Turkish Expansion in the Region: Motives, Restrictions and Prospects

​Ahmed Diab | 10 Nov 2020

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:

  • Since the beginning of its intervention in and direct military occupation of Syrian territories within the framework of Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and until 2020, that is almost 4 years later, Turkey has not achieved much in this field. In addition, Turkey was forced to spend on the "safe zones" it imposed by the force of arms and provide huge funds to manage the refugee crisis, which is the card that Turkey wants to seize to employ it in the negotiations and obtain a comfortable position in Syria. In Libya, developments are proceeding in another direction away from Turkey's grip, despite the agreements made with the Fayez al-Sarraj government, especially with regard to military bases and Ankara's benefitting from the agreements for training the security forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and other agreements in the fields of electricity and infrastructure and with the Central Bank (estimated at nearly 18 billion dollars). Stopping the Turkish advance on the Sirte-Jufra line and the renewed Libyan negotiations constitute a decline in Turkey's aggressive role in this important part of the region. In the Eastern Mediterranean, off the coasts of Greece and Cyprus, Ankara kept manoeuvring and backing down under the pressure of the changing US position and the explicit European threat to impose sanctions on Turkey.
  • Turkey’s increased expansion in the region, as a result of the hostilities and clashes it created with most of the neighbouring countries, and its overreliance on military force to manage the regional influence, would have negative and potentially significant repercussions on the Turkish national security in the foreseeable future in case there is no quick review of those policies. So far, the Turkish expansion strategy has not succeeded in achieving many fundamental geopolitical gains. It has also failed to achieve tangible economic returns, as it has not yet guaranteed its control of vital resources that can quickly be invested in the areas of intervention. In case of Ankara’s continued failure to obtain current advantages from its interventions, it would be incapable of financing tens of thousands of unrestrained mercenaries, with the threat that they may get out of control and turn into combat groups on demand. Turkey may later be one of their retaliatory goals.
  • The gradual concentration of power in the hands of President Erdogan has not only reduced the priority of diplomacy, but has also led the country to get involved in numerous conflicts and clashes, at varying levels of intensity, with its main international neighbours and partners. Turkey’s increased expansion in the region continues to be a source of concern and challenge for regional decision makers who are keen to consolidate stability therein, given that the Turkish aggressive strategy entailed several negative risks and repercussions, and in more than one regional arena.
  • While some analysts argue that the increased Turkish expansion in the region reflects a legitimate strategic ambition (from a pragmatic perspective), the pillars of achieving this project do not correspond to the space of the Turkish ambition. This means that Turkey will subsequently have to reduce its regional ambition so that the potential gains would correspond to the proven risks, which implies the possibility of accompanying internal Turkish transformations during the short and medium terms, including the following:
  • Breaking the alliance between the ruling AKP, which has an Islamist background, and the MHP, led by Devlet Bahceli.
  • Erdogan’s disappearance from the Turkish political scene, either through the AKP’s loss in the elections scheduled for 2023, or in the early elections currently called for by the Turkish opposition.
  • The possibility of sudden accidental or health developments or changes that would prevent Erdogan from exercising his leadership role in Turkish politics, and expose Turkey to a deep leadership crisis that would distract it from pursuing its regional interventions at the current pace.
  • Given that the current Turkish regional strategy falls within the framework of the aggressive strategy, whereby Turkey relies excessively on military force to defend its interests and interventions in the countries of the region, experts suggest that Turkey may be exposed to the risk of "exhaustion" according to the theory of the British historian Paul Kennedy on "imperial overstretch", which he presented in his famous book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" (published in 1987), as happened previously with many major powers, including the Ottoman Empire itself, which Erdogan is trying to revive, having turned in its last phase into the "sick man of Europe" before its final fall in 1922.

Conclusion

  • Apparently, Turkey intends to continue its regional expansion which has become part of its political and strategic doctrine to consolidate regional influence, under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey's reliance on military force to secure its interests constitutes the cornerstone of its new foreign policy doctrine which questions the feasibility of joint action with traditional regional and international powers and drives Turkey towards acting unilaterally when necessary.
  • Turkey’s expansion strategy has not yet succeeded in achieving many substantial geopolitical gains. Indeed, it has failed to achieve tangible economic returns as it has not yet guaranteed its control of vital resources that can be quickly invested in the areas of intervention. In the event of Ankara’s continued failure to collect current advantages from its interventions, it would be incapable of financing tens of thousands of unrestrained mercenaries, with the threat that they may get out of control and turn into combat groups on demand.
  • The pillars of achieving the Turkish expansion project in the region do not correspond with the ambition of the Turkish leadership. This means that Turkey may subsequently be forced to reduce the limits of its regional ambition so that the potential gains would match the confirmed risks. This raises the possibility of parallel internal Turkish transformations, such as the dissolution of the alliance between the ruling AKP, which has an Islamist background, and the MHP, led by Devlet Bahceli, and Erdogan’s disappearance from the Turkish political scene, either by the AKP’s loss in the upcoming elections or as a result of sudden accidental or health changes that would prevent him from exercising his leadership role in Turkish politics and expose Turkey to a deep leadership crisis that would distract it from pursuing its regional interventions at the current pace.

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