In a surprising turn of events in the 14-month-long proxy war in Libya, Turkey emerged as the leading power, earning it the moniker 'king-maker' by the New York Times. In the last two weeks of June, Libyan fighters of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), under President Fayez al-Sirraj, backed by Turkish firepower and drones, succeeded in wresting strategic territory and pushing forward an offensive to oust the Libyan National Army (LNA) of warlord General Khalifa Haftar.
Succeeding in winning the Jufra airbase in Sirte as well as regaining full control of the capital Tripoli, the arrival of Turkey as a major decisive force in the country is the result of a clear, assertive brand of foreign policy pursued by President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Putting together a judicious mix of hard military power and soft economic power, while safeguarding its national interests in this trouble-torn region, Turkish President Erdogan has pursued an assertive brand of foreign policy. Backed by an ideological base of neo-'Ottomanism' and nationalism, Turkey is looking to play a more influential role in its neighbourhood.
The major strategic win in Libya is only one of a string of recent Turkish initiatives across several conflict zones in the Middle East. More noteworthy is its presence in Syria and Iraq, to fight the Kurds; creation of a ‘safe-zone’ in northern Syria; bolstering of its defence by purchasing missiles from Russia; developing the Bayraktar Akinci armed drone; its strategic efforts in the East Mediterranean; and relations with E.U. states Greece and Cyprus over the issue of refugees. Taken together, this signals a departure from historical precedent of non-interference in the Middle East and a push towards a forceful foreign policy to gain key resources and carve out a sphere of influence for itself.
To understand and dissect Turkish foreign policy behaviour in the region, two factors have to be taken into account - Turkey’s domestic political scenario, and the vacuum created in the region by the absence of superpowers like the U.S., in light of the pandemic.
With the presidential elections due in 2023, Erdogan is strengthening his position to secure another win, mobilising a fiery and expansive foreign policy agenda, which masks domestic problems (economic slump), crushing all voices of political dissent, and rallying Turkish nationalism and militarism to secure Turkish power in the former Ottoman arena.
The outbreak of the pandemic has seen the waning influence of traditional players like America, Russia, and even Egypt. Occupied in containing the pandemic and its collateral damage in their respective countries, they are now recalibrating their involvement in the region. Countries like Turkey, which have been relatively more effective in containing the pandemic, are seeking to rise beyond their niche in diplomacy to create an assertive position on the global stage. Turkey has sent medical support and equipment to several countries, to help contain the pandemic, for strategic reasons.
RISING MIDDLE POWER?
As a mediator in regional conflicts, Turkey deploys the narrative of containing terrorism, being a ‘guardian of Muslims beyond its borders’, and engaging in humanitarian efforts.
Turkey has long been involved in the conflict against ISIS in Syria and Iraq because of its historical dispute with the Kurds. As part of Operation Euphrates Shield, it created a safe zone along the southern border of Syria to ensure that it remains out of the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This zone hosts nearly four million people and effectively expands Turkish rule, in accordance with Turkish national priorities, prevention of terrorist activities along its borders, as well as Turkey’s hard-line policies against the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), and the YPG (People’s Protection Units). Moreover, Turkey intervened four times in northern Syria, until an escalation of conflict with Russia along the M4 and M5 highways in February 2020 secured a tenuous peace deal between the countries.
The safe zone poses numerous problems for Turkey and is at risk of ‘Gazafication’ (Asli Aydintasbas), being a perennially unstable and poverty-stricken region.
By funding and supporting the GNA in its conflict with Haftar’s LNA, Turkey has secured strategic resources -- the Al Watiya airbase and the Misrata naval base. More importantly, it now has control over the lucrative oil exports and gas drilling operations off Cyprus and has also signed a maritime delimitation agreement with Libya, marking out a part of the Eastern Mediterranean as their exclusive economic zone.
A parallel Turkish trend is to shore up its construction sector, and thereby economy, by reconstruction efforts both in Libya and Syria. In Libya, Turkey has clearly shown its intentions to recoup its Gaddafi-era debts amounting to billions of dollars in the construction sector. Part of its deep investment in Tripoli is thus rooted in the desire to secure a friendly government in power and then reap the benefits of future contracts.
The ‘king-maker’ will succeed in becoming the regional hegemon if its hard-line foreign policy goals based on ‘conquest’ and ‘ultra-nationalism’ continue to be implemented without checks from NATO and the EU.
Turkey, despite its early success, is venturing into dangerous waters which till date have scalded even larger powers such as Russia, France, and the U.S. It remains to be seen how it will maintain the momentum in expensive and all-consuming conflicts, containing a mix of radical Islamists, maintaining stability and significant economic reconstruction requiring billions of dollars in the Syrian safe zone as well as checkmating the moves of Egypt, its Gulf allies, and a combatant Putin. Turkey's domestic political upheavals and the crackdown on dissent must also be tracked ahead of the 2023 elections.
With a multi-polar world predicted post-pandemic, countries like India and the BRICS must seek ways to effectively engage with and contain Turkey’s regional aspirations and its growing interference in India’s internal affairs. The NATO and the EU (which historically have shaped Turkish identity and goals) must also check Turkish power, particularly in the Euphrates safe zone.