Foreign Affairs

Cooked Turkey: Erdogan’s Middle East Misadventures

Since the days of Lawrence of Arabia and the Great Game, the Middle East has been both a prize to be won and a stumbling block for the world’s policymakers. Numerous countries, such as the United States and France, have attempted to establish control over the region, but even the best-laid plans have collapsed, costing their initiators money and influence. However, for every country that withdraws from the region in defeat, there is a new arrival ready to take up the tradition of failure. This time around the unlucky country is Turkey, led by its president Reccip Tayep Erdogan.

Turkey has long had a fraught relationship with global powers dating all the way back to its founding, and America is no exception to the trend. Turkey has historically been an important military ally for the U.S., but the NATO member has always been willing to pursue its own goals, whether they were invading Cyprus or refusing to aid America during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the early years of the Obama administration, the relationship between the two countries remained tense but manageable. Turkish diplomatic expansionism alarmed America, which was struggling to contain the aftereffects of the Arab Spring, but it was still largely an abstract concern. Moreover, the relationship was too beneficial to each side for it to end. Turkey was able to use American arms and military resources, while the United States was able to have a solid partner on the Dardanelles and the Eastern Mediterranean. It would take a major storm for such a practical alliance to end, but that storm would soon arrive. In quick succession, two American diplomatic missteps would make Turkey set its own course in the Middle East.

The first spark to set flame to the countries’ relationship was the attempted Turkish coup in 2016. While tanks surrounded the Turkish parliament and soldiers stormed broadcasting stations, the U.S. remained completely silent, failing to issue a statement as the situation unfolded on international TV. Only after four hours, when the coup was clearly losing steam, did the Obama administration finally condemn the action. The delay was a clear attempt by the U.S. to see if Erdogan might be removed, and both the delay and the statement itself were angrily condemned by Erdogan after the incident. Further American actions, like refusing to extradite the accused orchestrator of the coup, raised the Turkish furor even more. The anger of the country’s press and politicians, who had already accused the U.S. of being behind the chaos, continued to ramp up — and it was only helped by America’s actions in Syria.

The Turkish intervention in Syria, the first of Erdogan’s foreign policy maneuvers, originated as part of a partnership with the U.S. In the early years of the Syrian Civil War, both Turkey and the U.S. attempted to create proxy forces amongst the various anti-Assad factions. While the Turkish efforts were a success, the American attempt was a disaster, denting American prestige in the region. The real affront to Turkey, however, would come when the U.S. partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat ISIS. The American government recognized the SDF as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an internationally recognized terrorist group operating in Turkey, but would simultaneously back them as they defeated ISIS and expanded their territory. 

Alarmed by the SDF’s advance in Syria, and still seething over the American response to the coup, Erdogan launched the first major Turkish operation in the Middle East. In August 2016, Turkey sent a mix of proxies and military into northern Syria, evicting the SDF and beginning the still-ongoing Turkish occupation of Syria. This operation, as well as the similar one carried out in 2019, marked the sudden collapse of the American-dominated status quo. Erdogan was now asserting Turkey’s policy independence and military force, much to the dismay of the United States and to the tentative encouragement of the other power in Syria, the Russians.

The Turkish advance into Syria raised the specter of mutual hostility between Turkey and Russia, and, at first, it seemed like that would be the case. However, despite conflicting objectives and chaotic military incidents, the two countries were able to minimize their strategic friction. After all, both stood to gain quite a bit from a potential partnership. For its part, Russia embraced the chance to sow chaos within NATO, and its naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean could only benefit from a friendly presence on the Dardanelles. Meanwhile, Turkey was able to pay back the United States for its perceived mistakes. Accepting a Russian missile system or cooperating with the Russians on a billion-dollar nuclear power plant brought Turkey closer to Russia, but it fulfilled the far more important function of angering America and making Turkey appear independent.

At this point, Erdogan could have stopped his foreign policy moves, and it would have been a massive success for Turkey. However, he refused to be content with his achievements. Instead, Turkey deployed its proxy forces beyond Syrian borders, muscling into Russian operations. Erdogan would eventually overplay his geopolitical hand, leading his country down the road of isolation and disaster that has marked foreign policy in the Middle East.

The first interaction between Russian and Turkish proxies outside Syria would occur further down the Mediterranean in the war-torn nation of Libya. The Libyan Civil War, waged largely between strongman Khalifa Haftar and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), opened Libya’s strategic coast and oil reserves to foreign control — and the Russians pounced on the opportunity. Russia has provided both military contractors and money to Haftar since 2015, and for a time, it seemed like the two could wholly defeat the GNA. As Haftar advanced on Tripoli, Turkey unexpectedly intervened, utilizing drones and its Syrian fighters to push the dictator into retreat. Though the situation between the two warring sides has stabilized for now, it marked an increasing level of Turkish meddling in what the Russians saw as their affairs. The countries’ new partnership was on thin ice.

The perilous state of Turkey-Russia affairs only worsened with the Armenia-Azerbaijan border crisis. As the two countries squared off over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Erdogan perceived another foreign opportunity close to the Turkish border. Though Turkey very publicly threw in with Azerbaijan, their direct support was mostly limited to drones and arms — with the exception of one thing. Ankara, borrowing from its playbook in Syria and Libya, imported Syrian fighters to the Armenian battlefield. The decision could only raise hackles across the border in Moscow. 

Russia has had working relationships and arms deals with both nations in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and the country does not necessarily have a side to pick in the skirmish. That having been said, Russia has had to deal with internal terrorist groups since the Chechen wars in the 1990s, and the presence of battle-trained militants could be nothing but discomfiting for Moscow policymakers. After asserting the conflict could become a “launch pad” for terrorists seeking to enter Russia, the country finally began to intervene, attempting to broker ceasefires and begin mediation — efforts which ultimately failed. Though the conflict has been small-scale, it has had an outsized impact on Turkey-Russia relations. Turkey’s use of Syrian fighters not only angered Russia, it caused Russia to intervene and attempt to put an end to Turkish operations. Only time will tell if Russia sees the risk from the conflict to be large enough to justify military action — perhaps to aid its historical ally of Armenia.

Currently, Turkey is reeling from its foreign policy misadventures. Far from pivoting from America to Russia, Turkey has dented its relationship with both, and even on the occasion where its foreign policy has coincided with the United States, its other decisions have still led to fallout with Washington

As foreign policy maneuvers fail to pan out for the Turkish state, domestic and international developments are set to dent its standing further. Turkey’s economy has been floundering since a debt crisis in 2018, but the global hit from the coronavirus as well as continued inflation are set to create an economic slump, harming Turkey’s domestic appetite for more foreign outings. Meanwhile, Turkey’s neighbors are making strides toward energy and wealth. Countries such as Greece and Israel have planned shared pipelines, and, more recently, Eastern Mediterranean countries formed a landmark organization to coordinate natural gas exploration in the sea. Turkey was not invited, likely due to its Libyan intervention and its general unwillingness to resolve border disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey set out to become a dominant power, but instead finds itself weakened and without friends as its regional foes grow in prominence.

As Turkey flounders, American policymakers are confronted with a challenging question — to what extent should they aid Turkey? Arguably, the U.S. should favor a pragmatic approach with the state, cooperating with Turkey in areas that are of interest for America and not engaging with it beyond that. The Turkish state is weakened and has very few foreign policy levers left to push; unless Turkey’s misadventures lead to a terrorist threat a la ISIS, the best choice for America is to let Turkey deal with the fallout and wait for its chastened return to the Western fold. Erdogan has made a mess of his Middle Eastern policy, and sometimes the best option is to let people clean up their own mistakes.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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