A cartoon showing leaders of Germany, France and Turkey

GIS Dossier: Turkey and the Middle East

  • Ankara’s new strategy aims at making Turkey the leading power in the Middle East
  • Civil war in Syria deeply affected Turkey’s security and economy
  • Turkey sees Kurdish nationalism as a grave threat to its integrity
  • Ankara is still groping for the right policy mix in pursuing its regional goals

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of critical topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. The following is our second survey devoted to Turkey. The first one was dedicated to Turkey’s complicated relations with Europe. This selection focuses on Turkey’s ambitions and concerns in the Middle East.

For decades after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923, its foreign policy was based on seeking to guarantee the country’s security through entering regional and international treaties and alliances. That meant joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Council of Europe after World War II. In the bipolar world of the Cold War (1947-1989), Turkey was a dependable ally of the West in its dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union.

It refused to get involved, either politically or militarily, in the Middle East. In today’s multipolar world, however, Turkey is forced to resume its role as a regional power. Its security and territorial integrity require a paradigm shift. Criticized as it may be, the Turkish government is taking on this historic responsibility. It strives to enhance Turkey’s position as a regional power, economically and politically.

GIS authors focused early on this geopolitical process. GIS Expert Professor Udo Steinbach wrote back in 2011 that “Turkey’s relations with its predominantly Islamic geopolitical environment have been put on a new footing.” He identified the architects of that policy change as then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul, who had been Turkish foreign minister from 2003 to 2007, and the prime minister’s “long-standing foreign policy advisor” Ahmet Davutoglu, who had led the foreign affairs ministry since May 2009.

‘Zero problems’ project

Turkey’s geopolitical neighborhood was a “360-degree nightmare” in the mid-1990s, wrote the expert. The Erdogan-Davutoglu duo’s plan, the expert explained, was to position the country at the center of an environment with “zero problem relations.” These efforts failed. Turkey’s attempts to mediate in the Arab-Israeli conflict or build a constructive relationship with the Islamist authorities of Iran only made matters worse, he pointed out. Ankara’s efforts to play a part in settling the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or in resolving the endless disputes in the Balkans, all came to naught.

Turkey tried to persuade Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to carry out political reforms

The civil war in Syria, which started in March 2011, forced Ankara to change tack. By 2013, Professor Steinbach wrote in his report that “the upheaval in the Arab world has left Turkey in a quandary as to how it should respond.” The policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors had failed. Political differences clouded its relations with Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow – some of the most important ones from Ankara’s perspective.

At the start of the civil war, Turkey tried to persuade Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to carry out political reforms. When Damascus stepped up repression instead, Ankara began calling for Mr. Assad to go. The war affected Turkey directly. It became flooded by refugees from Syria, and the Turkish frontier region repeatedly came under fire during the fighting between the troops of the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels. Economic cross-border traffic broke down altogether.

Kurdish state specter

Some two million Kurds live in Syria. After the fighting began, the Syrian regime largely withdrew from the Kurdish regions along the Syrian-Turkish border, and the Kurds have managed to establish their own administration there, wrote the expert. The driving force behind that was the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which had strong ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The PKK had been engaged in armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984.

All that was happening across Turkey’s border, Mr. Steinbach stressed, at a time when Ankara was nowhere near resolving Kurdish unrest at home and watched with a wary eye the Kurdish regions of Iraq, which had achieved a political status close to state autonomy.

A map showing geographic dispersion of the Kurds in Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria
As opposed to the Kurds in the autonomous regions in northern Iraq, the Kurds in Syria are suspected by Ankara of assisting terrorist attacks in Turkey (source: macpixxel for GIS)

The Arab Spring, an open revolt against dominating regimes in the Middle East that sent tremors across the region from 2010 through 2012, triggered the collapse of the post-Ottoman order of states, Professor Steinbach wrote in his March 2013 GIS report. “The region today is changing. New states could be created, or old states merge, while the Kurdish question could shake up the system of states for good,” he predicted.

Turkey was under increasing pressure to make peace with the PKK, which demanded a more extensive autonomy and recognition for the Kurds, the same expert pointed out in a report two months later. At the beginning of 2013, Ankara started talks with the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. A settlement could end more than 25 years of violence, but the talks were inconclusive, and the PKK resumed its guerrilla war inside Turkey.

The Kurds: a thorn in Turkey’s side

  • The Kurds are among the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East. Some 25 to 30 million of them live alongside 55 to 60 million Turks in Turkey, 40 million Persians in Iran and 36 million Arabs in Iraq and Syria. There are also small Kurdish communities in the Caucasus
  • The Kurds’ identity stems from the difference between the Kurdish language and its dialects and the Turkish, Persian and Arab languages. The Kurdish language is related to Persian (Farsi), the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages
  • The Kurds came away empty-handed from the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire
  • The Kurds have never abandoned their resistance to that state of affairs, primarily as none of the regimes under which they lived was willing to grant even minimal demands for autonomous Kurdish political existence

Ankara’s worries

Turkey’s process of adjusting its policies to the worsening security outlook in Syria and generally in the region was tortuous and riddled with contradictions, observed several GIS experts.

Professor Dr. Amatzia Baram noted in a September 2014 report that while many Arab states had agreed to join the United States-led coalition fighting Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria, Ankara had been dragging its feet. It objected to the Americans and Europeans arming and training Syrians and Kurds. The Turks were wary that the weapons could find their way to the PKK and Kurds from Turkey would use their military experience from Syria to continue the fight for independent Kurdistan at home. But as a robust Sunni opposition appeared to be close to toppling the Assad regime, Turkey replaced its “zero conflicts with neighbors” strategy with something very different, wrote Professor Baram – “building Turkey as the leading Sunni power in the region.”

The grand “New Turkey” project aims to make the country into the world’s tenth-strongest economy by 2023

Many Turkish analysts saw it as neo-Ottomanism. Turkey became a great supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. It was prepared to back any Sunni-Islamist movement which could fight the Damascus regime.

Erdogan revolution

By February 2015, Turkey was in a profound transformation of its republican state, reported Prof. Steinbach. Mr. Erdogan became the first Turkish president to be elected directly by the people, with broad powers and a strong mandate. His grand “New Turkey” project aimed to make the country into a Muslim regional power and the world’s tenth-strongest economy by 2023, the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish republic.

The Kurdish question remained open while the conflicts in neighboring Syria were increasingly making themselves felt in Turkey. As many as 1.5 million refugees from Syria had been given what the government described as “hospitality.”

A photograph of a refugee camps in Turkey
The Nizip-2 refugee camp is one of the dozens of facilities built in Turkey to hold nearly 3 million refugees from Syria (source: dpa)

Ankara’s foreign policy, however, continued to be unfocused, Mr. Steinbach judged in his follow-up report. The government-pushed Islamization of Turkish society was supposed to align it better with its Islamic neighbors, but “[u]pheavals in Egypt and Syria have put paid to that,” he wrote. A siege laid by the terror group ISIS (also known as Daesh or Islamic State) on the city of Kobani near the Turkish-Syrian border created another problem. Ankara refused to aid the beleaguered Kobani Kurds, on the grounds that the PKK was just as much a terrorist organization as ISIS. That deepened the rift with the Kurds in Turkey. The country’s booming economic relations with the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq had also suffered a setback and Ankara was at pains to improve its long-troubled ties with the Shia government in Baghdad once again.

In the north, in the triangle of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, Turkey also had little to show for its diplomatic labors, Mr. Steinbach argued. Economic relations between Ankara and Moscow were expanding, but there was little Turkey could do against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policy in the region.

In Ankara’s view, there was no way to sort out Syria without getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad

“Russia’s occupation of Crimea in March 2014 stirred strong emotions in the Turkish public. The Turkish-speaking Crimean Tatars have a well-organized lobby,” wrote Prof. Steinbach. However, Ankara’s official reaction was limited to calling on Moscow to protect the rights of minorities.

Ankara’s dilemmas

GIS Expert Eka Tkeshelashvili extensively discussed Turkey’s difficulties in its relations with Russia in her Sept. 2015 report. After Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party scored a decisive win in the November 2015 snap elections, Ms. Tkeshelashvili judged it good news for both the Middle East and the Black Sea area. Ankara’s relations with the Western allies remained troubled, however.

U.S.-Turkish cooperation suffered since 2003 when Turkey refused to allow its territory to be used for the invasion of Iraq. “After brief rapprochement in 2010-2012, Ankara and Washington again drifted apart, notably due to disagreements over Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Libya, as well as Turkey’s continuing diplomatic impasse with Israel,” wrote the expert.

Syria was the biggest stumbling block between the two countries. Their interests and positions on how the crisis should be resolved had diverged. In Ankara’s view, there was no way to sort out Syria without getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. preferred to concentrate on the fight against ISIS.

By January 2016, GIS Expert Charles Million observed that the simultaneous interventions by Turkey and Russia in Syria increased the risk of inflaming the regional conflict. “Turkey may be justified in reacting to a war raging on its borders, but it is still playing a devious game,” wrote the expert. Turkey was taking advantage of the situation to bomb the Kurds, maintained “murky links” with ISIS and sided with the ostensibly “moderate” anti-Assad camp, whose real goals and ideological leanings were unclear. Mr. Millon offered this grim assessment:

The most likely outcome of Russia’s and Turkey’s regional interventions will be more instability and extremism, both at home and abroad. For the Middle East – the arena for this low-intensity military sparring – this means more collateral damage.

A picture of a Turkish armored vehicle and soldiers in Syria
Afrin, March 18, 2018: Fighters of the Turkish Armed Forces and Free Syrian Army entering the city taken away from Kurdish “terrorists” during the “Operation Olive Branch” in northwestern Syria (source: dpa)

Where is Turkey headed?” Professor Steinbach asked rhetorically in April 2016. He listed the problems: Turkey had enjoyed good relations with most of its Arab neighbors, but after the Arab revolutions broke out in 2011, Ankara found itself on the sidelines. Its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt isolated Turkey both from the secular protest movements and from Saudi Arabia. After the Syrian conflict broke out, Ankara’s misjudgments (like expecting a rapid collapse of the regime in Damascus, deciding to secretly cooperate with Islamist extremists or its covert struggle against the Kurds) ended up offending Turkey’s Western allies, most of the Arab states and Iran.

It was only a series of terrorist bombings by ISIS (the bloodiest, near Ankara’s central railroad station in October 2015, killed 102 people), Mr. Steinbach pointed out, that caused Turkey to change policy. It began to align itself with the military front against ISIS, allowing expanded operations by the U.S. Air Force from the Incirlik Air Base. The short-lived enmity with Israel was set aside, and the Jewish state was declared an ally. Ankara and Riyadh also patched up their differences and began to converge politically. GIS Founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein found these changes remarkable in his July 8, 2016 comment.

The coup

On 15 July 2016, a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces attempted a coup d’etat. Forces loyal to the government defeated the putschists, and President Erdogan immediately used the failed takeover bid to consolidate his power. On July 18, in his comment “Turkey’s failed coup marks the end of Kemalism,” Prince Michael wrote that the strengthened Erdogan government would play a more assertive role in the struggle to contain Iran in the Gulf, the Arab Peninsula and the Mesopotamia/Syria region. Turkey, the author predicted, was also likely to also reassess its position in the Black Sea, Caucasus, Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean.

A map showing three main conflict areas in Syria involving the U.S. and Iran, Israel and Hezbollah, and Turkey, Kurds and the U.S.
Map of international conflict zones in Syria Three triangular-shaped conflict zones mark the spots in Syria where armed conflict between the major international players could ignite and spread (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Arabs across the Middle East rejoiced – even handing out candies in the streets – on the news that the coup against President Erdogan had failed, reported GIS Expert Samir Nassif in August 2016. For the Arab world it meant, the expert explained, that Turkey would play the role of regional leader at a time when instability reigned throughout the region: when Egypt, the traditional leader, found itself held back and Iran was rising to exert its influence. Eventually, predicted Mr. Nassif, either Iran or Turkey would take the mantle of regional leader.

Turkey scored multiple geopolitical wins shaping geopolitics in its historic African sphere of influence

Nearly one year later, Professor Steinbach described Ankara’s policies toward key Middle East states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Gulf States, as still lacking. Also, Turkey’s relations with Russia were precarious and unstable. The expert wrote:

As to the future of the Syrian regime, Mr. Erdogan has reluctantly aligned himself with Russia. … Tensions also exist over the Black Sea, where the two countries have waged a centuries-long struggle for supremacy. Free military passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits remains a sore point for Russia, while Turkey sees itself as a protector of the Crimean Tatars and the Islamic peoples of the North Caucasus, whom it sees as suffering under Russian repression.

Not all GIS experts shared Mr. Steinbach’s dim view. In January 2018, GIS Expert Bernard Siman noted that Ankara’s bold moves in the Horn of Africa – the deployment of Turkish troops and heavy materiel to a base in Qatar and an agreement with Sudan to lease the strategic Red Sea Island of Suakin – were significant developments. “This extension of Turkish strategic reach could continue as an independent theme in 2018,” Mr. Siman wrote. An anonymous GIS expert concluded that these moves by Turkey had “scored multiple geopolitical wins,” shaping geopolitics in its historic African sphere of influence.

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