Turkey's Grand Plans for Middle East Primacy

Seth J. Frantzman

Turkey went to the recent NATO summit under a cloud of tensions. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch was preparing to support a bipartisan sanctions bill over Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile defense system, and Ankara was feuding with France’s Emanuel Macron. Turkey had other ideas, it would browbeat the United States and France and other NATO powers by pushing back on a defense plan for Baltic states to wring concessions from NATO. It wants support for its recent October operation in northern Syria and for NATO to agree with Ankara that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are a terrorist group.

Ankara’s NATO goals were only one of a series of files Turkey was working on in early December. This is part of Turkey’s grand strategy that increasingly places the country astride the Middle East as a regional power as well as an emerging global power. This is not a usual place for Turkey to be, after years of exploring different foreign policies from “zero problems with our neighbors” to “neo-Ottomanism.” Along the way, Turkey has historically flirted with “pan-Turkism” and is portrayed as having “pan-Islamic” ambitions. Adding it all together: A muscular policy in the Mediterranean, Africa, Syria, Iraq, working with NATO, Russia and Iran at the time, outreach to Malaysia and Pakistan, as well an alliance with Qatar, relations with Hamas and soft power initiatives through media and the Red Crescent, Turkey is mapping out global ambitions. This isn’t just grand strategy but also real-world ramifications, for instance, Turkey’s attempts to seek out alleged “Gulenist” plotters abroad and extradite them. The path to this grand strategy has brought Ankara into conflicts and almost weekly disputes with countries in the Mediterranean, or Europe, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Myanmar and the United States. Along the way, Turkey’s ruling party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP has convinced itself that it is winning and that a mix of threats, military action and land grabs tend to result in adversaries climbing down. It’s not every day that a country can take on disputes with the United States, NATO, the European Union, UN and others and come away as confident and strong as Ankara appears. This is a strategy, not just a series of crises. 

One recent instructive part of this strategy links the Mediterranean to disputes regionally and with NATO. Turkey had signed a deal with Libya’s embattled government in Tripoli on November 27 to demarcate an exclusive economic zone that is a political message that Turkey would not be sidelined from the eastern Mediterranean, according to Ankara. However, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt see it as a land-grab at sea. Libya is in the midst of a civil war that the government based in Tripoli is losing to forces of the Libyan National Army under Khalifa Haftar. The government doesn’t even control the land near where it negotiated the deal and the deal looks like a way for Ankara to exploit Tripoli’s need for support from Ankara. Greece expelled Libya’s ambassador on December 6 and Ankara condemned Athens.

As Turkey was trying to push NATO to support its Syrian operation, and signing deals with Libya, it also said it would remain in Syria until “terrorists” there are defeated, a potentially open-ended campaign that could keep Turkey in northern Syria for many years. Ankara wants to host a four-way summit with France, Germany and the UK to discuss its “safe zone development plan” to reconstruct areas Turkey took over in Syria in October. The UN Secretary-General came to Turkey and agreed to look into Ankara’s plan on November 1.

Turkey’s policies are evolving on numerous fronts but on all of them, it generally pursues similar steps of escalation and negotiation. Most of these policies have roots in historic Turkish interests that have merely expanded under the current government. For instance, Turkey always had an interest in keeping the Kurdistan Workers Party from entrenching in Syria or Iraq. In Syria, Turkey had achieved the Adana agreement through similar threats and negotiation in 1998, mediated with Egypt and Iran, such that it got Syria to close PKK offices. Turkey said in January 2019 that it had a right to enter Syria to attack the PKK. Ankara says the YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK and accuses the United States of having worked with the YPG to create the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015. The difference between 1998 and 2019 is that Turkey didn’t accept the United States’ “security mechanism” that was on the table since earlier this year, and got President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. forces from the border.

Additionally, Turkey has had forces in northern Iraq since the 1990s seeking to hunt down PKK members and bases. However, it has expanded its presence through an operation dubbed “Claw” this year. It claimed to have killed 255 “terrorists” by July and launched a third portion of the operation in August. Turkey has also expanded airstrikes in Iraq to attack areas in Sinjar, the region that ISIS once committed genocide against Yazidis. Turkey claims local Yazidis joined PKK affiliates and carried out airstrikes in April 2017, August 2018 and November 2019. Turkey also carried out airstrikes near a refugee camp in Makhmour in December 2018. Only sixty kilometers from the Kurdistan Regional Government capital of Erbil, Turkey has pressured the KRG to clamp down on camp residents and alleged PKK members. There are questions now about how much Turkey’s presence will expand in northern Iraq and if it will become permanent.

Ankara’s role in northern Iraq is achievable due to its relations with the KRG. These relations, strained after a Kurdish referendum in September 2017 in northern Iraq, nevertheless hinge on economic and other ties. In November, the KRG’s prime minister went to Turkey to meet with Turkish officials.

In Syria, Turkey’s military role is conducted through agreements with Russia. It initially moved into an area near Jarabulus in operation Euphrates Shield to stop the SDF advance in August 2016 near Manbij. Then, after an understanding with Russia, it attacked the YPG in Afrin in January 2018, causing large numbers of Kurds to flee. Ankara set up twelve observation points in Idlib, eventually brokering a ceasefire deal with Russia in September 2018 to avoid a Syrian regime offensive against Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and extremist groups in Idlib. Turkey also helped transform the Syrian rebel and opposition groups into the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army on October 9, just days before Erdogan’s phone call with Trump got the United States to withdraw. The SNA has been controversial for its role in Turkey’s operation near Tel Abyad that was launched on October 9. Called “ill-disciplined” by the United States and accused of “ethnic cleansing,” more important for Turkey is that it can use former Syrian rebels to fight the YPG and achieve a ceasefire with Russia to allow Turkey to remain in northern Syria.

Turkey’s military role in Syria and Iraq is increasing and unprecedented in the region. While other countries, such as Israel, conduct operations in disputed territories, and other countries are involved in military campaigns in neighboring states, such as Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Turkey’s expansive role in Syria and Iraq is now far beyond anything it did in the past, since the end of the Ottoman Empire. It has exploited weak neighboring states and agreements with Russia and the United States to conduct its operations. It has also relied on relations with Iran to do so. Iran supports the Assad regime in Damascus and is close to the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Turkey’s main agenda in both Iraq and Syria is to destroy the PKK or groups it considers linked to the PKK. This is an outgrowth of the 2015 breakdown in the ceasefire with the PKK and the ruling AKP party’s attempt at home to reduce the role of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Ankara has removed numerous HDP mayors, accusing them of “terrorism” and jailed HDP politicians.

While the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are primarily border conflicts extending around forty kilometers into the countries, with airstrikes going up to two hundred kilometers, Turkey’s role increasingly runs into its relations with Russia, Iran and NATO countries. On the Russian front, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in 2015 and the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in 2016 in Ankara. However, since 2017, when Turkey and Russia agreed to the S-400 deal, the countries have become increasingly close. This involves not only military deals but also the TurkStream pipeline that goes to Turkey and also eastern Europe from Russia. Moscow has hosted the Astana Syrian peace process with Turkey and Iran and through that Moscow and Ankara appear to be seeing eye-to-eye more on Syria.

Turkey went to the London NATO summit demanding that the alliance recognize the YPG as a terrorist threat to Turkey that is linked to the PKK. Turkey presented no evidence of YPG attacks on Turkey, but it said that its approval of a NATO Baltics defense plan was dependent on the YPG issue. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoglu said on December 6 that Turkey did not concede anything in London, even though it appears it did not get the YPG “terrorist” label it wanted. Ankara claims that threats to its borders are a threat to NATO and in the past it got NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to pay lip service to Ankara’s security concerns and ask only that Ankara show restraint. He defended Turkey’s role in Syria in mid-October.

Ankara’s message to NATO was clear after the meeting. It had largely skirted concerns over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 and used the Baltics issue and YPG to make Ankara appear that NATO needed to cater to its demands. After the summit, Turkey’s AKP party spokesman Omer Celik said: “Everyone in the NATO summit emphasized Turkey’s power and its indispensability.”

Turkey wants the EU states to not critique its Syrian offensives. It has demanded its role not be called an “invasion” and threatened in October to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe if it was accused of “occupying” Syria. The EU has been sending Turkey up to $6 billion to keep refugees from crossing in the waves they did in 2015, leading EU states to realize they lack leverage over Turkey today. $1.6 billion was sent in July to Turkey from Europe. Ankara uses the refugee issue and trade to secure its needs in Europe. For instance, in the UK, which is facing leaving the EU under Brexit, Turkey secured support from Boris Johnson. Johnson said the PKK was a real threat on December 4. Only France’s Macron is particularly tough on Turkey today. Ankara has carved out other special relationships in Europe, such as with Hungary. Despite tensions with Greece and other Mediterranean countries, Turkey’s Cavusoglu was in Rome for a Mediterranean Dialogues conference on December 6.

On the Libya and Mediterranean issue, Turkey has sought to expand more than a year of increasing operations in the sea. Naval exercises in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean in February and March concerned Athens. As with Turkey, raising the Adana agreement with Syria in January, the naval operations raised discussions about a 1996 crisis with Turkey that almost led to conflict. Turkey was seeking to expand its “blue motherland” Greek reports indicated. In October, Turkey sent a drilling ship off the coast of Cyprus to show that it could operate in areas off Cyprus due to Turkey’s support for Northern Cyprus. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Turkey’s drilling as unacceptable and illegal. Turkey says it doesn’t recognize the “Greek Cypriot administration.” This is the opposite of Turkey’s dealing with Libya, where it works with the UN-recognized government in Tripoli to secure deals off the coast of the unrecognized government of eastern Libya.

Turkey says it is ready to talk to Greece and have “multilateral” agreements. But the reality is that Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and Greece appear to more closely linked in their understanding of the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece, Cyprus and Egypt have increasingly cooperated, on naval issues, calling on Turkey to end provocative actions. Greece wants NATO support over the dispute.

Turkey’s ability to get Libya to sign off on an agreement in the Mediterranean is linked to its larger Middle East policy. Turkey has been a close ally of Qatar for many years, a relationship that grew dramatically after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut relations with Qatar in 2017. Erdogan went to Qatar on November 25 to discuss a new military base that it said would improve regional security. Both Turkey and Qatar oppose Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Turkey was a keen supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi who was pushed from power in 2013. Turkey’s ruling party and Qatar also both enjoy warm relations with Hamas. This is part of a larger fondness for parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s TRT notes that many senior Brotherhood exiles live in Turkey. Turkey also hosted Jamal Khashoggi, the exiled Saudi Arabian former insider who was murdered in 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, who appeared on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, had supported parties rooted in political Islam, according to a November 2017 Al-Jazeera interview with him. After his murder, Turkish-Saudi relations, already cold, grew worse.

This is the regional security framework that puts Turkey and Qatar on the side of the Tripoli-based Libyan government and in opposition to the LNA. The LNA is backed by Egypt and reportedly backed by Russia, the UAE and other states. UAE’s The National describes Haftar’s war in Libya as being “determined to oust the militias and extremist groups they say run the capital.” Turkey is accused of supplying drones and vehicles to Tripoli. Turkey’s Anadolu accuses the UAE of supplying drones to the LNA. Libya is more than just a proxy war though, it’s part of that larger regional struggle that pits Turkey and Qatar against the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others. It is no surprise therefore that this links up in the Mediterranean where Turkey sides with Tripoli and Egypt sides with Greece. The struggle also plays out in east Africa as Turkey and others vie for influence in Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and other states. Here again, the Turkey-Russia relationship may find them sometimes on the same or different sides in places like Libya.

All of the conflicts summarized so far could be portrayed as Ankara believing it is a victim on the defensive and choosing an aggressive offense as its best response. That is how Erdogan and his close allies, such as Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, Hakan Fidan of the National Intelligence Organization, advisor Ibrahim Kalin and Yasin Aktay, sometimes portray Turkey’s role. They both articulate Turkey’s strength and unwillingness to compromise on issues like the YPG, while arguing that Turkey is merely insisting on its rights in places like the Mediterranean and in dealing with NATO.

Turkey was able to convince Trump that Obama-era policies angered Turkey and that Turkey was forced to buy the S-400 because it didn’t get the Patriot system. Under this logic it got the United States to offer the Patriots in December 2018. But the deal was pulled in August 2019 because of the S-400 delivery. Nevertheless, Ankara continues to insist that it was the former U.S. administration that harmed U.S. relations due to supporting the YPG against ISIS, rather than just working with Turkey. That’s why pro-government media like Anadolu run analysis claiming that “the US no longer behaves toward Turkey and its region with the vision and wisdom that guided decisions made in WWII’s immediate aftermath.”

The end result is a Turkish foreign policy that has also strayed. It has gone far from the “zero problems” concept of 2008, passing the “neo-Ottoman” concepts to a regional role that is predicated on a few allies but a much larger gambit involving Russia and muscular actions stretching from Tripoli to the border with Iran. In this area, Turkey is expanding its own indigenous defense industry, and trade deals. It is also trying to project itself as involved in global Islamic causes. Turkey has criticized China’s treatment of Uighurs in February and slammed India for its role in Kashmir. It led criticism of Trump’s Jerusalem decision in December 2018, hosting a session of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to oppose it. Erdogan compared Israel to Nazi Germany at the UN in September, part of its attempt to champion the Palestinian cause. It is important to Turkey’s ruling party to play a role in these various “Islamic” issues using both rhetoric and also soft power, such as inaugurating a new mosque in the UK. Ankara said it wanted to work with Pakistan and Malaysia on a new global TV network to “fight Islamophobia” in September. Ankara has also transformed TRT into part of its soft power, like Al-Jazeera is for Qatar or RT for Russia, to push programming that is uncritical of Turkey’s leadership but improves Ankara’s image abroad.

Ankara’s grand strategy can be seen as combining military, political and economic initiatives into similar frameworks and having a willingness to use threats to achieve its goals. This includes both bluster and action. For instance, Ankara has shown its willingness to go beyond normal diplomatic behavior in attacks on protesters in Washington in May 2017 during a presidential visit, and controversial extraditions from places like Kosovo of those Turkey claims are linked to a 2016 coup attempt. Turkey expects to get what it wants from NATO in relation to Syria, much as it got the US to withdraw in October. Ankara is very good at encouraging countries and groups like NATO, the EU or the United States to see its alliance and cooperation as essential to regional security. Turkish media openly acknowledges this, with Daily Sabah noting on December 4 that “NATO countries are making the same mistake that the Soviets made” in the 1940s, allegedly leading to Turkey being willing to risk the alliance over perceived maltreatment. Ankara’s message is NATO needs Turkey more than Turkey needs NATO.

So far Turkey’s grand strategy of extending its influence from the Mediterranean to Iran and acting on a global scale regarding causes such as Kashmir or Jerusalem, while pushing the EU, UN and NATO to sign off on its policies, has not harmed Ankara. It thrives off of constant crises on all fronts while saying that it is winning every file. That’s partly because its adversaries are either in disarray or those who oppose Turkey’s actions tend to think that provoke Ankara will only make the tension worse. Like Iran, Turkey has gained over the last several years from weak neighboring states and worsening relations between Russia and the West. It has also won out due to the Gulf dispute drawing Qatar closer. Turkey now needs close relations with Russia and Iran, as well as to maintain its base in Qatar, and keep the Tripoli government afloat if it is to achieve its regional ambitions and the global role that flows through them.

Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.

Image: Reuters.

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