Unstable Détente: Turkey Recalibrates Its Hard Power, Straining NATO Ties

Written by | Tuesday, August 24th, 2021

Since 2016, when President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an survived a coup attempt, the Turkish leader has added a military edge to his foreign policy. Turkey’s subsequent interventions in Syria and Libya and support for Azerbaijan in its mid-2020 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh have paid dividends for Erdo?an, not only in those conflicts but also at home, shoring up his nationalist support. Ankara’s activism abroad has, however, unnerved not just rivals, but also some of Turkey’s allies, particularly Western powers already troubled by Erdo?an’s domestic policies and relations with Russia. To mitigate the fallout, Ankara has sought to smooth ruffled feathers in the West. But even if Turkey and its Western allies can put some of their differences behind them, their divergent interests and worldviews suggest that tension and mistrust will persist.

THE BENEFITS —- From its own perspective, Turkey has done well from its military operations abroad. Turkey’s involvement in Syria has also prevented a regime advance backed by Russia into north west Syria that could have driven millions of refugees and retreating jihadists across the border into Turkey and beyond. In Libya, Turkey intervened just as the UN-recognised government in Tripoli came under siege by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces. If Ankara had not provided military assistance, Haftar would likely have captured the Libyan capital. Had that happened, Turkey would have had no chance of settling billions of dollars worth of old infrastructure contracts in Libya or securing new ones. It also would not have been able to conclude the maritime delimitation agreement it signed with Tripoli in late 2019, an accord it sees as a game changer in its dispute with Greece over jurisdiction in the eastern Mediterranean. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey supplied military advisers, armed drones and more Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan, which used them to regain territories it had lost to Armenian forces in the early 1990s. Erdo?an also bolstered his own political clout by securing a land corridor between Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Turkish officials argue that in all three conflicts Ankara’s military decisiveness compensated for Western inertia. They believe they have proven wrong Western critics who argued that Turkey’s intervention in Libya and Syria would merely prolong the wars and cause more bloodshed. They are also proud of having stood up to Moscow, which is a principal backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a supporter of Haftar and an ally of Armenia. The interventions also won the Turkish military valuable operational experience and showcased advances in the Turkish defence industry – particularly drones – all at little cost in Turkish casualties. Turkish war expenses may be offset over time: Its companies are eyeing reconstruction opportunities in all three of these countries, while states including Albania, Kazahkstan, Morocco, Poland, Qatar, Serbia, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine have purchased Turkish drones – or plan to do so.

THE COSTS —- But every silver lining has its cloud. Other powers are unhappy with Turkey’s interventions. Many European governments and regional powers – notably Egypt, one of Haftar’s main supporters – want Ankara to withdraw its military advisers, seeing Turkey’s forces as foreign troops on Libyan soil. In Syria, Turkish troops face the constant threat of Russian-backed regime assault. Though Ankara has given signals that it is ready to re-establish relations with Armenia, many Armenians distrust Turkey more than ever, and look for protection even more from Russia, which was the dominant external player in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict even before the war. Meanwhile, Turkey’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies view Ankara’s course as cause for worry, particularly in combination with other factors. Although they view each of the interventions differently – and don’t necessarily themselves all agree – they are perturbed by Ankara’s apparent readiness to use force abroad to pursue its interests. Many are also highly critical of Erdo?an’s increasingly authoritarian domestic policies, and of Turkey’s 2017 purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles. With NATO deeply at odds with Moscow over a range of European and global security issues, some allies look at these weapons and wonder which side Ankara is on. To them, Turkey’s standoffs with Russia in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh look more like cordial detente than geostrategic rivalry. Allies were further discomfited by Turkey’s July 2020 contretemps with fellow NATO member Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, when many European Union capitals threatened Ankara with sanctions.

MENDING FENCES —- Western partners are thus Ankara’s top priority for fence-mending. Turkey is, first of all, trying to impress upon Washington and other Western capitals that it is a geopolitical asset. One line of reasoning is that Ankara’s interventions have earned it expertise that should be valuable to its allies. Ankara also points out that it contributes to NATO security sector development programs in Iraq, and has instituted security cooperation with Ukraine, a Western friend and Russian adversary. With U.S. and NATO soldiers departing from Afghanistan, Turkey has offered to protect the Kabul airport (and perhaps do more). Yet Ankara has not shifted its strategic calculus to seek alignment with its NATO allies on every issue. For one thing, those allies are themselves far from fully aligned with one another: in Libya, different European states have sided with opposing sides in the conflict, while, separately, Greece has itself purchased Russian weapons. Turkey’s actions reflect real interests in what it sees as an evolving multipolar world order. Ankara is not confident that it can trust anyone save itself to look out for its essential security needs. Allies, it notes, either lack the resolve to get deeply involved in conflicts in Turkey’s neighbourhood or, in some cases, are bent on limiting Turkey’s influence.

That means maintaining a reasonably genial relationship with Russia. Ankara is wary of countering Moscow too strongly, lest Russia retaliate by working against Turkish interests in Syria or the Caucasus, imposing bans on Russian tourists to Turkey or cutting imports of Turkish foodstuffs. As it recalibrates its positions, Ankara will be mindful of doing minimal damage to its ties with Russia. Domestic political concerns also keep Turkey on its independent course. Turkish society has long rewarded leaders able to stand up to Western partners to pursue an autonomous, multi-dimensional foreign policy. If Erdo?an were to cave in to Western pressure to open more space for the Kurdish political movement, for example, nationalists would rise up in opposition. Already, some are arguing that the West will use Erdo?an’s fading poll numbers to force Ankara to make concessions. The president may judge that his political future is better assured if he adheres to hardline positions and thus maintains nationalists’ support.

AGREEING TO DISAGREE? —- Ankara’s preferred outcome is that its NATO allies simply agree to disagree where it will not compromise, and then everyone cooperate where interests align. This includes Afghanistan, as noted above, as well as the places where Turkey has become militarily involved. Turkey’s allies are, however, unlikely to back away from criticism of those of Turkey’s actions with which they disagree. An uneasy and likely unstable detente remains the most probable scenario, at least for the near term, as Turkey and its allies pursue shared goals in some places, but can’t paper over their differences elsewhere.

‘Turkey Recalibrates Its Hard Power’ — Commentary by Nigar Göksel — International Crisis Group / ICG.

The Commentary can be downloaded here

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