Turkish Foreign Policy: No Neighbors Without Problems

As Turkish foreign policy becomes increasingly aggressive, the country’s past regional aspirations of “no problems with neighbors” has transformed into “no neighbors without problems”.

As the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict flares up, and the Turkish government voices its support for Azerbaijan, indicating a wiliness to get involved directly, Armenian member of Turkish parliament for the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) Garo Paylan demanded that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government avoid military escalation.

MP Paylan asked the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu about Turkey’s explicit support for Azerbaijan, reminding him that Turkey — which is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group — should have taken a neutral stance in the recent developments in the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict.

Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan against Armenia, a Russian ally situated in the Caucasus — what Moscow views as its backyard – is likely to increase tension in Russian–Turkish relations. The two countries have recently managed levels of cooperation and coordination that have rankled Turkey’s NATO ally, the U.S.

Ankara’s decision to purchase and activated the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system could lead to the imposition of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions and has already caused Turkey’s removal from the F-35 fourth generation jet fighter program. On Monday, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. Air Force would be purchasing eight F-35s intended for Turkey.

In Syria, which has been in the throes of a nearly decade-long civil war, Turkey has increasingly intervened. Now with an estimated 11,500 Turkish soldiers in Idlib and Aleppo and smaller contingents centered around the northern regions it has invaded — Azaz, Tel Abyad, and Rish Ayno (Ras al-Ayn) — Turkey finds itself trying to manage tensions with Russia and the Syrian regime in Idlib, as well as extremist groups in the region it is tacitly allied with, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, while fending off insurgencies in Afrin, Azaz, and Tel Abyad/Rish Ayno, and managing tensions with Russia and the U.S. in the north east of the country.

Despite instances of important cooperation and rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, tensions have been on the increase between the two historic adversaries. In Turkish-occupied Al-Bab in northern Syria, a number of Russian airstrikes were recently conducted, a rare occurrence in recent months. Turkey responded with a drone strike on Russian military personnel that left on soldier and three civilians wounded.

In Iraq, Turkey has launched a months-long campaign nominally against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Despite its claims of “fighting terrorism”, Turkish forces continue to target Christian, Yezidi, and other civilian areas with no clear evidence of PKK activity, resulting in the displacement of thousands of families and dozens of civilian casualties.

Baghdad has publicly rebuked the Turkish operation and has called for it to cease its air campaign and the U.N. Security Council has called for a political solution to end the operation.

On Tuesday, Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Al-Fatah Alliance in the Iraqi parliament, called on the Turkish government to withdraw immediately from northern Iraq, warning of Ankara’s intention to form a security corridor similar to what it had done in northern Syria.

The Al-Fatah Alliance expressed its grave concern over the widespread Turkish invasion of northern Iraq, which in some places reaches as deep as 25 km into Iraqi territory.

Al-Ameri warned of the Turkish plan, calling on the Turkish government to withdraw immediately from Iraqi territory. He also called on Baghdad to take all appropriate diplomatic and political measures to end the Turkey operation, including raising the issue in the Arab League, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, and other international forums.

“All Iraqi national forces must take a unified stance to preserve Iraqi sovereignty and end these repeated violations,” he added.

In Libya, following an agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) granting Turkey access to Libya’s vast oil and natural gas reserves, among other economic agreements, Turkey began clandestinely, and in violation of international treaties, sending weapons and thousands of Syrian mercenaries to assist the GNA in its civil war with the Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by General Khalifa Haftar. Turkish drones have played a particularly crucial role in turning the tide in favor of the GNA. The Turkish intervention in Libya has increased pressure on Egypt to step up its support for the LNA, potentially putting it in direct conflict with Turkish forces.

Turkey is also asserting itself in the eastern Mediterranean, seeking to insure itself the lion’s share of natural resources in the region beyond its legal territorial boundaries, increasing tensions with Greece, Cyprus, and the wider European community.

Its use of refugee flows to pressure the EU into submission towards its expansionist policies has not been well received, either.

Turkey’s relationship with the European Union (EU) has deteriorated over the course of Erdogan’s tenure.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that Turkey would start seismic research and drilling operations in contested waters in accordance with it Exclusive Economic Zone agreement with Libya’s GNA. Several of Turkey’s regional neighbors have voiced their disapproval of the agreement, with Egypt calling it “illegal” and Greece referring to it as “geographically absurd” as it ignored the presence of the Greek island of Crete.

In a recent interview with German media outlet Der Spiegel, EU Minister of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell stated that, “The question of how to deal with Turkey is the EU’s biggest foreign policy challenge.”

“Turkey is our neighbour, we cannot change this geography,” Borrell continued. “The country controls the flow of refugees in the Eastern Mediterranean, it causes trouble with EU members Greece and Cyprus. But Turkey is also a candidate for accession, as long as we do not decide to change that.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, speaking in Athens on Tuesday, stated that Turkey must cease its drilling operations in the eastern Mediterranean if its relations with the EU are to improve.

“Regarding Turkey’s drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, we have a very clear position — international law must be respected so progress in EU–Turkey relations is only possible if Ankara stops provocations in the eastern Mediterranean,” Maas said.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias took an even bolder position, arguing that Turkish drilling threatens the foundations of NATO.

“The illegal and provocative behavior of Turkey has a serious backlash not only to peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean but to the cohesion of NATO and to its relations with the European Union,” said Dendias.

Other European countries share concerns over Turkey’s actions in the Mediterranean. France has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the drilling and to Turkish actions in the region in general. France temporarily withdrew from a NATO mission in the Mediterranean in June aimed at enforcing the international arms embargo on Libya following an incident with the Turkish navy during which a Turkish frigate escorting a cargo ship suspected to contain weapons destined for Libya refused to allow a French naval vessel to inspect the ship’s cargo, targeting the French ship with its fire-control radar multiple times.

In the past, despite a grim record on human rights and political freedom, Turkey was considered a key NATO ally given its strategic geography straddling the Bosporus Strait and proximity to the then Soviet Union. As the country developed economically over the past several decades, it came to be viewed as serious regional player and the go to example of development and democratizing success story.

Now, as Turkey’s economy teeters on the brink, its once diverse media landscape clear-cut by the state, and former economic and military alliances get cast aside by Ankara in pursuit of a “Turkey First” policy, the country may be in for a rude awakening if its numerous power moves don’t play out as expected.