The brilliance and poverty of Erdogan’s foreign policy

MOSCOW, 30 Sep 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

Kemal Ataturk bequeathed Turkey the “three pillars” of its foreign policy, consistent with national interests: not to interfere in the affairs of the Arabs, not to follow the policies of colonial powers (read: do not become a vassal of the West, stay away from its alliances) and do not conflict with Russia. Ataturk deliberately did not link these stratagems to a moment in time, he considered them constants of Turkish foreign policy.

None of them was preserved in the form bequeathed by Ataturk, and did not lead to the rise of Turkey

One can argue about the benefits that Turkey receives from NATO membership, but then one needs to talk about missed opportunities. And these opportunities existed for Turkey, and they were unacceptable, first of all, for the UK and the USA. The Anglo-American concept of security was imposed on Turkey: the USSR is the enemy, NATO is the defence, and Europe is the future of Turkey. Turkey was driven into a bloc under the auspices of the United States and deprived of freedom of manoeuvre in foreign policy.

Since then, Turkey is not a sovereign state, but the “southern flank of NATO” – and this says everything about Turkish sovereignty. Turkey was also not accepted into the EU, limiting itself to the admission of Turkish light industry to its markets and the use of tourist infrastructure.

A unique chance for Turkey was the collapse of the USSR, allowing it to rush to storm the geopolitical voids left after Russia’s withdrawal from the former Soviet republics. Trying to benefit from the balance between the interests of Russia, the United States, Europe and China, Turkey actively pursues its foreign policy, sometimes ignoring all risks and balancing on the edge of the abyss.

The fact is that Turkey’s economy is not yet able to ensure its global expansion. Turkey is entangled in international treaties, any attempt to promote its interests in the world immediately confronts it with someone from the states, and more often with the West than with the East. All this ends with the fact that Turkey, represented by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is launching various campaigns around the world, which it cannot complete in its favour. It starts the games that it can’t play up to the end, but without finishing the previous ones, it starts the new ones.

Now Turkey is in a state of involvement in the processes in the Middle East and Central Asia. At the same time, it has an unfinished conflict with France and Greece in the Mediterranean and a shaky result of the campaign in Transcaucasia, where it invested directly, but in the finale it was cut off from managing the situation.

Turkey is developing a critical situation precisely as a complex of all its unfinished foreign policy vectors. In the Middle East, Turkey is involved in the war in Syria, suffers losses there and depends on agreements with Russia and the United States. Ankara cannot get out of the war in this theatre, because otherwise it will lose control over the Kurdish issue, and this is a threat to its territorial integrity.

As a result, Turkey gained a foothold in Idlib, agreeing with Russia that it would use its influence on the group of “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” radicals, neutralising its activity and simultaneously weakening all other groups. Nothing came of it: Turkey failed to control its “proxies”, who were able to organise almost their own emirate in the southern part of Idlib. The agreement with Russia that traffic will be opened on the M4 highway has not been fulfilled.

As a result, Vladimir Putin, meeting with Bashar al-Assad in Moscow on September 14, pointed out this inability of Turkey, and Russia began a military solution to the Idlib problem.

At the same time, Turkey is trying to be among the key players in Afghanistan in Central Asia at any cost. The only point where the Turks have gained a foothold is the Kabul airport. There is a trade between the Taliban and Erdogan. The essence of the bargaining is that the Taliban want to lock the airport security on themselves, and entrust Turkey with the organisation of civil air services.

Erdogan rightly states, referring to the recent terrorist attack, that if Turkey is responsible for transportation, but does not provide security, then it will be responsible for the facts of terrorist attacks, and this is wrong. Anticipating this, Erdogan said that the case could be transferred to the PMCs. But even this half-measure is temporary. It will come to the conclusion that the Taliban will not let anyone into the topic of security. And Turkey will have to leave Afghanistan.

At the same time, Turkey is trapped: if it wants to remain a participant in the process in Central Asia, it will have to follow the demands of the Taliban and withdraw its security forces from Afghanistan. But at the same time, Turkey will be obliged to host Afghan refugees. And this is a threat to the domestic political crisis.

After all, 3.6 million Syrian refugees are already in Turkey, and at least 1 million will be added from Afghanistan. And the Turkish opposition strongly warns Erdogan against such obligations, whatever form they may take.

The problem of the growing number of refugees combined with the withdrawal from Idlib and Kabul is not what Erdogan expected. Concerning Nagorno-Karabakh and the Mediterranean Sea (the conflict over the exploration of gas fields in the economic zone of Greece), Turkey has exhausted the possibilities of activation. It turns out that all policy vectors have led to dead ends, and costs are growing and will not stop growing.

We can seriously talk about a crisis of Turkish foreign policy expansion. However, the whole Turkish idea justifying Erdogan’s stay in power boils down only to expansion.

Will Erdogan cope with such a concentration of risks and threats? He is known for his ability to make desperate decisions, but any adventurous policy is dangerous because due to the slightest failure, strength becomes weakness. It is dangerous to hope for a miracle every time as an element of strategy. Erdogan is stubborn and ambitious, but he is also extremely dependent on the West, primarily from the UK and the USA. They will do everything to prevent him from getting out of a difficult situation, pushing him towards even more disastrous steps.

It is unlikely that Erdogan will again receive the same amount of assistance from Russia, despite his recent statements that Turkey intends to purchase additional S-400 systems. Turkey’s interests and Erdogan’s interests are gradually diverging more and more, which makes Ankara’s foreign policy even more impulsive. With this approach, it is not necessary to wait long for a fully-fledged crisis.

Elena Panina – Director of the RUSSTRAT Institute

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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