The rise of Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy

The Erdoğan government has been taking Turkey from one crisis to another, opening up new military and diplomatic fronts. The government’s decision to send troops to support the Government of National Accord in Libya, and its prior acceptance that these forces can be engaged in actual conflicts, is the most risky military adventure the AKP has ever taken.

The Erdoğan government has been taking Turkey from one crisis to another, opening up new military and diplomatic fronts. The government’s decision to send troops to support the Government of National Accord in Libya, and its prior acceptance that these forces can be engaged in actual conflicts, is the most risky military adventure the AKP has ever taken. It seems that both the government and the pro-AKP circles do not seem to be aware of the risks they have taken in such an overseas military engagement which would be conducted in a hostile environment, against a multitude of adversaries and two thousand km away from the mainland. 

Putting aside the risks it contains, the decision to engage militarily directly in the Libyan civil conflict is also symptomatic of a trend in recent Turkish foreign policy which has become militarized to a great extent. Currently, Turkish air force is pondering the PKK sites in northern Iraq, Turkish land forces made three incursions in northern Syria and controlling the Idlib area with its observation posts, and has been engaged in the not so secret arms procurement to the radical Islamist groups in Libya which turned into a deeper engagement in armed drone war over the Libyan airspace. This last authorization of dispatching Turkish troops to Libya would cover air, land forces and the navy which means a full-scale military engagement that is unprecedented in Turkey’s history except the military operation in Cyprus in 1974. It is important to examine the reasons behind this evolving militarization of Turkish foreign policy in regional issues and crises. There seems to be three intertwined reasons which forced the AKP government to resort to the military force in dealing with the security issues, many of which it directly contributed to emerge. 

The evaporation of an institution

Authoritarianism brings institutional degradation which aims to pave the way for the consolidation of power at one hand. In this context, Turkey’s experience in authoritarian turn is no exception. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a small but powerful bureaucratic institution which was the main drive of Turkey’s traditional Western orientation was especially targeted as an institution over the years. It became one of the bureaucratic battlegrounds between the AKP and the Gulen movement which dealt a serious blow to its functioning. While the Turkish diplomatic missions urged the host countries to support the Gülen schools up until 2013, from then on and especially after the coup attempt in 2016, they strenuously demanded the closure of these schools. Around 450 newly recruited diplomats and other personnel were fired which adversely affected its physical capacity. And more important than the numbers, the Ministry was bypassed both from the decision making process and even in the implementation of foreign policy. The TİKA, Diyanet and occasionally Turkish intelligence took over many of the functions that traditionally Turkish diplomatic corps were carrying. A small entourage of Erdoğan is making the decisions which leave the Ministry a bystander. 

Loosing on the diplomatic front

At the heyday of the Arab Spring, the AKP government, under the influence of Ahmet Davutoğlu’s neo-Ottomanist ideas, engaged in an ambitious project of re-inserting Turkey as a regional power through forging ties with the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. With the fall of the government in Tunisia, the civil war in Libya and Syria, and the military coup that ousted the Moursi government from power, left the AKP both without allies and a failed project. More important, the AKP government insisted on overthrowing the Assad government in Syria which had enormous consequences for Turkey, for Syria and for the region in general. During the 2010s Turkey channeled its energy for proxy wars in Syria and Libya which caused it dearly. In other words, the AKP governments were preoccupied with the regime change efforts, recruiting Islamist fighters, and fighting with the PKK in late 2015 inside Turkey and in Iraq.

On the other hand, Turkey broke its relations with Syria, Egypt, and Israel all at the same time. Greece and (Greek) Cyprus were quick to take advantage of Turkey’s self-imposed isolation and its time and energy consuming involvements in other regional disputes. They were able to intensify their cooperation in the areas of diplomacy, military-strategic affairs, maritime agreements, deals in energy sector and even at the societal level, and specifically in the US between the Greek and Jewish lobbies. Those Mediterranean littoral countries also drew global energy companies to the search for natural gas reserves thus excluding Turkey in all aspects of Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics.  

Interestingly, in all these years, Turkey did not initiate a diplomatic breakthrough to renew its ties with those countries. Instead of embarking on a damage control process diplomatically, it opted for a policy of disrupting the drill and search activities, occasionally chasing drill ships.  

Retrieving to the logic of the 1990s

The AKP government, after the failed coup attempt, forged a new alliance with the nationalists and security minded elements of the security apparatus, thus paving the way for a more aggressive posture in the region. With limited options in the diplomatic front and facing a growing isolation, the AKP government, also as part of its alliance with the nationalist forces, have utilized the military which is, despite its ordeal as an institution, is a powerful force in this region at least to disrupt and redirect some of the developments. The familiar political discourses of the 1990s have begun to circulate that Turkey was encircled by the hostile powers, its dismemberment is imminent unless the military takes action, and recently that Turkey’s defense lines lie in areas as far as Somalia, Qatar and Libya. These discourses came from a government who only a decade ago was boasting with its policy of zero problems with neighbors. Had it been for the sake of a nationalist/populist rhetoric, it could have been understandable but Turkey is actually using its military duress to mend its miscalculated foreign policy. Where its diplomacy failed, it had to resort to military force which further complicated its position in the region with possible backlashes looming ahead.

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