Analysis - Political Transformations

2018 Calculations

Why does Turkey Resort to Hard Power in Tacking Regional Crises?
Sunday، December 24، 2017
2018 Calculations

Since its establishment in 1923, Turkey has followed the famous maxim of Ataturk “peace at home, peace in the world.” It has pursued a policy of closure, steering away from involvement in the conflicts of the Arab and Islamic worlds, but pivoted to the West instead. Over the past decades, until the advent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, this orientation has largely defined Ankara’s foreign policy. However, current observers of Turkish politics will find it is quite different from the above. During the rule of the AKP, it has undergone several shifts and now is pursuing hard power towards the Arab world, exploiting the current developments in the region to cement its role and influence. This will most likely shape the Turkish policy towards the region’s crises in 2018.

Harbingers of Transition 

It can be argued that the current Turkish foreign policy is based on the ideas of Prof. Ahmet Davuoglu, as illustrated in his book “Strategic Depth.” The book outlined his vision that perceived Ankara as a dynamic state in its regional and international environment based on economic, political and security factors, and others related to its vital geopolitical location, as well as its historical relations with geographical proximity. 

Although the “zero problems” approach put forward by Oglu failed to achieve its primary objective of having “zero problems with the neighbours,” the bulk of ideas that he had presented remained the parameters of Turkish foreign policy in viewing and dealing with the current issues in the region.

Perhaps the previously mentioned constituted a turning point in Turkey’s transition to the exercise of hard power, based on the conviction that participating in the ongoing operations in the war-torn states, spreading influence across the region, and determining destinies are better than standing as an idle spectator, as Turkey did during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A brief look at the deployment of the Turkish military forces abroad shows an extensive map of military and training bases and centers. Ankara has a military base in Qatar, with about 3,000 troops from the land, air and naval forces, as well as military instructors and special operation forces. There is also a military base in Somalia, specifically in the Gulf of Aden, with the aim of training more than 10,000 soldiers, becoming the fifth country in the world with military bases on the African continent. 

Apart from that, Turkey has military bases in Iraq, Azerbaijan and Albania. It participates in peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, Lebanon among others, as well as tens of thousands of troops in Northern Cyprus.

Siding with Qatar 

With the outbreak of the Qatar crisis, with the Arab quartet countries boycotting Doha in protest of its regional policy, Turkey was quick to side with Doha. After just two days of the crisis, Ankara quickly announced its support for Qatar and criticized the boycotting countries. 

The key question here is why Turkey stood by Qatar and jeopardized its relations with the boycotting countries. At least it could have maintained its neutrality towards all parties, if not to engage in mediation efforts. Perhaps the most important reasons behind Turkey’s decision are:

1- Qatar is the only Gulf state that maintains a strong relationship with Turkey, and if Doha loses in the ongoing crisis, the repercussions will affect Ankara, as it hosts many political Islam movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be subsequently responsible alone for the embrace of these groups.

2- The only Turkish military base in the Arab Gulf is in Qatar. The establishment of this base is perceived as a significant infiltration of the region by Turkey, as it can exert pressure on Arab Gulf countries. Placing pressure on Iran does not require such base since the two countries share common borders. 

It is evident that Turkey has exploited the outbreak of the Qatar crisis to reinforce its regional influence in this region. Its stance within the crisis transcended beyond the bilateral relationship with Qatar to play a role in the security of the Gulf. This reveals the Turkish transition towards the exercise of hard power, a vision that has crystallized dramatically in the wake of the Syrian and Iraqi crises.

In the same context, Operation Euphrates Shield should be viewed as the first military operation outside the Turkish territory since the Turkish military intervention in Northern Cyprus in 1974. In addition there was another operation in Idlib after Astana’s agreements with Iran and Russia. However, what is remarkable in the operation in Idlib is that Turkey attempted to separate it from the Astana agreements, to be a separate military operation against Afrin, specifically against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, in cooperation with armed groups, including the al-Nusra Front, which is enlisted as a terrorist organization.  

Cautious in Lebanon

Turkey dealt cautiously with the crisis of the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri before rescinding it, due to its pragmatic policies of balancing between interests and the map of alliances. This was evident during the visit of Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to Turkey on November 16. During the visit, Turkish officials stopped short of making statements that clarify the Turkish stance on the crisis, despite that Erdogan and his foreign minister had met with the Lebanese minister. There are two possible factors for this caution: 

1- The relationship with Iran: The Turkish rapprochement with Iran has become a significant factor, alongside the Russian element in determining Turkey’s policy toward the Arab region. The Turkish handling of the crisis aims at balancing its interests between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the first instance.

2- The relationship with Lebanon: Based on the previously mentioned, the Turkish policy towards Lebanon pursue practices that are in the interest of anti-Saudi forces in Lebanon. At the core of this position is the Turkish economic interests related to gas and oil projects in the Mediterranean, where Lebanon is a key component in the regional projects.

Jerusalem and Propaganda Rhetoric 

After the US declared its intention to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, this issue prompted the Turkish policy to up the ante in media and political discourse. However, even if such popular discourse is welcomed in the Arab street, employing such rhetoric without implementing practical steps and real actions detracts much of its credibility in the Arab street, especially since Turkey has adopted such a policy over the past years without taking significant steps.

The matter was renewed in the Jerusalem issue when Erdogan declared on-air that he would sever relations with Israel, if Trump decides to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. However, he did not deliver on his threat, which made the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which was called by Turkey, just a normal summit that does not measure up to the size of the Jerusalem issue, a pan-Arab and Islamic issue facing existential threat. Perhaps the crux of the problem here is that the Turkish policy is driven by attempting to influence the region more than the moral and political stance it keeps declaring when talking about the Palestinian issue. 

Significances of the Transition

In fact, the Turkish shift towards exerting hard power is closely related to a combination of internal factors that have paved the way for such transition to happen, the most important factors are:

1- Over the past years, Turkey has significantly developed its military industries in the field of aircraft, helicopters, missiles, vessels and other sophisticated weapons and other military equipment.

2- The 75-percent investment-oriented Turkish economy is facing major obstacles and is seeking other investment opportunities that focus on oil and gas projects and military industries rather than relying on manufacturing, agriculture, tourism and mega real estate projects.

3- The recent dramatic developments in the Arab world, from Libya, through Yemen and Syria, to the Qatar crisis, prompted Ankara to develop a vision based on the fact that the regional crises are interlinked, premeditated, and are subject to the calculations of interests, roles and influence.

4- Turkey believes that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are driven by foreign powers with the aim of establishing a Kurdish state, that is, they essentially threaten the national security of Turkey. Therefore, Turkey often builds its alliances and develops its policies on that basis. 

Against this backdrop, the tension in the relationship between Turkey and the US administration should be viewed, as the latter refuses to respond to the Turkish demand, to stop supporting the Kurds and provide them with weapons.

Indeed, Turkey’s shift to the hard power has two main objectives: 

1- Reassert its stance as a major regional state whose role cannot be ignored in the unfolding events in the region and the attempts by the major international powers to chart a new map for the region. This may help explain Erdogan’s constant claims that what is happening in the region will determine the features of the next phase for a century to come.

2- Taking advantage of the ongoing crises in the region to develop a Turkish role through forging alliances with regional and local forces, in pursuit of influence and economic interests. Ankara is aiming to be a leading force in the Middle East and influential in shaping its events, as Erdogan aspires.

Yet the remaining question in 2018 will be related to the relation between the new Turkish strategy and the traditional Turkish relations with the NATO, how it influences the Turkish foreign policy. This is in addition to the variables at home, which is the main concern for Erdogan in every single step, since the failed military coup in mid-July.

Keywords: Turkeymiddle eastSyriaErdoganQatar Crisiscrises