Not since Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus has Ankara been so internationally isolated.
Last week, Washington slapped Turkey, a fellow member of NATO, with CAATSA sanctions for purchasing, receiving and testing Russian S400 missile defense batteries. Meanwhile, the EU hit Ankara with moderate sanctions of its own, a move akin to a final written warning before more hard-hitting measures are taken.
The decline of Turkey’s international standing comes despite Ankara being able to boast of recent military successes which should have propelled the country’s status upwards.
These military triumphs include Turkey’s involvement in the Nagorno Karabakh crisis between the Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan and Ankara’s historical foe, Armenia. The conflict ended with important territorial gains for Azerbaijan thanks to Turkish military aid and, reportedly, the deployment of mercenaries from Turkey’s Syrian proxies.
Turkey is scoring another military success through its support of the Tripoli-based government in Libya led by Fayez al-Arraj. With Turkey sending arms, drones and battle-hardened Turkish-backed Syrian fighters, the internationally-recognized Libyan government managed to resist the onslaught of General Khalifa Haftar, who controls much of the country and is supported by Russia, Egypt, France and the UAE.
In Syria, Turkey maintains a legion of proxies consisting of extremist Islamic Salafi fighters, Turkmen militants and other anti-Assad forces. Through these units, Turkey has managed, after several interventions, to entrench itself in areas such as Afrin, Al-Bab, Azaz, and Jarabulus to the west of the Euphrates, in Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn to the east, and in Idlib further south.
Not only does Turkey now have a say in the future of the country, but it has also prevented the emergence of a Kurdish statelet by its border.
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Yet, despite these military victories, Turkey finds itself with few international allies.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was warned repeatedly of the consequences for procuring the S400s, the activation of which could risk the leaking of important Nato security data. Yet Ankara did not listen and instead decided to test the S400s against U.S. made F16s.
Meanwhile, Europe is losing patience with Turkey.
Tired of Ankara’s attempts to bully Cyprus and Greece and muscle itself a piece of East Mediterranean gas, European leaders are also angered at Ankara weaponizing its four million refugees by threatening to send them en masse into Europe. And European nations are done with turning the other cheek every time President Erdogan publicly berates countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands. If Ankara continues with its bellicose behaviour expect the European Council to impose stronger sanctions when it meets again in March.
Had Turkey ceased with the provocative rhetoric, reversed its aggressive posturing in the Mediterranean and sought diplomatic means to seek a revision of its maritime exclusive economic zones, Turkey’s standing in Europe would have been greatly enhanced especially after Turkey’s hydrocarbon discoveries in the Black Sea and its aforementioned military successes.
European leaders would have continued to look the other way as Erdogan maintained his ongoing project of the dismantling of his country’s democracy with continued arrests and detentions of journalists, Kurdish politicians and civil society activists.
Turkey’s only true ally in Europe is the United Kingdom, officially out of the EU as soon as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. However, what Ankara likes to call its "strategic partnership" with London has put Downing Street in an awkward position following the U.S. sanctions. Turkey’s behavior in the Mediterranean is also embarrassing for Downing Street, as it highlights London’s inability to act properly as one of Cyprus’s guarantors.
Ankara’s relations with Arab states, from Egypt to UAE, have also deteriorated and many in the region view Turkey as a significant strategic threat, perhaps second only to Iran.
High off its success in Azerbaijan, President Erdogan rushed to Baku to celebrate victory by reciting a poem that Iran took as a call for its own Azeri region to seek independence. This led to a rebuke from Tehran. Meanwhile, Russia has proved itself to be unreliable, having no problem turning up the heat against Turkish-backed forces in Idlib and fighting on the opposite side toTurkey in Libya.
Turkey’s only real partner appears to be Qatar. Desperate to pull itself out of its economic slump, Turkey is selling off large chunks of its economic portfolio to the Qatar Investment Authority. This includes 10 percent of Turkey’s stock exchange as well as investment in a large Istanbul port project, and a significant stake in Istinye Park, Turkey’s most prominent shopping mall.
But Turkey cannot count on Qatar. The state-owned Qatar Petroleum is part of the consortium with ExxonMobile which is surveying natural gas off Cyprus and it also seeks to invest in Egypt’s gas refinery. In other words, even Qatar may only be a fair-weather friend.
James F. Jeffrey, who recently retired as Washington’s special representative towards Syria and the international coalition against ISIS, called Erdogan a "Great Power thinker."
However, thinking like a Great Power is different from being one. Great powers know when and how to use military strength, soft power and diplomacy. Erdogan and his inner circle don’t, and consistent misjudgements has led Turkey to international isolation rather than to a privileged global status.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting lecturer at King's College London. He is the co-author of "The New Turkey and Its Discontents" (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1