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Turkey’s overseas adventures

Through foreign military expansion, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is looking to bolster his standing with nationalist support

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 20 Oct 2020
Turkey’s overseas adventures
A Turkish military vehicle within a convoy passing through the Al-Mastumah village, heading to the south of Idlib in northwestern Syria (photos: AFP)
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Greece and Cyprus pressed this week for strict action by the European Union (EU) against Turkey amid a growing dispute between the three countries over oil and gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean region.

Amid the resumption of Turkish exploration operations and deployment of navy troops in the area, Greece and Cyprus were asked to wait until the EU summit takes place in December. “We plan a summit in December. And we have planned, indeed, to tackle again and to assess the situation in the eastern Mediterranean and in Turkey,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters after the EU summit Friday. These developments followed the EU warning to Turkey 2 October that it might face sanctions if it did not change its position before December.

Turkey is militarily involved in several parts of the world. The country’s army has troops in Syria’s Idlib province, regularly attacks Kurdish groups in northern Iraq, backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, and has aerially been involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In many of these conflicts, Turkey also counts on the support of armed groups, including Syrian mercenaries that fight alongside its troops in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aside from its actions, top-level Turkish officials regularly emphasise their objection to changing policies. Perhaps the only recent exception was the finalisation of a ceasefire between parties to the Libyan conflict.

Libya has been divided between two authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk for six years. While the GNA is based in Tripoli, the capital, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) controls the east and is allied to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. The LNA is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Russia, while the GNA is backed by Turkey, Qatar, and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.

On 22 August, the main parties to the conflict declared a ceasefire that ended fears about possible GNA aggression against the port city of Sirte, 370 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli, and Al-Jufra, which has a major military airbase. Peace talks have been ongoing since then.

Turkey, a NATO member state, has arguably taken it to the next step through buying weapons from Russia, which angered the administration of US President Donald Trump.

On 17 October, the US State Department slammed Turkish testing of Russia’s S-400, a highly advanced air defence system. The United States warned that the Turkish-Russian arms deal — which was signed in 2017 — threatens US F-35 bombers and other US-NATO systems. The Turks did not verify news about the testing.

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, described these moves as “overseas military adventures” that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses as a means of gathering nationalist support. Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian, pointed out that Erdogan knows that Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis will continue to undermine his popularity and “hurt his chances for re-election in 2023”. Hence, Erdogan is seeking to “strengthen his nationalist credentials at home to help him regain his popularity among the electorate.”

“In September, for example, the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean helped push Erdogan’s approval rating from 48 per cent to 52 per cent, providing him a lifeline. Since positive effects of foreign policy stunts only last for a short time, the Turkish president is desperate to create new crises on multiple fronts. Even if Erdogan fails to realise his maximalist ambitions through his proxy wars in the Middle East and beyond, he still manages to divert the Turkish voters’ attention away from the economy toward foreign policy. At this point, that offers a domestic win Erdogan is happy to settle for,” Erdemir explained.

In early October, the Turkish lira reached a 25 per cent slide in 2020, getting closer to the $8 mark. According to Reuters, Turkish companies and financial bodies have to deal with $10 billion debt repayments during the coming two months. This situation lessens the capacities of Turkish companies to boost investments.

Lenore Martin, an associate with Harvard’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, described the Turkish economy as a “struggling” with the lira “at record lows with no end in sight”. “The old tactic of occupying the interest of the people with foreign policy when domestic issues, most especially the economy, are in trouble is a tried and true tactic by political leaders. It does not seem to be a strong tactic, as it will not fill people’s stomachs or improve employment statistics,” Martin said.

But for Kadir Yildirim, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Erdogan is more concerned about Turkey’s “greater influence in the region”. As Yildirim puts it, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party “view a major discrepancy between Turkey’s economic, military, and soft power and its actual influence over the broader Middle East and North Africa region”. He noted that post-Arab Spring developments in the Middle East “did not exactly pan out in the way Erdogan preferred,” especially with regard to Islamist groups, with whom he shares ideological alignments. Yildirim believes this is why Erdogan resorted to a “more aggressive foreign policy posture.” Erdogan benefited from Washington’s “desire to draw down its presence in the region,” Yildirim added, stating that Erdogan seeks in the coming months to “to turn Turkish advances into permanent gains”.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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