Numerous indicators show that Turkey intends to continue its expansion in the region and that this expansion has become part of Turkey’s political and strategic doctrine to consolidate regional influence under the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This paper sheds light on the incentives and drivers of the Turkish trend towards increasing regional expansion, the constraints and challenges facing it, and its potential consequences and future prospects.
The rise of a new interventionist Turkish doctrine: incentives and drivers
During the past few years, Turkey launched three military incursions into Syria, sent supplies and fighters to Libya, deployed its naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean to assert its claims about its rights in the region, expanded its military operations against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, sent military reinforcements to the last strongholds of the Syrian opposition in Idlib, and, finally, provided military aid and Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia to regain the Nagorno Karabakh region. Today, Turkey has a direct military presence in Qatar, Somalia and Afghanistan, and peace-keeping forces in the Balkans. Its global military presence is at present the largest since the days of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey's reliance on military force to secure its interests constitutes the cornerstone of its new foreign policy doctrine, which has been developing since 2015. The new doctrine questions the viability of joint action with the traditional regional and international powers, and drives Turkey towards acting unilaterally as required. This new doctrine has emerged as a result of several international, regional and internal developments, the most important of which are the following:
1. The "Neo-Ottoman" ideology
With the arrival of the AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to power in Turkey in 2002, the AKP leaders and intellectuals adopted an approach based on the need to revive Turkey's Islamic role, which had been ignored and neglected since the era of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. More than a decade ago, Erdogan and his political party’s theorists realised that the door to the European Union (EU) has become closed to everything that was offered by secular Turkey, and that there is no alternative for the AKP's elite except for the Arab/Islamic regional backer that would realise the dream of expansion and retrieving the momentum of the Turkish role, and restore Turkey’s lost status and some of its undermined prestige at the EU threshold.
In late August 2020, the former representative in the Turkish Parliament for the ruling AKP Metin Külünk published a map of "Greater Turkey", dating back to the Seljuk era, and extending to large areas of northern Greece and the eastern Aegean islands, half of Bulgaria, Cyprus, the whole of Armenia, and large areas of Georgia, Iraq and Syria. Recently, Turkey has witnessed an escalation in the talk about the so-called "Blue Homeland", a project that has been repeatedly talked about by the Turkish army and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, whereby Turkey would establish its control over the surrounding seas (the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean and Black Seas).
2. The strategy of filling the strategic vacuum in the region
Against the background of the preoccupation of the US and the EU with facing the consequences of the successive economic crises leading to the current coronavirus pandemic, their participation in international affairs has become more focused on issues of concern to the domestic public opinion. This has constituted an irreplaceable opportunity for countries occupying the second row in the ranks of global power, such as Turkey, to advance and obtain an advanced position in the structure of the current world order, considering that raising Turkey's position abroad, unlike Western powers, constitutes a lever to distract attention away from the accumulated internal problems in favour of foreign policy issues and crises.
President Erdogan's successive positions reveal that there is a broader change in Turkish foreign policy driven by a loss of confidence in international diplomacy and a greater desire to engage directly in regional conflicts with the aim of gaining importance and influence, by adopting a proactive foreign policy based on the use of preventive military force outside Turkey's borders and filling the strategic vacuum in the region, which was created by the US withdrawal therefrom, within the framework of several steps that fall into what the Turkish President sees as his country’s legitimate pursuit in order to obtain "the status it deserves in the world order".
3. Erdogan's alliance with the nationalists
The new Turkish doctrine began to take shape in 2015, when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in a decade due to the growing support for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In order to regain the majority of the ruling party, Erdogan forged an alliance with the Turkish nationalists from the right and left alike. The nationalists supported him when he resumed the battle against the Kurdish militants. Despite the ideological differences, both the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the left-wing neo-nationalists support the hard-line security approach to the Kurdish problem. They also prioritise national security at home and abroad, and espouse strongly anti-Western views.
With the support of the nationalists, Erdogan transformed the country's system from a parliamentary system to a presidential one that grants him broad powers. His alliance with the nationalists and the consolidation of his powers became the main driver of Turkey's foreign policy. The display of Turkish force in other regions of the world helped the AKP, which is allied with the nationalists, to maintain superiority in opinion polls despite the devaluation of the Turkish currency (the lira), which has exacerbated the economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic.
4. The failure of the coup and the militarisation of foreign policy
The failed coup attempt in 2016 played a major role in paving the way for the militarisation of the Turkish foreign policy, and paved the way for the consolidation and concentration of power in Erdogan's hands. Through the continuous cleansing campaigns, the Turkish President emptied the institutions and marginalised the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and army commanders who had previously refused to respond to his calls for launching military operations in neighbouring countries. The country's defence spending has jumped by 17 percent since the beginning of 2020, reaching 7 billion dollars, equivalent to nearly 5 percent of the total spending in the annual Turkish budget. Interestingly, Turkey's military budget has increased by nearly 90 percent over the last ten years, which indicates that foreign military campaigns are a priority for Erdogan and his regime.
5. Economic ambitions (oil and gas)
The main weakness of the Turkish economy lies in the energy imports, which reached more than 40 billion dollars in 2018. Turkey urgently needs oil and gas, and is the second largest importer of gas after China. It imports nearly 99 percent of its needs of this resource. Turkey’s need and thirst for energy resources can only be compared to the similar thirst of Germany and Japan before World War II, which had been among the main reasons for their tendency to expand beyond their national borders.
Challenges and limitations
While the Turkish expansion strategy in the region continues to be one of the policy pillars of Erdogan's government in dealing with the regional affairs and there are no indications that Turkey may give it up in the short term, this strategy is increasingly facing a number of challenges and constraints that affect its capability to achieve the desired gains in the foreseeable future. The most important of those challenges and constraints are the following:
1. The decline of the "Turkish model" as a source of appeal in the region
In the wake of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions, the "Turkish model" appeared at the height of its ascendancy. A Turkish state that is strong, democratic and prosperous at home would have been capable of gaining more influence abroad. However, the situation in the Middle East ten years later looks different now. Turkey's democratic eligibility also looks different. After a major electoral victory in 2018, President Erdogan quickly transformed a century-old parliamentary system into a highly centralised presidential system. The municipal elections that took place across the country in the spring of 2019, turning into a referendum on Erdogan's rule, resulted in the President's party suffering significant defeats, including the defeats in Ankara and Istanbul.
Today, Turkey ranks 110th in the Democracy Index out of 167 countries. On the other hand, it has scored -1.34 on the Political Stability Index according to the Kaufmann scale (which allocates +2.5 to the most stable, and -2.5 to the least stable countries). Thus, Turkey ranks 175th out of 195 countries on this index, which reflects the strength of its involvement in the border crises with Syria and the bloody nature of its conflict with the Kurds, especially Turkey's Kurds who number nearly 15 million people. As for the Equal Distribution of Income Index (Gini index), Turkey occupies a place between “acceptable” and “weak” with a rate of 41.9. All this indicates that Turkey’s current regional expansion does not lean on an internal structure that is commensurate with the size of that expansion.
2. The deteriorating economic conditions
Many economic analysts and military and security experts agree that the economy card shall be the main reason for the decline and contraction of the Turkish President’s dream/project in the absence of the capability to finance this ambitious project, spend on the large volume required for armament, and provide care to the followers and supporters of this project, in parallel with the continued decline in the Turkish lira, which has lost nearly a third of its value since 2018, in addition to the growing deficit in the trade balance, which in August 2020 reached 4.631 billion dollars. Turkey is currently one of the world’s six most indebted countries, as its external debt reached nearly 431 billion dollars at the end of March 2020. More importantly, the size of the national income, estimated at 800 billion dollars, is declining, so that its value has declined by nearly half according to the value of the Turkish currency. This is a risky path that could lead to Turkey's exit from the Group of Twenty (G20).
3. The emergence of regional alliances to "contain" the Turkish expansion
Turkey's hard-line approach and volatile foreign policy have led to the emergence of conflicts and clashes with most of the main regional players, and the creation of new regional competition in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. There is now an almost unwritten agreement between the countries of the region and some major European countries to stand together against President Erdogan's ambitions and unbridled policies.
Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have intensified strategic cooperation in many initiatives, especially the extraction of gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean and the announcement of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). Ankara has been completely marginalised and ignored in this process. For its part, France has provided support to the Eastern Mediterranean Energy Initiative, and the UAE has also provided tacit support for this endeavour. During his meeting with his counterparts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the head of the Israeli Mossad Yossi Cohen suggested that the Iranian force is fragile, considering that the real threat comes from Turkey (the British newspaper The Times, 18 August 2020).
The US has recently strengthened its military bases in Greece, and has repeatedly called on Turkey to exercise restraint over its maritime disputes with Greece, threatening to intervene in the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean in a way that would not satisfy Turkish policy there. After the outbreak of the conflict in the Nagorno Karabakh region between Azerbaijan (backed by Turkey) and Armenia, Turkey witnessed a rapid rapprochement between the US, France and Russia aimed at curbing the strong Turkish support for Azerbaijan, including pledges of military aid.
Potential consequences and prospects
By analysing the current apparent situation of the Turkish expansion in the region, the following remarks can be made:
EPC | 13 Sep 2021
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