While most of the world has been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Ankara’s foreign policy has appeared to be immune to the virus, perceiving the crisis as an excellent chance to score important points and gain political and economic benefits after it ends.
Despite facing numerous problems at home (a looming financial crisis and growing opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party), Turkey has decided to take advantage of the dramatic situation and improve strained ties with foreign powers – notably with the US and some EU states, and to strengthen its footprint in areas it perceives as zones of its exclusive interest.
Through humanitarian soft power offensive, Turkey reportedly delivered supplies to at least 57 countries, including developed nations such as the USA, China, the UK, Italy, and Spain.
By reaching out to the West and sending supplies to European countries, Turkey’s coronavirus diplomacy was an important humanitarian gesture.
By reaching out to the West — with which Erdogan has had a long list of misunderstandings and open issues — and responding to NATO’s initiative by sending supplies to the most affected European countries, Turkey’s coronavirus diplomacy was meant as an important humanitarian gesture. It also signaled Turkey’s preparedness to improve deteriorating relations with the West and its commitment to the NATO alliance, as the aid was channeled through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC).
Moreover, by sending medical supplies in early April to Italy and Spain – two countries heavily impacted by the coronavirus – Turkey has not just embarrassed Brussels which has been criticized for its lack of solidarity within the Union, but also built an important bridge toward two countries that, according to some, Ankara aims to align with in the Mediterranean and Libya.
However, Hüseyin Işıksal, professor of International Relations at Near East University in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, doubts this possibility, partly because EU membership is not Turkish priority anymore, although the Turkish gesture definitely contributed to a better image of the country.
In fact, Işıksal gives much more weight to humanitarian help and rapprochement with the UK, after Brexit. Given that the UK is one of the guarantors of Cyprus and knowing that this country is hosting a significant number of Turkish Cypriot residents, cooperation with the UK, according to Işıksal, offers better prospects for Turkey and Turkish Cyprus than Spain and Italy.
Of even greater significance were the moves to improve fractured relations with the US. Besides sending medical aid, Turkey has also made a concrete effort by announcing that it would postpone the activation of recently purchased Russian super-weapon, the S-400 air-defense missile system, which Washington and the rest of NATO have perceived as a major threat to Western military equipment in Turkey and beyond.
By postponing the activation of its S-400 air-defense missiles, Turkey wants to avoid US sanctions for its arms deal with Russia.
By postponing the activation, Turkey also wants to avoid US sanctions for its arms deal with Russia. Ankara is also reportedly negotiating with Washington, about the US Federal Reserve’s expanding currency-swap arrangements like those the US has extended to other emerging economies. By including Turkey’s monetary authority, the country is desperately trying to obtain foreign currency and pump it into its economy hampered by the pandemic.
Along with its soft power offensive, Ankara has not missed a chance to display its military muscles as well, retaking the initiative from its opponents.
This is particularly evident in the case of Libya. The Turkish-backed and UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) inflicted several defeats to the renegade Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and captured several strategic towns in Western Libya. The GNA victory came at a time when Haftar had appeared to be the most likely winner of the Libyan civil war. On April 17, Turkey sent 11 F-16 fighter jets accompanied by air refueling, early warning radar, and other support aircraft to Haftar controlled airspace in a clear message that Turkey is ready to escalate its involvement in Libya.
Turkish engagement in Libya is closely related to the ongoing competition over newly discovered oil and gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Turkish engagement in Libya is also closely related to the ongoing competition over the exploitation of newly discovered oil and gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey has been in serious odds with other Mediterranean countries, namely Greece and Cyprus. According to Işıksal, the ongoing disputes are related to many strategic issues within Turkish red-lines, and Cyprus and Libya pose two major battlegrounds.
Last November, Erdogan struck a maritime border deal with Fayez al-Serraj and the GNA, which would theoretically enable Turkey to drill for gas in marine territories contested by the Greeks and Cypriots, off the costs of the island. A Serraj victory would be decisive in strengthening Turkey’s position in the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean, frustrating plans by its neighbors to export gas to Europe through the proposed undersea pipeline, East Med. In this context, the recent decision of Turkey to send troops to Libya confirms its intention to defend its economic interests by bolstering the government in Tripoli led by Serraj against the forces of Khalifa Haftar.
In mid-April, the GNA launched an all-out offensive on Tarhuna city, Haftar’s last foothold in west Libya and captured a string of towns around Tripoli pushing Haftar’s troops away from the capital. Despite this latest success it would be premature to speculate about Turkey turning the tide of war in the GNA’s favor, as General Haftar has some powerful backers on his side such as Russia, the UAE, and France. Though, all of them are currently going through hard times related to the COVID-19 induced global recession and public health issues.
France has not nearly recovered from the deadly impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is also having a negative experience with its military operations in the Sahel (with mounting military casualties). Both Russia and the UAE have been feeling the pinch of all-time low oil prices due to plummeting demand as a consequence of COVID-19 and an oil price war, making their involvement in Libya even more costly. The withdrawal of the notorious Russian paramilitary group Wagner from Libya in February may suggest that Russia has chosen to switch on the economy mode and minimize its geopolitical activities until the end of the global health and economic crisis. Some observers interpret this as a sign of Russian overreach.
“Turkey faces two risks: political isolation and overreach.”
But the same goes for Turkey, which, according to Francis Perrin – research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, faces two risks: political isolation and overreach (in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East, Libya, and Europe). He thinks that it will be very difficult for Ankara to win on these various fronts, although Işıksal firmly defends Turkish involvement in Syria as its instability directly affects Turkey.
So, while Turkey’s foreign policy offensive could bring some benefits to Ankara in the post-COVID 19 era, it is too early to evaluate its true reach and make any conclusions about whether Turkey could come out as a geopolitical winner of the pandemic, despite some advantages. Işıksal noted that countries with strong leadership, technology infrastructure, health services, energy resources, food production, and good transportation facilities and communication infrastructure will have more advantages than others.
In Işıksal’s opinion, “the countries that have strong military capabilities and who could be involved in the ‘field’ will definitely achieve their objectives rather than the countries who are expecting something at the diplomatic table,” and therefore he firmly believes that Turkey will continue to be “one of the major actors in the region.”
However, Turkey’s numerous problems with its neighbors, Western powers, and Russia are simply too deep to be resolved through symbolic gestures. Turkey may avoid further isolation and US sanctions over its S-400 missile purchase for now, but the problems that have plagued Turkey’s relations with the West will not simply vanish. And, the accumulated economic problems it faces at home seriously limit Turkey’s appetite to play a key regional role in the post-COVID era.