Riskier Turkish adventurism may threaten Middle East and beyond
The secret of success for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Middle East used to be the export of soap operas depicting an ideal Muslim society. A skyrocketing entertainment industry attracting millions of Arab viewers into dramatic plots coincided with the rise of Turkish “soft power” premised on a model of economic strength and multiparty politics that is harmonious with Islam. This has since been steadily replaced with Turkish military muscle in no less than three incursions in Syria since 2016, and a military dilemma in Libya with no end in sight, even as peace talks are unfolding, with the United States nowhere to be found.
Turkey is not new to the region as heir to the Ottoman Empire which, at its height, ruled over the Muslim world and a portion of Europe. Recently, however, its involvement has been a mixed bag. At times, it is responsive to threats, while at others, it is driven by economic interests. Turkey is starting to use might more than diplomacy to project its supremacy. In the last year, it occupied northeast Syria, increased its military presence in Iraq, and intervened heavily in the civil war in Libya. It has set up bases in Qatar and Somalia, and negotiated temporary control of Suakin Island in Sudan and a defense deal with Kuwait, securing a hold in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
Today, Turkey is calling the tune in Syria. Clashes last year between forces backed by Russia and opposition groups assisted by Turkey led to the establishment of a security corridor on the border, jointly monitored by Turkey and Russia, but under “rebel” control. Ankara is motivated by a desire to thwart Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and anxiety about the national security risk posed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria. It hopes to establish a buffer zone to resettle more than three million Syrian refugees who are also becoming a liability.
A gradual takeover by Turkish culture of northern Syria is taking place with no political deal in sight. Having sent over 10,000 forces, a safe zone development plan will now reconstruct these areas under Turkish control, establishing local governments and infrastructure monitored by Turkish authorities. Local governments in Aleppo and Idlib have already adopted the Turkish lira as the legal tender to steady prices in the region. But the situation in Syria remains volatile and a military escalation could occur.
Turkish policy toward Libya, which hinges on support to the Government of National Accord, is closely tied to the creation of an exclusive economic zone from the southern shore of Turkey to the northeast coast of Libya. Ankara has used a contentious deal with Tripoli that delineates a shared maritime border in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to conduct gas exploration activities in contested waters. This has raised tensions with Israel, Greece, and other European countries. In return, Ankara has shifted the war in favor of the Government of National Accord by sending arms and Syrian mercenaries. Qatar bankrolls its actions while the United States remains on the sidelines.
But the Turkish intervention in Libya is a gamble, not only because of the volatile situation on the ground, but because the government it backs does not even control the land next to the area delimited by the maritime deal. If the Government of National Accord loses the war, Ankara will lose access to coveted gas fields. Its ambitions may prove especially costly, given the imminent resignation of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, despite a new round of talks next month in Geneva. Meanwhile, tensions are growing with both the United States and Russia over Turkish involvement in northern Syria. Libya could turn into the unfinished project that eventually backfires.
The tug of war in the region between malign actors is intensifying, and Turkey is no longer a bystander. Despite setbacks and potential negative spillover of conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq, Turkey has emerged as a heavyweight with Erdogan as a new Putin seeking to lead in an order that the United States is clearly absent from. However, the Middle Eastern publics who fell under the sway of Turkish soap operas may not be as receptive to Turkey’s expansionist overtures; they will be reminded of worse times under Ottoman rule. Left unchecked, the consequences of Turkey’s adventurism will endanger, not just its immediate borders, but the entire Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. The United States will not be spared, as it will be called upon to write a new script.