The heavy hand of Turkey’s political and military presence is being felt in many parts of the Middle East. In Syria, Turkish troops have launched four military intrusions across the 900 km border between the two countries since 2016 and are now firmly established in their neighbor’s north and northeast. In Iraq, they are mounting repeated aerial attacks on positions held by fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and occupy territory up to 30 km inside the country.
In Libya, Turkey last year signed an agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that defined Libyan and Turkish exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean. In return, Turkey deployed mercenaries and advisers in Libya to back the GNA. This agreement also led to Turkey deploying a survey ship, backed by its navy, to explore for gas in waters that its officers describe as its “Blue Homeland.” But these waters are also claimed by the consortium that includes Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, thus setting up the prospect of a naval conflict.
Meanwhile, in response to the “normalization” of ties between the UAE and Israel, Turkey last month hosted a Hamas delegation. Besides highlighting the importance of Hamas in Palestinian affairs, this overture enabled Turkey to emphasize its opposition to the US-sponsored peace plan, Israel’s proposed annexation of occupied territory, and the ongoing normalization process.
Another little-noticed but important Turkish outreach has been into Africa. Turkey had previously declared 2005 as the “Year of Africa” and followed this up with substantial interactions with different countries. In the last two decades, its diplomatic presence has expanded from 12 to 42 embassies, the number of Turkish Airlines routes to the continent has grown from four to 60, and Ankara now has 46 business councils across the continent. These initiatives have yielded concrete benefits. Turkey has a military base in Somalia, a 99-year lease of Suakin island on the Red Sea from Sudan, and a “strategic partnership” with Ethiopia, meaning it is backing Addis Ababa in its dispute with Egypt on the Nile waters issue. Turkey is also eyeing Niger and Chad as possible military partners.
Turkey might soon find itself friendless and its military encounters in the region could spiral out of control.
Turkey’s diplomatic and military activism has caused considerable alarm in the Middle East and beyond. Egypt and most Arab Gulf states see Turkey as a political and ideological threat because of its overt support for political Islam and its propensity to use force to pursue its interests.
Turkey has also alienated the US and EU. The US decries Turkey for taking armed action against the Kurds in Syria, who are its allies, while backing the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham extremist organization.
Turkey has also flouted NATO norms by obtaining the S-400 missile defense system from Russia and building a close partnership with the Kremlin by pursuing the peace process in Syria that is in accord with Russian and Iranian interests rather than those of the West. The Europeans are upset at the Greece-Turkey naval confrontation in the Mediterranean, which was partially defused this month with the temporary withdrawal of a Turkish survey ship from the disputed waters.
Observers believe President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy is an expression of neo-Ottomanism — the pursuit of a Turkish presence and role in the territories that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, while celebrating the glory and achievements of the empire at home. Neo-Ottomanism panders to Turkish nationalists, who span a wide spectrum: From the hardcore Islamists to secular ultra-nationalists, particularly in the armed forces. Neo-Ottomanism challenges the Kemalist order that has, for more than a century, defined Turkey as a Westernized nation that rejects its Ottoman past and is robustly secular.
Erdogan started out on these lines, but the frustration of Turkey’s attempts to join the EU perhaps encouraged him to shape his country’s heritage and destiny on another basis. In an attempt to define contemporary Turkey, Erdogan has gone beyond the previous century to the earlier millennium of Ottoman rule, when the empire’s heyday saw it controlling much of West Asia and Transcaucasia, Southeast Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean.
The president has imbued his neo-Ottomanism with a strong Islamist flavour. He has reconverted the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, encouraged mosque construction and religious education at home and abroad, and used political Islam as the ideology to back Muslim causes and their organizations.
Erdogan’s critics believe that the principal drivers for his neo-Ottomanism are domestic considerations, such as: The mobilization of domestic support amid severe economic difficulties; encouraging backing for the president among the armed forces and promoting civilian-military ties that were frayed by the failed coup of 2016; and generally boosting the image of Erdogan as a statesman of global standing.
He believes Turkey’s regional role is “unstoppable.” But, given his rejection of diplomacy and the fierce opposition that his coercive approach has generated in different theatres, Turkey might soon find itself friendless and its military encounters in the region could spiral out of control.
Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.