How Turkey’s use of military power furthers Erdoğan’s ambitions

Why We Wrote This

What’s behind Turkey’s increasingly assertive use of military hard power? An easy answer is it helps bolster President Erdoğan politically. But another is that he sees restoring Turkey’s regional standing as his calling.

Turkish Presidency/AP
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrives to address the lawmakers of his ruling party at the parliament, in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 11, 2020, following Turkey's decisive support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia.

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The list of conflicts into which Turkey has inserted itself, either with military hard power or strong rhetoric, seems to be ever growing: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Cyprus, even France.

It’s been able to do so because around the region, the United States and the Europeans have increasingly absented themselves. But using that power – decisively, in the case of supporting Azerbaijan against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh – also means potentially coming into conflict with a great power like Russia.

Turkey’s economy can be another limiting factor, but the temptation to act is great, not only to improve President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political standing, but to improve the nation’s self-image.

“There is clearly a resurgent Turkey – one that has more self-confidence – [that] defines its role in the world as having a military footprint outside of its borders,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, an expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Turkey wants to be a regional hegemon, and to get to that it understands it needs to be an active player in conflict zones,” Ms. Aydıntaşbaş says. “President Erdoğan himself feels that ... it’s his calling in life to make sure Turkey emerges as a great power.”

The cease-fire agreement ending six weeks of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh was greeted in Turkey as a “sacred success” for “brotherly Azerbaijan” in its fight with Armenia.

But the elation in Ankara was not simply due to its ally’s battlefield gains, which reclaimed ground lost to ethnic Armenian separatists in the early 1990s.

For Turkey, the outcome was also the latest successful example of its assertive and game-changing use of military hard power, which has so far redrawn geopolitical realities from Libya and Syria to the southern Caucasus.

The moves take advantage of a vacuum left by now-absent U.S. and European actors, analysts say, in order to realize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambitions of regional preeminence – and to enhance his popularity at home.

The result is that Mr. Erdoğan is the latest exemplar of the effectiveness of gunboat diplomacy, even as traditional military players withdraw from the field. If there is one important caveat, though, it is that Turkey’s ambitions have also brought it increasingly into competition with another power, Russia.

“There is clearly a resurgent Turkey – one that has more self-confidence – [that] defines its role in the world as having a military footprint outside of its borders,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

“Turkey wants to be a regional hegemon, and to get to that it understands it needs to be an active player in conflict zones,” Ms. Aydıntaşbaş says. “President Erdoğan himself feels that ... we’ve already entered a new age of great power competition, and [that] it’s his calling in life to make sure Turkey emerges as a great power.”

“Often all of these things are regarded [abroad] as Turkish adventurism, whereas in Turkey they are a source of pride,” she says. “The government does not see these as adventures, [but] as milestones that are building up a Turkish empire in a new age.”

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia brokered the cease-fire after President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Erdoğan spoke. Nearly 2,000 Russian troops are to monitor the cease-fire lines. Turkey’s peacekeeping role is still to be determined, but Mr. Erdoğan submitted a bill to parliament today to approve deployment of peacekeeping troops for a year.

Turkey’s expanded influence

Few think Azeri troops could have broken the years-long stalemate with Armenia without Turkey’s ironclad support and weaponry. Ankara’s arms sales to Azerbaijan increased six-fold this year, rising to $77 million in September alone – making Azerbaijan the biggest client for Turkish weapons – Reuters reports. Turkey also reportedly deployed Turkish-trained mercenary fighters from Syria.

The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is hardly the only arena in the region – and beyond – in which Turkey has exerted influence:

  • Timely Turkish military intervention in Libya last spring, on behalf of the United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli, is credited with blocking a takeover bid by Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general who had Russian, French, and Saudi support.
  • Since 2016, Turkey has played increasingly effective military roles in Syria and Iraq to limit the reach and power of ethnic Kurdish militias it calls “terrorists” – even facing off directly with U.S. Special Forces units and, last spring, Russian forces over Syria’s northwest enclave of Idlib.
  • Turkey is locked in a tense maritime dispute with Greece and Cyprus over newfound energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean.
  • And, further compounding Turkey’s fractious relations with Europe – and bolstering Mr. Erdoğan’s claim to be a leader for all Sunni Muslims – the Turkish president in late October rejected government efforts to limit the practice of Islam in France after a spate of Islamist attacks, saying President Emmanuel Macron “needs treatment on a mental level.”

Such nationalist and pro-Islamic activism plays well for Mr. Erdoğan at home, where a struggling Turkish economy has dented his popularity.

“There are inherent limits to how far this can go, and the limit is really the Turkish economy, because it is very interdependent with the Western economy,” says Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
Smoke rises from a burning house as cars and trucks climb the clogged road from Kalbajar for Armenia, leaving the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh Nov. 14, 2020. The territory is to be turned over to Azerbaijan on Sunday as part of territorial concessions in an agreement to end six weeks of intense fighting with Armenian forces.

Turkey’s assertiveness abroad has been aided by two concurrent changes in the global order, he says: A United States that is “much more disinterested in this part of the world,” coupled with the “continuing ineffectiveness of the EU as a foreign policy actor.”

“This combination has opened up space for mid-power countries like Turkey to exert themselves more assertively in the regional theater,” says Mr. Ülgen. “The domestic dimension is that the [ruling] AK Party has espoused a narrative of a strong Turkey abroad, and hard power tactics tend to nurture this narrative.”

A report by Al-Monitor news website noted that Mr. Macron “followed the tried and tired analysis that everything [Erdoğan] does abroad must be for ‘religious’ reasons. Others claim that Erdoğan is overreaching politically and militarily.... And yet the Turkish juggernaut keeps marching on.”

Russia sees encroachment

Turkey’s moves have also caught the eye of other intervening powers, notably Russia, which has seen Turkey on the opposite side of frontlines in both Libya and Syria. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan – a former Soviet Republic – is viewed by Moscow as encroachment in its backyard.

The Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, for example, stated that Turkey had made “an unprecedented breakthrough into the political space Moscow always considered exclusively its own.”

The result of the war is “disastrous” for Russia, says Ruslan Pukhov, director of a Russian defense think-tank. “The harsh reality is that Moscow’s influence in the trans-Caucasus region has sharply decreased, while the prestige of a successful and pugnacious Turkey, on the contrary, has grown incredibly,” he told the Financial Times.

Indeed, the Kremlin made clear last week that Turkey is not mentioned in the cease-fire deal and that – despite Azeri statements – any Turkish forces deployed are not official peacekeepers.

Even the fact that Russia is treating Turkey as a player is indicative of how the character and quality of Turkey’s regional reach has changed since the Arab Spring in 2011. Back then, Mr. Erdoğan took a “victory lap” tour of Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli, buoyed by the widespread belief that Turkey presented a model of a successful and modern Islamic state for the post-dictator era.

But the credibility of that model soon disappeared, lost in the clouds of tear gas fired against protesters during the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, and then eroded further by Mr. Erdoğan’s own increasing authoritarianism.

“A decade ago, Turkey presented itself as a model for the region, with its soft power instruments,” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş of ECFR. “Today it’s an actor in the region with hard power instruments. There is a great interest in the use of hard power, and each and every time that becomes a reality, the lesson for the next international incident is that it works.”

How to use influence?

Turkey has been on a learning curve of interventions since it first crossed into northern Syria in 2016. Ms. Aydıntaşbaş recalls visiting Syrian territory controlled by Turkey back then and finding local Turkish authorities “very self-consciously talking about this as an experiment.”

Though Turkey’s military footprint has since extended much farther, it is not clear how Turkey will use its influence in a place like Libya.

“This is not really thought through. And there is a reason that Western countries are so gun-shy about the use of hard power in the Middle East, precisely because the returns are so little and the costs are so heavy,” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş.

“For Turkey, there is a great appetite, because it helps Turkey’s self-image, it helps the president’s own standing, and it is now defined as an ultimate destiny for the country,” she says.

The fact that many Turks favor intervention abroad – even if it is too early to tell if it makes Turkey itself more secure, or improves the economy – is a key reason behind it, says Mr. Ülgen of EDAM.

“The way you have to analyze the activism in Turkish foreign policy is less from the standpoint of the end result, and more in terms of its implications for domestic power,” says Mr. Ülgen.

“It’s really more about whether this foreign policy activism helps President Erdoğan’s popularity at home – and it does – at a time when that popularity is under stress because of the economic malaise.”

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