Syria incursion, Turkey had made it clear that it wouldn’t hesitate to “confront the American troops on the ground if Washington didn’t end support for YPG.” So, having built up the pressure for some time, Erdogan simply ordered the long-expected operation and Trump ordered American troops “out of the way.”

Finally, the decline of American influence over Turkey has been revealed with the S-400 saga. Unable to acquire PATRIOT PAC-3 missiles due to Congressional resistance and failure to change the Pentagon’s mind to abandon YPG, Turkey went ahead and developed a tactical alliance with Russia, which seemed to cater much more to Turkey’s needs in Syria. Ankara’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 Triumf high altitude anti-aircraft missiles infuriated the American Congress, which threatened sanctions if it didn’t relinquish the Russian missiles. 

Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 fighter program, and Congress sternly warned of the imposition of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). None has worked. Not only did Turkey buy the Russian missiles, it also expressed its interest to procure Russian SU-35 fighters. Ankara has learned that if it stands its ground, it will shrug off Congress’ wrath. Erdogan recently threatened closing down the strategically vital Incirlik Base and the Kurecik Radar Station if Congress went ahead with the sanctions. It seems Congress has learned that it has reached its limits in its ability to coerce Turkey.

What Lies Ahead 

Assertive foreign policy in the east Mediterranean seems to be paying off for Ankara. Israeli officials are now seeking to thaw the tense bilateral relations in order to build a gas pipeline to Europe via Turkey. In Syria, assertive foreign policy helped Turkey get, although not completely, what it wanted which was to create a safe zone to relocate some of its 4 million refugees and to undermine a YPG state which Ankara deems a threat to its national security. 

In an era in which Western clout is waning and a new proactive Erdogan policy affirmed –helped by a rapidly growing domestic defense industry, Turkey will arguably continue to pursue an assertive foreign policy in the region. The only limitation Turkey is likely going to face is how it will handle an equally aggressive Russian influence, which historically has hurt Turkish ambitions.

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* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.