Turkey extending footprint in Middle East risks lighting regional fuse

Turkey has been pushing to secure a position of regional dominance in the Middle East under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, plans that have prompted a backlash by Arab leaders.

On the eve of the Arab Spring, Erdoğan ranked as the most admired leader in the Middle east, with 22 percent of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates naming him as such, according to a Brookings poll in 2010. 

However, Erdoğan’s popularity in the region has declined with politically and militarily aggressive policies that have antagonised most of the rulers of the Arab world.

Turkey has a military base in Qatar, which has been criticised by regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia. Ankara has also acquired rights to a Sudanese island located in the Red Sea opposite the Arabian Peninsula and just south of Egypt. It now has troops in Iraq and has intervened in the Syrian war, occupying parts of the country’s north.

The Turkish military has also secured footholds in Africa, with a base in Somalia and providing major support for Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) in an ongoing conflict in the country. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Turkey’s main rivals in the region, are backing General Khalifa Haftar’s opposition Libyan National Army (LNA).

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been at odds since the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government in Egypt, headed by Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown by the Egyptian military in 2013. Tensions intensified when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed power in 2017. During a meeting with Egypt in 2018, bin Salman accused Turkey and Qatar of forming an “axis of evil” in the region by supporting extremist groups, namely the pan-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Last week, Saudi Arabia sought to develop a unified Arab position on Libya to effectively confront Turkey's moves in the war-torn North African country and the Eastern Mediterranean. Saudi Foreign Ministry Prince Faisal bin Fahran held talks with Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia.

Ankara's interventionist role across the Mediterranean and in the Libyan conflict is in danger of spiralling into a full-blown proxy war involving various states.

In June, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi threatened Turkey and the GNA with military intervention should they attempt to oust the LNA from Al-Jufra and Sirte, calling the two strategic locations near Libya’s oil belt a “red line” for Cairo.

Tensions have also escalated in the Eastern Mediterranean over potentially rich offshore hydrocarbon resources around Cyprus and a natural gas pipeline project between Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Egypt that has so far excluded Turkey.

Threatened by Turkey’s exclusion from the EastMed pipeline project, Erdoğan has turned to oil-rich Libya partly to secure his own source of foreign energy for Turkey. Ankara and the GNA signed a maritime agreement in November to establish an exclusive economic zone to help legitimise Turkey’s claims to offshore gas and oil in the Eastern Mediterranean that conflicts with the claims of other countries in the region.

Meanwhile, the Erdoğan administration is clearly disturbed by the UAE presence in some parts of the region and has slammed the country for its support of Haftar's forces, saying on July 31 that Abu Dhabi should consider its size and reach before pursuing its anti-Turkish foreign policy agenda.

The rivalry between Turkey and the UAE has been also felt strongly in Syria, as the UAE throws more support behind Syrian President Bashar Assad aimed at thwarting Turkey’s plans for the country.

Recently, both Greece and Haftar have reached out to develop their relations with Assad in a bid to intensify cooperation against their common regional foe: Erdoğan. In May, Greece appointed Tasia Athanassiou as its Special Envoy to Syria. Athanassiou was the last Greek ambassador to Syria before Athens severed diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012, early in that country’s civil war.

The fact that Greece is willing to coordinate with Syria even with Assad in power shows that their common desire to weaken and undermine Erdoğan has now reached a tipping point. 

Egypt has also attempted to drive Turkey into a corner in Syria, sending some 150 soldiers with light weapons to the city of Saraqib to the south of Idlib, according to report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. Turkey stations hundreds of troops in Idlib in support of the Syrian opposition.

While Turkey is virtually alone pursuing expansionist policies right and left, neighbouring countries have begun closing their ranks through various new initiatives.

For instance, Israel approved a deal with Cyprus, Greece and Italy for the EastMed pipeline to transport natural gas to Europe last week, planting itself on Turkey’s doorstep in the Eastern Mediterranean, regional analyst Seth Frantzman said on Sunday.

As the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to the rest of the Middle East in early 2011, many people in the Arab world were keen to lean on Turkey, led by Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), as a model for guiding democratic transformation in the Middle East. This trend now appears to be a distant memory.

Erdoğan is pursuing foreign policies that get more audacious by the day. He is forcing his agenda on the region partially to consolidate support among the Turkish public. There is growing anxiety among voters over Turkey’s struggling economy. Meanwhile, the political opposition is gaining in strength.

In response to Erdoğan’s attempts to set the agenda in the region, Gulf countries and regional heavyweights such as Israel and Egypt have adopted a stance that also hurts opportunities for Turkish businesses in the region, isolating the country further.

If the current course of events is maintained, it may well drag Turkey into economic and political turmoil, instability and polarisation. That could render the country more like a post-Arab Spring Middle Eastern nation dragged into sectarian strife and instability, rather than one building economic wealth, pluralist democracy, consensus building and tolerance, qualities it was known for a decade ago.

(The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.)

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.