Turkey in the Middle East: Outlines of Political Expansion

Aleppo, Syria. (Credit: Dima Moroz/Bigstock)
Aleppo, Syria. (Credit: Dima Moroz/Bigstock) (via: bit.ly)

On the 28th of March 2018, the Moscow office of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, along with the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund, organised a lecture by Associate Professor Pavel Shlykov at the Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Institute of Asian and African Studies. The lecture focused on Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

Professor Shlykov began by conextualising Ankara’s foreign policy activity. At the end of the 1980s under President Turgut Özal, it appeared that Turkey was moving away from the cautious foreign policy of the previous Kemalist regimes. The 1990s then became an era of cultivating ties with the Middle East. But this shifted in the 2000s, as the government  began to look towards territories formerly under the control of the Ottoman Empire, in  an attempt to achieve the status of a major player on the international stage.

Today, Ankara aspires to the role of a dominant, rather than merely regional, player. Central to this move for control was the establishment of Turkish military bases abroad. An agreement with Qatar was recently signed to do just that. Similar talks are ongoing with Somalia, where Turkey is helping to modernise the armed forces. Simultaneously, negotiations are underway to build Turkish bases in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Aside from that, Turkey has a de facto presence in the north of Cyprus, Northern Iraq (with, according to various reports, up to 14 military bases), and Syria, where the plan is to build eight bases.

According to Shlykov, other demonstrations of Turkey’s ambition to raise its international profile as a hard power have also included a project to build its own aircraft carrier and the idea of returning control of Mosul to Ankara The latter is intermittently covered by the Turkish media. Turkey is also displaying contradictory approaches in dealing with separatist movements, applying its own distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ separatists. As Ankara sees it, Northern Cyprus and the Macedonian Albanians come under the first category, while the Kurds fall under the ‘bad’ category.

Regarding its role in the Middle East, the 2000s saw Turkey attempting to act as mediator between rivals. Ankara tried to intercede in the conflict between Israel and Syria, as well as Israel and Hamas. Ankara also attempted to participate in settling the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Shlykov continued by explaining that while Turkey aimed to play an active role in Middle East conflicts, the Erdogan government did not neglect to bolster the country’s economic influence: the last 15 years have seen a marked growth in Turkey’s total trade with countries in the region.

Until the Arab Uprisings, Erdoğan had managed to make his mark by using soft power in the Middle East by proposing to set up Shamgen: a regional visa-free zone modelled on the European Schengen area. However, one of the results of Turkey’s foreign policy activity in the 2000s was the phenomenon of a ‘new imperialism’. Previously, Turkey had been seen in such a way only by Iran.

However, the last few years have shown that many of Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy projects have, for various reasons, failed to materialise. This has been central to the increased importance of Syria in Ankara’s foreign policy, which is governed by three key factors: the activity of the PKK in Syria; the actions of IS[1] (the threat is less acute today, but in 2016 the Islamic State carried out 16 terrorist acts on Turkish soil, taking the lives of over 350 people); and the huge numbers of Syrian refugees, for which Shlykov estimated at being three and a half million within Turkey alone.

In the first few years of the Syrian crisis, Turkey attempted to rely upon jihadists to further the Republic’s interests, which ultimately did not pay off. This compelled Turkey to seek other ways of achieving its goals and became one of the main reasons behind its participation in the Astana Process (Syrian Peace Process).

In Shlykov’s opinion, when analysing Turkey’s Syria policy, three key questions need to be answered:

  1. What is it Turkey is trying to achieve in Syria?
  2. What sort of political interests does Turkey have in relation to this?
  3. What is the Turkish foreign policy strategy in the Middle East overall?

Shlykov pointed out that in analysing this problem, one of two strategies can be employed – the first to exclusively  take into consideration the current situation (when it comes to the last two months, this mainly refers to Operation Olive Branch). The second is to apply an ‘Erdoğanoccentric’ approach, which would link most foreign policy moves by Turkey to the personality of its incumbent president. Of course, this approach is skewed and one-sided, even though any foreign policy analysis has to take the domestic political context into account. For example, since the end of the 2000s, Turkey has seen an energetic process of de-Westernisation. This is largely due to Ankara not moving towards EU membership. At the institutional level though, the idea of cooperation with Europe has not been ruled out.

Recently a growth in political polarisation has been taking place and as Shlykov puts it, the ‘Kurdification’ of Turkey’s domestic politics. The Kurds in Syria are contributing to this move by Ankara, insofar as their ideology is exacerbating  the domestic political process. The Kurds’ foreign political activity is a source of severe irritation to Ankara. With regard to the Syrian Kurds in Turkey, today the slogan ‘If you don’t want to fight the Kurds on Syrian soil, tomorrow you will be fighting them on Turkish’ has gained popularity.

The Kurdish factor played a key role in initiating Operation Olive Branch[1], leading to the capture of Afrin and the wave of refugees fleeing the area (their numbers, according to various estimates, reaching between 100,000 and 150,000). One of the reasons Kurdish forces abandoned Afrin so quickly, suggests Shlykov, could be the secret talks held between key players in the Syrian crisis. Establishing control over Afrin damaged Turkey’s reputation; however, it also bolstered Turkey’s security.

Shlykov drew particular attention to the fact that the Turks have begun resettling Syrian refugees in Jarabulus, al-Bab, and Azaz, exerting significant influence on the demographic situation in the region. According to conservative estimates, 140,000 people have been resettled to this day. Some put the figure at 500,000.

A result of operations Euphrates Shield[2] and Olive Branch was that Turkey had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the West from a much stronger position. At the present time, the key question is how much farther Turkey is prepared to go.

Ankara’s actions in Syrian are dictated primarily by security concerns, according to Shlykov. The opinion of many Turkish politicians is that the current Middle East conflicts require Turkey to be involved in a resolution, and this is not the area where the country’s foreign policy ambitions can be realised. In terms of the future though, the Turkish elite are looking towards developing relations with (and therefore its presence in) Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Shlykov that when trying to predict Turkey’s future foreign policy strategy, appreciation must be given to the fact that the strategic options are demonstrably running out for Turkey.

[1] Terrorist organisation, prohibited in the Russian Federation.

[1] A military operation in the SDF-controlled Afrin district and the Tell Rifaat subdistrict. The offensive is against the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD).

[2] A cross-border operation by the Turkish military and Turkey-aligned Syrian opposition groups in the Syrian Civil War, which led to the Turkish occupation of northern Syria.