Turkey challenges allies and enemies alike in quest for ‘larger role on world stage’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arriving to give a speech in the capital Ankara, June 9, 2020.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arriving to give a speech in the capital Ankara, June 9, 2020. © Adem Altan, AFP

Turkish foreign policy has recently taken a hawkish turn in the Middle East and North Africa.  From a diplomatic row with NATO ally France over a Libyan arms embargo to the deployment of special forces in northern Iraq, Ankara seems newly willing to challenge allies and enemies alike in its pursuit of a larger role on the world stage.


Even by the standards of recent years, June 2020 was a very active month in Turkish foreign policy. It quickly became clear that Turkey’s military and technological support for the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya had given it the upper hand in its struggle against rebel commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

Chaos had reigned in Libya since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Haftar launched a bold offensive on the capital Tripoli in April 2019 with the backing of Russia, Egypt and the UAE. While France officially supports the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, Paris has been accused of supporting Haftar politically, having previously given him military assistance to fight Islamist militants.

Ankara demonstrated its growing confidence in its Libyan strategy on June 20, when it demanded that Haftar’s forces pull out of Sirte, a pivotal city linking the east and west of Libya – before lambasting NATO ally France, accusing it of “jeopardising” the Western alliance’s security by supporting Haftar’s forces.

‘Geopolitical competition’ with France

Franco-Turkish relations soured further the following week, when French President Emmanuel Macron told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he was playing a “dangerous game” in sending arms, aerial support and allied fighters from Syria to boost the GNA – warning that France “won’t tolerate” such actions.

But Turkey’s support – with the provision of drones proving particularly effective – eventually shifted the dynamic in the GNA’s favour.

“Libya is part of a bunch of interlinking stories,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist, associate professor at St. Lawrence University and senior non-resident fellow at the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy. “Turkey clearly sees itself as being able to play a larger role on the world stage; it sees its Western allies as not necessarily supporting of that, and has been willing to play hardball to assert what it sees as its national interest.”

Turkey wants to “fortify its position as a regional power and increase its geopolitical footprint in the Middle East and North Africa region”, added Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau. “This in turn leads to geopolitical competition with some countries, as is the case with France.”

Ankara’s relations with its NATO allies hit another low on June 10, when Turkish naval boats conducted radar-targeting – indicating that a missile strike may be incoming – on a French warship trying to approach a Turkish civilian ship suspected of contravening a NATO arms embargo on Libya. According to a French defence official, the Courbet frigate was “lit up” three times by Turkish radar.

France called for NATO allies to discuss Turkey’s “aggressive” role in Libya a few days later. NATO subsequently launched an investigation into the incident.

Animosity between Ankara and Paris intensified on July 1, when France announced that it was suspending its involvement in NATO’s Sea Guardian operation in the Mediterranean enforcing the Libyan arms embargo.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has dismissed France’s claims and demanded an apology from France for “anti-Turkish actions”, alleging that France “has not told the truth to the EU or NATO”.

EU foreign ministers will meet at France’s request to discuss relations with Turkey on July 13. Adding the intrigue of espionage to the diplomatic slanging match, Ankara’s ambassador to France on Thursday confirmed reports that four Turkish nationals had been arrested for spying for the French foreign intelligence agency, the DGSE (Direction générale de la Sécurité extérieure).

Unprecedented deployment in Iraq

Turkey’s successful backing of Libya’s GNA may be Ankara’s most surprising geopolitical win recently. But Erdogan’s government also surprised many observers in June with an unprecedented deployment in northern Iraq against Kurdish forces.

Since 1984, Kurdish militant group the PKK – considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey as well as the EU, UK and US – has waged a series of armed rebellions against the Turkish state. Like his Kemalist predecessors and antagonists, Erdogan sees the PKK as an existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

This motivated the Turkish military’s first-ever deployment of ground forces on Iraqi soil on June 17, attacking PKK targets in the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Accusing the Baghdad government and Kurdish executive of failing to deal with PKK fighters – who allegedly use the area as a base for attacks on Turkey – Ankara sent in commando forces alongside warplanes, attack helicopters and drones after an intense artillery bombardment.

The Turkish military has been emboldened by its improved technological capabilities, Unluhisarcikli suggested: “These campaigns have become more proactive and effective thanks to the new abilities the Turkish army has gained, particularly with the use of armed drones.”

Yet Syria – where Ankara has given support to its allies since the civil war started in 2011 – remains the theatre in which Turkey is best known for striking Kurdish forces. Upon starting its direct military involvement there in 2016, Turkey launched the first in a series of attacks on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a Kurdish group that allied with Western powers in the fight against the Islamic State group but which Ankara says is tied to the PKK.  

Turkey’s latest and most audacious Syrian offensive was a victorious October 2019 campaign that saw its military carve out a 20-mile-deep “safe zone” seized from the SDF along the border – much to the chagrin of European powers. Turkey said it was creating an area for some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country, but critics accused Ankara of ethnic cleansing as tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians fled their homes.  

A Damoclean sword over Europe?

Erdogan responded to European indignation by holding a sword of Damocles over the continent’s head. After a chorus of protestations from the old continent decrying the offensive – including Macron’s demand that Ankara “put a stop to it as soon as possible” – the Turkish president said on October 10: “Hey EU, wake up. I say it again: If you try to frame our operation as an invasion, our task is simple – we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you.”

Analysts noted at the time that Erdogan’s reaction exemplified the lack of leverage the EU has over Turkey.

Macron expressed his exasperation with Erdogan the same day: When a reporter asked him for his views on the Turkish president’s menacing rhetoric, he said he had “nothing more” to add to his previous comments.

As the evolving Libyan situation took testy bilateral exchanges to a full-blown Franco-Turkish diplomatic confrontation, Macron made a broader point about the Western alliance. The French president doubled down on his 2019 proclamation in The Economist that NATO is experiencing a “brain death”, saying that the Mediterranean naval incident between the two NATO allies constitutes “the best example of it”.

“Turkey has been the proverbial thorn in NATO’s side for years now,” said Reilly Barry, a Turkey researcher at Harvard University. She said that Erdogan’s 2017 announcement that Turkey would purchase an S-400 air-defence system from Russia – motivated, in part, by a desire to “exert independence apart from the West” – remains the “greatest low point in the historic alliance”. Barry predicted that activating the missiles will “likely trigger sanctions from the US and other NATO members”.

But while Erdogan’s migrant threat gives him a trump card over European powers, it seems he can ill afford to antagonise the United States. American sanctions may reveal the limits of his gift for playing hardball – given Turkey’s economic vulnerability and US dominance of the world’s financial sector.

Turkey’s currency debt crisis reached a critical point in August of 2018 after Washington imposed sanctions on Turkish officials in response to the detention of an American pastor. The coronavirus crisis further exposed persistent economic troubles – high debt and rapidly depleting foreign currency reserves – when the Turkish lira plunged to a record low against the dollar in May.

Barry said that in light of all this, “whether Turkish engagement in the Middle East is economically stable largely depends on the status of US-Turkey relations”.

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