The rapid rise of Turkey in major global conflicts in the last year is a prelude of things to come.
The US withdrawal from global events due to both the pandemic and the deliberate Trump foreign policy doctrine is beginning to reveal its first batch of sour fruit. We see a surge of engagements and military escalations worldwide as nations seek to spread their power and influence in the void left by the world’s lone superpower.
Among those seeking to build opportunities in the current crisis is Turkey. Turkey was the seat of the Ottoman Empire that collapsed one hundred years ago. Memories of that former glory are often grounds for a nationalist sentiment that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President, seeks to build upon.
Here are four conflicts Turkey has thrust itself into over the last 12 months.
Turkey has been involved in Syria at limited levels since the outbreak of that country’s civil war at Turkey’s southern border in 2011. In 2016 Turkey began occupations in Syria’s northern territories in a move reportedly to prevent Kurdish and ISIS incursions into Turkey. This occupation established a buffer zone between Syria’s civil war and Turkey’s border. It also allowed Turkey to direct the flood of Syrian refugees away from Turkey and toward this northern territory. By 2020 that patch of territory in north Syria became the focus of new fighting directly between Syria (backed by Russia) and Turkey.
The conflict between Syria and Turkey simmered with the pandemic’s onset thanks to negotiations between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Turkey has a legitimate security concern at its southern border. Still, it is also worth noting that the conflict was brought under control through direct talks between Erdogan and Putin. Erdogan has positioned himself as a significant player in the affairs of the Middle East. The US was nowhere near the negotiating table that determined peace, boundaries, and the present status of the Middle East.
Turkey deployed military advisers, drones, and Syrian proxy fighters to Libya earlier this year in a show of support for the UN-backed government there. Turkish involvement in this North African quagmire once pitted Turkish interests and involvement against Russia’s. Both nations brought mercenaries to the fight. Both nations sought to gobble up the scattered remains of a significant oil power in the aftermath of a US bombing campaign and civil war. Russia supported the oppositional figure General Hiftar who led a coalition of forces against the UN-backed government that Syria supported. (See our Backgrounder on the Libyan conflict here.)
Turkey and Russia stand on opposite sides of this conflict that is increasingly appearing like a full-scale war. (See our Backgrounder on the conflict here.) Turkey supports Azerbaijan. Russia supports Armenia. These alliances have longstanding historical roots but, more importantly, present geopolitical interests for Turkey and Russia.
In July, Turkey sent troops and military equipment to Azerbaijan, giving Azerbaijan a potentially decisive military advantage over Armenia. Armenia has even accused Turkey of already being directly involved in the fighting. Armenia alleged a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian jet. Turkey has denied Armenia’s allegations. Armenia’s Prime Minister has stated a cease-fire between Azerbaijan and Armenia will only be achieved when Turkey is removed from the South Caucasus.
In September, Turkey sent exploratory vessels, accompanied by armed escorts, into Greek and Cypriot waters searching for natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a provocative move against nations who have longstanding historical conflicts with Turkey.
Mike Pompeo announced the US plans to move a massive Navy ship to a military base in Greece, only 600 miles from the Turkish coastline. The US move is particularly demonstrative as so frequently, US policy sides with Turkey. The US has a military base in Turkey where nuclear weapons are stored. US geopolitical strategy also utilizes Turkey to blunt Iranian expansions into Syria.
Russia and Turkey
The mix of interests and relations between Turkey and Russia is far more complicated than it appears at first glance. Turkey has purchased anti-aircraft missiles from Turkey and also cut a natural gas pipeline deal for Ukraine (benefitting Russia). Turkey is also on the opposite side of Russia in three of these four conflicts noted above. If tensions between Russia and Turkey escalate in any single conflict, the effects could be felt on the other conflicts. In this manner, regional wars could quickly ignite.
Just the Beginning
Turkey is only one country that is looking to gain from American withdrawals and passivity. China, Russia, France, and others have also made steps in the last year to increase their global footprint in the void left by the United States. This pattern is familiar to history, and the disorder that follows is usually a prelude to wider wars and conflicts. The rise of Turkey is a prelude to things to come.
Here’s a good read for additional insight into the rise of Turkey.
also this one: Erdogan’s Way (Foreign Affairs)