What are Turkey’s Strategic Priorities?
by Jasmina Ameti
BY JASMINA AMETI - From being an anchor of Euro-Middle Eastern stability and firmly in the NATO camp, Turkey’s about-shift is deeply affecting both the Middle East and Turkey’s Western allies—and not necessarily for the better. Turkey is knee-deep in a host of regional and transregional crises: Europe’s migration crisis, the unfolding Syrian civil war, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the proliferation of Islamist groups…and the list goes on. What are Ankara’s interests in the Middle East? Specifically, how does Turkey approach: Iraq, Syria, Libya and Qatar, and how does this effect the Turko-Europe relationship?
Turkey has long considered accession to the EU as a national priority and a source of economic prosperity. However, after more than 30 years of negotiations and the issues that keep Turkey from its European ambitions remain acute. Whether discussing corruption and issues with the rule of law, its simmering relationship to Greece, the continued Turkish occupation of Cyprus (an EU member state) and its flirtations with radical Islamist groups in Europe, Turkey has not yet managed to assimilate European values. Yet, it remains geopolitically important, a point underscored by its role in the migration-to-Europe-crisis. Brussels signed a deal with Ankara so migrants who cross from Turkey will be sent back to Turkey upon a failed asylum application. In return, the EU has intensified the volume of financial aid devoted to Turkey. This was a simple transactional arrangement and did not impact other aspects of Brussels’ relationship to Turkey. If anything, the EU is even more sceptical of a Turkish member state. As European interest declined, so too has Ankara’s. It is increasingly looking East. This means that Ankara has to deal intelligently with those along its frontiers.
Iraq, with its huge Kurdish population, is situated in the crown jewels of Turkish relations and the need for reconciliation is growing desperate. Ankara is loathe to see an independent Kurdistan, however, since 1998 (following the US-UK Operation Desert Fox), Turkey has acquiesced to Erbil (governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government) becoming the, de facto, seat of Kurdish power. While this is a transnational issue, since large numbers of Kurds may be found in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, and it is delicate, Turkey has not been very constructive in laying the foundations for a workable solution to the Kurdish question. In fact, Turkey, together with Iran and the Iraqi central government, were aggressively opposed to the 2017 referendum for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, which more than 93% voted in favour of. Ankara feared that nominal independence in Iraq would fuel Kurdish separatist aspirations in Turkey. Hence the Turkish government launched anti-referendum measures and threatened to close borders and ban Turkish export to Iraq. Military threats were veiled, but present. Yet, the Ankara-Erbil economic relationship remains solid. Ankara seeks to continue economic cooperation with Iraqi Kurds to expand commercial links and enter new export markets and its aims of contributing to the overall stabilisation of Iraq is to develop further demand for trade which also generates business opportunities for Turkish companies especially in the energy sector. Iraqi Kurdistan is Turkey’s third most substantial supplier of natural gas and oil, while Ankara benefits from being a distributor of Iraqi oil to the international markets. Even though Turkey identifies Kurdistan as a national security threat, it is unwilling to completely sever its relationship to it and, instead, focuses its war on Kurds in Syria.
The issue of the Kurdish minority also shapes Turkey’s interests in Syria. Ankara’s recent decision to assault the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria placed them in direct hostility with the US who supports the group. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claims that Washington’s support for the YPG adds dangerous assistance to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK and YPG have fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for decades. Ankara claims that the YPG is an extension of the PKK, which Ankara has labelled a terrorist organisation. In Syria, Turkey had been a facilitator of weapons to Syrian rebels fighting against the Al-Assad government; at least in the first years of the war. An essential challenge for Turkey is, again, Kurdish independence aspirations. This time of the Kurds located in North Syria, where the YPG controls the city of Afrin. In January 2018, Turkey assaulted Afrin and thousands of Kurds were forced out. Turkey has even deployed forces from the Free Syrian Army as well as known Islamist factions against Kurds in Syria. More recently, Turkey stands accused of recycling ISIS fighters in their war against the Kurds. Turkey’s strategy in Afrin, defined by military operations against the YPG is forcing Kurds out of their ancestral lands and remains a stain on Turkey’s regional policies.
Turkey does, however, have non-Kurdish related priorities as well. Unrest in North Africa facilitated the expansion of Turkey’s influence in Libya. In the vacuum left over from the Libyan civil war (re: post- 2011), two rival governments have emerged: one based in Tripoli in the country’s West, and the other in Tobruk in the East. Over the past few years, Tobruk has provided evidence that Turkey supplies weapons to Islamist militias in the country. Ironically, Ankara is also engaged in the UN-led mission to stabilise Libya. It does not, tragically, do so through constructive engagement. Instead it’s economic ties are bolstered by political and ideological motivations. The security situation in Libya continues to deteriorate. Tribal rivalries and the presence of ISIS continue to mar efforts to harmonise the Tripoli and Tobruk governments. It seems that Turkey has adopted a strategy of proxy tit-for-tat operations rather than a model of sustainable peace.
Turkish foreign policy is not only geared towards crisis zones. In the Arab Gulf, Turkey’s influence is also on the rise but this time through alliance formation. Qatar – a long-term supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood to which Erdogan’s AKP belongs – has reached out to Turkey as both share compatible foreign policy objectives. A joint Turkey-Qatar military base opened outside Doha in 2014 and Turkey has promised to act as a security provider for Qatar. It’s not all about defense, however. With a foothold in the Gulf, Turkey has been able to project itself more comprehensively in the Middle East. The Ankara-Doha bond was strengthened by the 2015 establishment of their Supreme Strategic Committee. Ankara supports Doha in the diplomatic crisis between Qatar to the Saudi-led coalition which accuses it of supporting terrorist groups across the region. In return, Qatar supports Turkey in its unfolding financial crisis—this year the Turkish lira lost almost 40% of its value against the US dollar. Qatar agreed to invest €15 billion in Turkey to provide Turkey’s Central Bank with much-needed foreign currency. This entangling of foreign policy, defence, financial and economic interests underscores the depth of Ankara-Doha relations, and perhaps even their longevity.
Ankara may have to re-evaluate many of its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. In that context the EU remans Turkey’s main trading partner. If Turkey is truly interested in economic development and prosperity, its approach to Europe must take on a more conciliatory tone. Similarly, if Ankara seeks to stabilise its near abroad it must be ready (morally and ideologically) to move over and allow for Kurdish statehood—in one form or another. Until then, Ankara will remain in a state of suspended animation.
16 November 2018