How many battles can Turkey fight at once? One year ago, Turkey launched a military incursion into Northern Syria—with U.S. President Donald Trump’s blessing—to push Kurdish rebel forces away from its southern border. Earlier this month, Turkey’s parliament voted to renew the mandate for the mission for another year. Turkey has also intervened in Libya, sending military equipment, funding, and Syrian mercenaries to back the internationally recognized government in the country’s civil war. Turkey also sent Syrian fighters to back Azerbaijan—a majority-Turkic country—in its conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. On top of all this, Turkey is clashing with another historic rival, Greece, over potential gas resources in the Mediterranean, deploying warships to accompany a survey mission in Greek-claimed waters.
And there’s yet another conflict brewing. Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Saudi kingdom’s ally, have been rocky since the Arab Spring, when the countries backed opposite sides in the Egyptian revolution, and have only gotten worse since the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul (and the Turkish government’s subsequent use of the killing to inflict maximum diplomatic and public relations damage on the Saudis). Recently, more Saudi businesses have been pledging to boycott Turkish products. Turkey also recently threatened to suspend diplomatic ties with the UAE over the latter’s decision to recognize Israel, which is a little odd given that the Turkish government, despite its frequent and fierce criticism of Israel, has itself had diplomatic relations with the Jewish state for decades. One Saudi official recently told the Financial Times that tensions with Turkey are beginning to rival those with Iran. “If you look at the threat matrix in the region, Turkey has very quickly gone into a prominent spot—they are everywhere,” he said.
Turkey’s foreign adventurism has certainly raised the country’s international profile and helped President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidate power at home, but it’s less clear how sustainable it is in the long run.
Relations with Turkey’s NATO allies in the west have also hit a new low. Though Trump seems genuinely fond of Erdogan, the Pentagon is less enamored, and last week threatened sanctions in response to Turkey’s purchase and test of a Russian-made air defense system. France has emerged as Turkey’s main Western critic on several fronts, and the two countries came close to a naval clash in the Mediterranean in June. After President Emmanuel Macron recently made a controversial speech vowing to defend secularism against radical Islam, Erdogan said the French president needed a “mental check,” prompting France to withdraw its ambassador to Turkey.
Turkey’s foreign policy didn’t always look like this. Just a decade ago, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s former foreign minister and former prime minister, championed an idea he called “zero problems toward neighbors,” a policy of achieving influence through maximum diplomatic engagement throughout the country’s region, including with traditional foes like Armenia and Greece. “Zero problems” looked to be paying off in 2011, when revolutions broke out throughout the Middle East, in several cases bringing to power Islamist governments that were natural allies for Davutoglu and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). AKP members were also viewed in Washington as the sort of Islamists who make good business partners for the West. Erdogan had a famously chummy relationship with Obama, and Davutoglu was fêted in the American media for his diplomatic savvy.
Ten years later, Turkey seems to have given up on this approach. To put it crudely, it seems to have gone from a policy of fighting with no one to one of fighting with everyone, to the point where it’s deploying actual military force.
A few crucial developments are important to understanding how Turkey pivoted to its more aggressive approach. One was the Arab Spring, in which Turkey invested a significant amount of its foreign policy capital to back democratic Islamist parties around the region, without much to show for it. In Syria, the goal of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad turned out to be harder to accomplish than originally thought, and the resulting civil war resulted in Turkey hosting more refugees than any other country on Earth. Erdogan has now more or less given up on the idea of regime change in Syria, instead emphasizing border security and containing the Kurds. Turkish foreign policy since the Arab Spring has appeared to be guided by an equally ambitious but less idealistic conception of the country’s security interests.
“Turks see an outside world that endangers Turkey’s core interests. They see themselves as under siege from foreign actors. The conclusion is that Turkey needs a strong regime and a strong leader,” says Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul. “The narrative is very akin to ‘Making Turkey Great Again.’ Turkey becomes a regional or even global actor. That has captured the imagination of the Turkish electorate.”
Another key event came in 2015, when the AKP suffered an unexpected election setback, losing its majority as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) surged in support. Erdogan cut off ongoing peace talks with Kurdish separatists in what many saw as an attempt to undermine support for the HDP. The disappointing result also nudged the ruling party into an alliance with a far-right nationalist party. That alliance is at least partly responsible for Erdogan’s turn toward a more militaristic foreign policy and clashes with Western governments.
Then came a failed 2016 coup attempt, which Erdogan blamed on supporters of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and used as a pretext to crack down on critics domestically and put blame on perceived foreign adversaries, including the U.S. Just this week, a court sentenced a Turkish U.S. Consulate employee to jail over allegations that he aided the coup. This helped build the sense of an external threat, useful for further consolidating power.
Gönül Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute, is skeptical that Erdogan’s new militarism will last forever. “There are so many real problems that Turkish people are facing, from economic decline to a COVID surge, that I think using foreign policy to boost your support and mobilize your base is going to be less and less effective for Erdogan,” she says.
The Turkish government’s position, managing economic decline at home while projecting power abroad, is similar to that of its rival across the Black Sea, Russia. The Russian-Turkish relationship is complex. In most of their conflicts, Ankara and Moscow are backing opposite sides, and just this week, Russian airstrikes killed dozens of Turkish-backed fighters in Syria. But despite some scary moments over the years, Turkey and Russia have at least kept up a communicative relationship, including in the recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdogan also seems to have taken a few lessons from Vladimir Putin when it comes to flexing Turkish muscle abroad.
Both are budding superpowers on a budget. Without the financial or military resources of a U.S. or China, they have to choose their battles. Just as Putin used the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to shore up domestic support at a time when the economy was flagging, Erdogan similarly used the intervention against Kurdish rebels in Syria, which was extremely popular with the Turkish public. Both have kept costs down by employing mercenaries rather than regular army troops: In Russia’s case, the private security firm Wagner Group, and in Turkey’s case, desperate Syrian rebels.
Both nations have contradictory relationships with the Trump administration: The U.S. president lavishes praise on both Putin and Erdogan and brags about his friendly relationship with them, even as his administration slaps sanctions on their governments.
The current U.S. posture in the Middle East, or rather the lack of one, may be another reason for Turkey’s recent adventurism. “Erdogan and his circle love Trump,” says Tol. “But when people in Turkey look at all the nonsense that’s going on in Washington, it feeds the narrative that the U.S. is a power in decline that can’t get its act together, that Turkey has to act alone.”
A Biden administration might take a more hands-on approach, but just as the Obama administration often appeared flummoxed by Russia’s ability to project power abroad despite what appeared to be dire conditions at home, more pressure might not accomplish much. Erdogan has made Turkey into a quasi-superpower at minimal cost and minimal political risk. It’s likely to remain one for some time.