Turkey: isolated, frustrated, overstretched

Never before in its history, Turkey had to deal with so many issues, engagements, crises, military involvements, and operations all at the same time. At no time in the Republic’s history did Turkey interfered, involved and intervened in the affairs of its neighbors and other countries. What is striking is that in most of the cases, it is Turkey that plunged itself in these crises, and it is partly responsible for their escalation as in the Syrian case.

Never before in its history, Turkey had to deal with so many issues, engagements, crises, military involvements, and operations all at the same time. At no time in the Republic’s history did Turkey interfered, involved and intervened in the affairs of its neighbors and other countries. What is striking is that in most of the cases, it is Turkey that plunged itself in these crises, and it is partly responsible for their escalation as in the Syrian case. Since coming to power the AKP governments’ attention, direction and focus turned towards the Middle East, but with the start of the Arab Spring, this involvement took different forms from seeking domination to regime change (Syria), from involving in proxy wars (Syria, Libya) to being a party in domestic cleavages (Egypt) and regional disputes (Qatar). The problem with Turkish foreign policy is that its isolation mostly stems from its misguided policies, sectarian and unnecessary involvements, and alienation of its traditional allies, neighbors and friends. 

Turkey, under the AKP government, has been going through its most isolated period in history. Erdoğan has no friends in Europe, except the authoritarian leader of Hungary, Orban. Once praised for his efforts of democratization Erdoğan was rightfully portrayed as one of the living examples of the right-wing authoritarianism sweeping across the globe. Although right-wing xenophobia and racism are on the rise in Europe, and Turkey and Turks have been represented as the other for those movements and parties, it is the image that the Erdoğan governments created, and its pursuit of foreign and domestic politics that frustrated and alienated both the individual EU countries and European public. The tensions had come to a point where Erdoğan threatens the EU with sending the Syrian refugees and the EU is imposing sanctions on Turkey in response to Turkey’s drilling activities in the Mediterranean. 

In his first two terms, Erdoğan was the target of nationalist and left-wing criticism of his pro-Americanism. Therefore, it may not sound fair to criticize him for the strains in US-Turkish relations, and his endeavor to balance the US influence with Russia. However, Turkey under Erdoğan represents the worst of the two worlds. Despite the pro-government media ushers his image as a defiant leader to the Western world, Turkey is still part of the Western system in political and strategic terms, and economically and financially is more dependent on the West. The political language of the AKP government during NATO’s London summit is a case in point. While Turkey is not less dependent on the West, Erdoğan has alienated both aisles of Congress, both the Democrats and Republicans, liberal and conservative circles, and almost all decision-making institutions, and all the lobbies at the same time, a first-time event in the history of US-Turkey relations. Relations with the US heavily rely on the unhealthy and shaky ties between the two like-minded leaders. 

In the Middle East, the AKP governments were able to make too many adversaries. Unexpectedly, Turkey became part of the feud between the royal families in the Gulf and allied itself with Qatar. And this alliance came with a price. Turkey had to send its troops to this country and had to allow Qatar’s privileged access to the Turkish economy and controversial buyouts of public enterprises. The AKP government could somehow manage to anger the Saudis, who turned out to be a supplier of assistance to the PYD in Syria and Hafter in Libya. A couple of years ago, no observer of Turkish politics and foreign policy would be convinced that the United Arab Emirates and its ruler Mohammad bin Zayed would emerge as the biggest rival of Turkey. The pro-government media accuses Zayed and Dahlan, a Palestinian with links to Zayed, as orchestrating the July 15 coup attempt. It is difficult even for a meticulous Turkish observer to conceive of the link that ties the UAE to the Gulenists, whom the government accused of being behind the coup. The UAE is a small emirate in the Gulf with no common land or sea border with Turkey and no historical animosity. It is difficult to understand how the AKP turned a tiny Gulf emirate a steadfast enemy of Turkey, which allegedly tried to mastermind a coup and fighting a proxy war against the Turkish ally in Libya. 

Turkey’s isolation is more visible in the Eastern Mediterranean. Out of negligence or malpractice, Turkey has completely been marginalized in the geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey confronts regional actors, global energy companies, and global powers concurrently. It has no or downgraded diplomatic ties with four countries, and is trying to cling to the Tripoli government in desperation. There is not a single actor that Turkey can ally itself, work with, or cooperate. With ties broke up with Israel, Greece and the Cyprus Republic were quick to fill in the vacuum and together with Egypt, and they began to dominate the regional and energy politics, sidelining Turkey. Moreover, Turkey’s only friends, Russia, and Qatar on the international scene, jumped on the scramble for natural gas, and Palestine joined the Natural Gas Forum initiated by Egypt which excluded Turkey. In an attempt to break its marginalization, Turkey has sent its two drillships and navy vessels to prevent ENI’s (not Exxon mobile, of course) drilling, thus further deteriorating its relations with the EU. The US Congress passed a bill that urges the administration to strengthen the security ties with Cyprus and remove the imposed arms embargo.

And in Libya, Turkey is not only isolated but also confronting a bloc that consists of Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, France, and for a while, is part of the military standoff between the Tripoli government and the Hafter forces. 

As seen, Turkey is also militarily overstretched, and it officially and unofficially stations troops and military advisors in northern Cyprus, (northern) Iraq, Syria, Qatar, Somalia and Libya which requires another in-depth coverage with its possible consequences. 

In recent years, Turkey has been undergoing isolation that is unprecedented in its history. It has too many problems and no friends and allies to cooperate or to converge its interests. Qatar is weak, Russia is unreliable and has mostly divergent and occasionally conflicting interests, and the Government of National Accord in Libya is vulnerable. The Muslim Brotherhood is dismantled as an organization and under repression, and Palestinians are divided, and they are inefficient as an ally.  

The ongoing institutional degradation, primarily of Foreign Ministry and other prominent bureaucratic organizations has already weakened its diplomacy, and with sanctions looming from its supposed allies such as the EU and the US, the AKP government is engaging Turkey into multiple crises, conflicts and problems with no exit strategy or any prospect of solution in sight. 

November 23, 2020 Turkey's Russia problem