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Ankara’s rising role as a regional disruptor

Oct 05,2020 - Last updated at Oct 05,2020

With the latest intervention in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is extending his country’s foreign adventures from the north Africa to Caucuses, raising questions about Ankara’s controversial role as a major regional disrupter. Erdogan’s populist approach to regional crises reflects a desire to reshape Turkey’s place on the international arena. But what is exactly that he wants to achieve?

In a recent speech he complained about the failures of post World War II order as he did before about Turkey’s grievances following the First World War, which restricted his country’s maritime access in the Aegean. In his words, “There is no chance left for this distorted order, in which the entire globe is encumbered by a handful of greedy people, to continue to exist the way it currently does.” In almost all of his speeches Erdogan underlines the so-called Turkish exceptionalism while portraying Turkey as a victim. 

Pundits have talked about Erdogan’s obsession with reviving Turkey’s Ottoman past. His foreign adventures conceal a desire to reshape the region’s geopolitical status under an emerging new militarised Turkey. Even as he sides with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute he does it out of a superior approach as the titular head of Turkic people; egging Azeri President Ilham Aliyev not to accept an unconditional ceasefire.  

His unconventional approach to conflicts has put Turkey in a unique albeit difficult position. As a major NATO member he has built a shaky alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin as well as with Iran over Syria, where his ultimate objectives remain vague and suspicious. Against US warnings, he has obtained the S-400 air defece system thus forcing Washington to cancel the F-35 fighter jet deal with Ankara and imposing sanctions.

An ally of Moscow in Syria, Erdogan has taken the side of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya while Putin is backing the Libyan National Army (LNA) of KhalifaHaftar. He signed a controversial maritime deal with GNA Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj that encroaches on Greece’s territorial sovereignty. Top aides of Erdogan described Libya as a former Ottoman territory pledging never to leave.

In ongoing intra-Libyan peace discussions the main stumbling block is the removal of all foreign players. Ankara’s position on this crucial issue is vague and the risk of a collapse of talks over it is high.

In Syria’s Idlib, Turkey continues to provide support to extremist groups while Erdogan pledged that Turkey will wipe out all terror zones — Syrian Kurds — in Syria if others fail to keep their promise. Turkey has become part of the problem preventing a political solution to the nine-year-old Syrian conflict. It has been accused of transferring Syrian refugees to populate abandoned Syrian Kurdish towns in northern Syria. In both Syria and Libya Erdogan’s kinship to the Muslim Brotherhood has been a key ideological factor in charting his policy.

Last week the EU threatened Turkey with sanctions over its dispute with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. Relations between Ankara and the EU, particularly France, have been tense over Syria, Libya and now Greece. After weeks of heightened tensions, Turkey agreed to recall an exploration vessel in the Aegean and begin talks with Athens. Turkey’s grievances over maritime borders may be reasonable but its maverick style of violating Greek and Cypriot waters does not help its case.

Today Ankara is involved in active disputes with all of its neighbours and beyond. Erdogan’s foreign adventures have hurt the Turkish economy and reversed much of its gains. His popularity at home has been dented. The main question remains: What does Erdogan really want? His alliances with Moscow and Tehran are temporary as the agendas of these countries intersect at times and contrast at others. Turkey’s polices have polarised the Sunni world and isolated it from its neighbours. Now Erdogan finds himself on an opposite side with Putin over Nagorno-Karabakh while their agreement in northern Syria faces collapse.

With all these conflicts, reflecting badly on Turkey’s economy, currency and human rights, Erdogan is now over-reaching and may soon find himself facing multiple foreign policy challenges. It is ironic that in the course of the past few years he has failed to respond to calls for, or suggest, peaceful engagement. Syria’s Kurdish minority is not the issue but Turkey’s Kurds are. He has squandered multiple opportunities to fix this problem peacefully. 

In the end while complaining about a distorted world order, Erdogan has become a major disrupting force in that very order!


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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