One might be forgiven for thinking that Turkey’s recent attempts to go it alone in international military adventures, from Syria to Libya, have been an unmitigated disaster.
In those conflicts, Turkey is either supporting a losing side, or contributing to a stalemate. However, Ankara’s priority in Syria and elsewhere is not necessarily to back a winner. Its aim, is to carve a stake in its near abroad, and to ensure that other powers sufficiently recognize Turkish interests.
In Syria, following the recent advances of Bashar Assad’s forces in Idlib, which along with many civilian casualties left 13 Turkish soldiers dead, Turkey’s firebrand president Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that Syrian troops withdraw or face severe retaliation. Ankara has already sent additional forces, equipment and supplies to the front lines.
Ankara also publicly rejected Moscow’s claim that Turkey flouted the de-escalation agreements forged between the two countries and Iran back in 2018. Last week, U.S. envoy James Jeffrey tried to use the Russian-Turkish rift to recalibrate U.S.-Turkish relations by describing the dead Turkish soldiers as "martyrs" and vowed that Washington would stand by its NATO ally. But despite mollifying American words, Turkey is in no rush to return to the Western fold, and remains determined to chart its own path.
In Idlib, for example, Ankara’s position appears untenable. The Turkish-backed opposition forces stand little chance against the superior firepower of the Assad regime -which, supported by Russia, controls the region’s airspace and has made steady advances across the country. Yet Turkey perseveres with a doomed policy of supporting a ragtag band of opposition forces.
However, by holding onto Idlib, Ankara has a its interests recognized by international powers and has a central place in forums which discuss the future of Syria – and avoids, for now, another influx of Syrian refugees, Just the fact that Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak regularly, and that last week Moscow sent a delegation to Turkey to discuss the situation and this week additional talks are being held in Moscow, is a boon for Ankara. Later on, Turkey can use Idlib as a bargaining chip to secure its interests in other areas of Syria, especially Kurdish territory alongside its border.
Similarly, in Libya, Turkey has sent equipment, weaponry and members of its Syrian proxy forces, some of them radical jihadists, to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj. However, even if the Tripoli government survives, all that can be achieved is a stalemate. The opposing forces of General Khalifa Haftar control most of the country, and Haftar enjoys the support of Russia, France, the UAE, Egypt and other countries in the region.
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But just like in Syria, Turkey’s involvement in Libya is less about backing a winning side than amplifying and projecting power - staking a claim to a say in the future of the country. So far, Turkey has achieved this through its involvement in ceasefire talks in Berlin last January and ongoing discussions in Geneva. As long as Turkey is involved in the conflict, the international community will be obliged, however reluctantly, to recognize Turkey as an important regional power.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, Turkey’s drilling off the coast of Cyprus has left Ankara not only at loggerheads with Nicosia, but also with the European Union, now posed to impose sanctions against Turkey. Meanwhile, the international community has not recognized last December’s maritime demarcation agreement with Libya and anyway it is entirely ineffectual, considering that the beleaguered Tripoli government has no real power in the Mediterranean.
Turkey’s actions off Cyprus clash with the interests of Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, which together with Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, created the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to work together for the extraction and export of regional gas.
Considered strictly on its own merits, Turkey’s Mediterranean policy also appears an unmitigated disaster. However, Ankara’s intension is not to make friends and thus influence people, but rather to seize influence by carving its own stake in the Mediterranean - sending a message that Turkish interests cannot be ignored.
With the exception of a bit of kudos from segments of the Arab street, Turkey’s position on Israeli and Palestinian affairs has achieved little tangible gains for Ankara. Hosting Hamas and shouting insults at Egypt and the Gulf kingdoms, most recently declaring that they are "treasonous" for not condemning Trump’s Mideast peace plan, only further isolates Ankara. Turkey’s only friends in the Mideast are Qatar, Iran and Hamas.
But for Erdogan, taking such a vocal stance made it clear that Turkey should have a role and a future say in the question of Palestine. Gaining this recognition matters more to Erdogan than making nice with Arab capitals.
If one were to judge Turkey’s involvement in regional affairs based on outcome, Turkey’s foreign policy has indeed been an unmitigated disaster. But Ankara has already discounted those losses.
Erdogan knows he’s not backing the winning side, but participation in this array of regional conflicts is itself a projection of Turkey’s power. The president figures it is more important - and more strategically lucrative - to be on the table with a weak hand, than not play at all.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of "The New Turkey and Its Discontents" (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1