Turkey’s Dexterous Juggling Act

Turkey’s involvement in multiple wars from Syria to the Caucuses may initially have been down to external circumstance, a reaction to short term need for internal security and territorial integrity, rather than down to its own long term planning; but as the situation develops, its list of adversaries grows.  With the multiple balls it needs to juggle, Ankara may need to follow Dwight Eisenhower’s advice that “planning is everything, the plan is nothing”.

At the end of October President Erdoğan threatened to launch a new military operation in northern Syria if Kurdish armed groups were not cleared from areas along its border with Syria. To be fair, this was a day after a Kurdish fighter blew himself up in a town in the border province of Hatay. 

However, President Erdoğan’s more recent response to the deadliest Russian air strike since the Turkish-Russian truce in March, on the face of it was relatively passive. President Erdoğan announced that Moscow was “not looking for peace in the region”.  The Russian strike targeted a military training camp for Failaq al-Sham, one of the largest Turkey-backed armed groups in the area, in the Jabal al-Dweila area northwest Idlib province killing 35 people.  This indicates both Turkey’s strained relations with Russia, but more importantly that the main priority for Ankara remains the Kurdish issue. 

Turkey and Russia are fighting not just on many fronts but many fronts in multiple wars.  Syria, Libya and more recently the Caucasus.  Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in its fight against Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is looked upon with disdain by Russia.  Both countries remain at loggerheads, supporting opposing sides with both hoping to expand their military presence and political reach in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  This aspiration for hegemony helps explain their shared in interest in Syria – Syria being the geographically artery between East and West.  However, their interest in Libya, where both countries support opposing forces, is more obviously based on the prospect of lucrative rewards.  Over the past year, thousands of Syrian fighters have been sent to Libya by Turkey to fight on behalf of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, against the Russian-backed forces of Libya’s National Army, under General Khalifa Haftar.  Turkey aligned itself with the GNA in January 2020, as a counter to the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF) which is made up of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Turkey wanted to have a say in energy transfer across the Med to Europe from Asia.  This military intervention was two months after the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Government of National Accord on maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean.

As the fairly recent strike on Turkey backed militias demonstrates, Russia will continue to prowl the Turkey-Syria border and be a thorn in Turkey’s side when it comes to its perceived long term interest in suppressing aspirations for autonomy by the Kurds on its border with Syria. Russia can also use its clout as leverage against Turkey’s involvement in the battle on Russia’s doorstep in the Caucuses. However Libya’s war provides the high income stakes for both parties. 

That said Turkey is losing a key supporter for their cause. Up until the 2020 US elections President President Erdoğan had an ally in President Trump.  This support was much needed given the scrutiny being given to two decisions by Ankara.  The first was the purchase of a Russian made S-400 anti-aircraft system, at a reported cost of Euro 2.1 billion in 2019.  Second, was the case against the Turkey’s state-owned Halbank, for violating Iran sanctions, in charges brought in October 2019.  The bank is accused of aiding a Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab in a “multi-billion dollar scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran”, its executives standing accused of illicitly transferring “approximately $20 billion worth of otherwise restricted Iranian funds”.

The Trump administration have so far postponed sanctions, known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), over Turkey’s purchase of its Russian anti-aircraft missile system.  President Trump’s reluctance has been explained as him correcting the mistake of the Obama administration for not providing Turkey with the US-manufactured Patriot missile defence systems.  However, incoming President Joseph Biden, doesn’t bode as well for Ankara as his predecessor. Biden may be more swift in applying sanctions, which have proved to have a severe impact on the Turkish Lira on two previous occasions that the country was reprimanded by the US.  In August 2018 the Lira crashed following the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports, over the imprisonment of an American pastor, and similar response to a Turkish military operation in Syria in 2019, had the same impact on Turkish markets. 

Biden’s choice of sanction could be more severe and could include anything from excluding Turkey from the US banking system to export licence limitations.  This is not only because Biden’s outlook on Middle East and Mediterranean issues are incongruent with President Erdoğan’s. It also enables Biden to curry favour in a Republican-led Senate on a bipartisan issue.

The Turkish President claims to be a filling the void left at the time when Biden was Vice-President and the US made its decision to withdraw US boots from the ground in Iraq.  This decision by the Obama Administration led to a change in policy in Ankara, from one of “zero problems with neighbours” to one of “prioritising internal stability and territorial integrity; a perceived threat of regional rivals filling the vacuum left behind by the United States in the Middle East; and energy independence.”

There are a number of points of contention between the incoming president and his Turkish counterpart, the first being the situation with the Kurds.  Biden has demonstrated his support for the Kurds, for over three decades: denouncing President George H W Bush for allowing Saddam Hussein’s forces to recapture liberated Kurdish areas in 1991.  Biden also addressed the KRI parliament in 2002, reinstating the US support for the Kurds.  In 2003 Biden showed support for a federal system for Kurds, Sunni’s and Shia’s following the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, he criticised Trumps policy of permitting Turkey to attack Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in North East Syria.  However, his pressure on the Kurds to follow a line in favour of US interests in Iraq, demonstrate Biden’s US interests will be prioritised above ethical considerations in regard to the Kurds.  Secondly Turkey’s closer ties with President Putin further sidelines President Erdoğan as far as the US is concerned.  Finally the America’s perceived aggressive Turkish policy on Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean will make the decision on sanctions far easier, a means to control some of these policies from across the Atlantic.  Turkey however, has not been shy in refusing to play ball in the past. Turkey’s actions have ranged from declining permission to US troops to cross the Turkish-Iraq border in 2003, to bilateral disagreements over Syria during Biden’s term as vice-President, to its acquisition of Russian air-defence systems.  The short term love affair with the US under Trump was always going to be an exception rather than the norm.

However Turkey’s list of adversaries does not end there.  The United Arab Emirates were allegedly complicit in the 2016 Turkish coup, that was quashed by Turkish civilians coming on to the streets to face the tanks that a section of the Turkish military used to launch the coordinated operation across several major cities.  The UAE allegedly funnelled funds to the coup plotters. 

The failed coup turned the UAE’s attention to Qatar, urging Saudi Arabia and other allies to cut links to their small neighbour, after Doha showed support for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2017.   Turkey intervened and defended Qatar as it became isolated, ratifying a military agreement with Doha after which Turkish troops were deployed to Qatar soil.

The relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia remain hostile, despite Turkey being UAE’s largest trading partner.  This partnership was put in jeopardy again in August this year, when the UAE followed Jordan and Egypt’s decision and announced they would normalise relations with Israel, a point of contention amongst Arab countries who see this could undermine any chance of Palestinian peace.  Turkey threatened to suspend UAE ties over a deal with Israel.  These relations are under continued pressure as the UAE and Saudi-Arabia align with Turkey’s rival Russia, on Libyan soil.  UAE and Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Libyan quagmire lean towards both acquiring billion dollar reconstruction contracts, as well as hampering the advance of democracy in the region, indeed only slightly different from the interests of these two agents in the Yemen proxy war. President Erdoğan may forgive, but is unlikely to forget the UAE’s alleged involvement in the coup that was to oust him. President Erdoğan has shown in Azerbaijan, that he can get involved in a war that lies near the borders of his adversaries, and he has close ties to Yemen.  However entering another war may stretch Turkey, and getting involved in the complex web of actors, could see her on the wrong side of the Houthis, a state that has shared interests with Ankara. 

As Turkey’s President Erdoğan continues to juggle these balls, what would make it more difficult would be internal instability caused by economic sanctions, which are in arms reach of the US.  However, with the president-elect Biden’s inauguration not until 20th January, and domestic issues of Covid-19 waiting in the in-tray to deal with, President Erdoğan may have a little more time for planning.

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