Erdogan’s micro-imperialism could prove disastrous for Turkey and its neighbours
Despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to sell what he sees as his government’s achievements to the public, Turkey’s current posture in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East is dire, and his increasingly desperate foreign policy manoeuvres have the potential to spark more conflict in an already volatile region.
Turkey has pursued an aggressive and expansionistic policy in its region for the last decade. Even Ankara’s "zero problems with neighbours" era, which preceded the far more ambitious and belligerent current foreign policy, was fraught with the problems of Neo-Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism – offshoots of a much older school of imperialist thinking.
The spike in the Turkish government’s adventurousness can be traced back to the 2016 coup attempt, which gave the Erdoğan government the domestic carte blanche it had long sought.
The government’s strategy for creating an impression of foreign policy success domestically, and thereby cornering most opposition parties, is through a discourse that emphasises national interest.
This vague but extremely useful term has had a crippling effect on the various opposition factions in the country, as they are unable to formulate a counter-narrative without appearing to be unpatriotic.
Thus, when Erdoğan took steps to dismantle the country's century-long alignment with the West as if it had been nothing but a marriage of convenience, he was able to do so by selling this as a new and independent foreign policy. This reverberated strongly with a domestic audience that had been brought up on nationalistic tales of the West unjustly exploiting Turkey for its own nefarious schemes.
Erdoğan was the leader who would represent a resurgence of pride seeking to be fulfilled in response to the lost empire trauma that had been so carefully cultivated for a century.
The result? Well, Turkey is mired in various conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean where it is clearly losing. Ankara has not achieved any of the objectives of its heavy-handed intervention in the Syrian civil war. It now finds itself in an untenable position against the Syrian government and the various regional and great powers involved in the conflict.
Turkey’s position in Idlib is also becoming untenable from a military perspective, which will have far-reaching consequences for the buffer zone it has set up along the border in northeast Syria, and the district of Afrin it has occupied in the northwest.
In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey faces an alliance of regional powers including Israel, Egypt and Greece, as well as the opposing economic interests of major powers such as France and Italy. Erdoğan was thoroughly outmanoeuvred by rivals that excluded Turkey from gas projects in the eastern Mediterranean.
Erdoğan agreed a deal in November to back the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord in Libya and another agreement that claimed the two countries are maritime neighbours with territorial waters that block the route of a gas pipeline Turkey’s regional rivals plan to build to take gas from the eastern Mediterranean to markets in Europe.
The Turkish government could present its decision to send soldiers to Libya as another sign of strong, principled leadership to protect Turkey's interests.
But even the least capable international observer could have seen that becoming allies with a rapidly unravelling, moribund political entity in Tripoli facing the rival General Khalifa Haftar, supported by Russia, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was bound to be a disaster.
Turkey’s various political gambits to gain a ceasefire (to buy time and prop up the failing Tripoli administration) have failed miserably while Haftar's allies politely have stood by, muttering pleasantries and muted calls for peace. Haftar did not sign anything as he would have been insane to agree to a ceasefire when he and his backers were in a dominant military position. Haftar continued to besiege Tripoli so as to place himself in an even better position to negotiate the next time he is called to the table.
In other words, Turkey's Libya adventure was doomed from the beginning, and it is not headed in a particularly promising direction at the moment.
For the sake of brevity, I will not go into the other futile foreign policy efforts of the Erdoğan administration here, as these two suffice to demonstrate two facts:
- Erdoğan has become a clear danger to regional stability, and his burning of bridges with the West, along with the increasingly unbalanced nature of his overseas adventures, could spark a series of wars that could devastate the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.
- By trying to bite off more than it can chew, Turkey has committed itself to a course of action that cannot be supported by its economic or military capabilities. When these adventures fail, Turkey's national interest will not have been well-served, but deeply undermined, and generations of Turkish citizens will have to pay for the grave mistakes of this administration.
The situation in the eastern Mediterranean today is a textbook example of a zero-sum game, in which various state actors are manoeuvring around the prospect of hydrocarbon resources. The only part that does not make sense in this picture is the assumption that states are rational actors that work toward their self-interests. As in the case of Erdoğan’s Turkey, a state actor can take steps that undermine its self-interests, and are not based on a rational view of what is in Turkey's best interests, but on what is in the best interests of Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s Turkey has emerged as a threat to stability at an extremely volatile region of the world. The ending of the Cold War did not negate the possibility of global or regional conflicts of unimaginable destructiveness. Irresponsible international actors like Erdoğan do not have the capability to shift major power balances in the world, or even the capability to achieve micro-imperialist objectives as their domestic audiences believe, but they do have the ability to open a Pandora's Box and trigger ever more destructive wars that could engulf the world.