Ankara’s eye

Turkey has embarked on an-all-out-war of influence which could ultimately alienate its historic partners.

Erdogan upon his arrival in Dakar, Senegal, January 28. Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Anadolu Agency / AFP


Arab World; Ankara’s eye

February 02, 2020 (Jeune Afrique) – Determined to strengthen its role at regional and international level at all costs, Turkey has embarked on an all-out war of influence which could ultimately alienate its historic partners.

“Today, Turkey can launch an operation to protect its national security without asking anyone’s permission. This message with martial overtones was delivered in December 2019 by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the exit of the London summit marking the 70th anniversary of NATO. Hammered in front of the Turkish community settled in Great Britain, it speaks volumes about Ankara’s determination to be recognized as an autonomous international power.

President Erdogan’s statement is also a perfect illustration of Turkey’s often unilateral foreign policy in recent years. Last October, it challenged its Western allies by sending troops to the northeast of Syria against the will of NATO, of which it is nevertheless a member. Two months later, the Turkish leader vowed to deploy men in Libya when the United Nations called on the world to respect the arms embargo. A promise followed by action: at the beginning of the year, Turkish soldiers landed in Tripoli.

Admittedly, Ankara’s desire to gain regional influence is not new. But the increasingly daring pursuit of this goal is shaking many leaders, both in Europe and in the Arab world. A European diplomat worries: “Turkey seems to be becoming more and more aggressive, and the problems that this poses are piling up. In the Middle East and North Africa in particular, Turkish activism accelerated after the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Betting on a new Islamist order, Turkey was particularly involved in Syria and Egypt, supporting in the first country the rebel groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad and supporting in the second the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi. Ankara’s bet? Restore its influence in certain areas of the former Ottoman Empire. Wasted effort; in Syria, Russia has fled to the aid of the regime. In Egypt, the army – supported by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – managed to overthrow Morsi and install in his place, in 2013, the putschist marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

The year 2016 marks a turning point. After the failed coup attempt against Erdogan, a new approach emerges. Internally, the aborted putsch weakens the autonomy of the army and allows the president to strengthen his own power. Outside, Turkey now favors direct military action. It launched three offensives in northern Syria, including the controversial attack in October 2019 against the Kurdish militias who had fought Daesh alongside the Allies.

Elsewhere, Ankara meddles in the Arab dispute in the Gulf by supporting Doha when Abu Dhabi and Riyadh declare an embargo against Qatar. At the same time, Turkey sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean to prevent the drilling of European oil companies. It also thwarts its NATO allies by acquiring a Russian air defense system.

To date, the decision of the Turkish President who has surprised the international community the most is his direct involvement in the Libyan conflict by sending military advisers – and Syrian mercenaries – to support the besieged government of Tripoli, led by Fayez al -Sarraj and recognized by the UN. In this area too, Ankara faces the United Arab Emirates and Sisi’s Egypt, which openly support Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against the capital.

Turkey’s military involvement confirms Erdogan’s intention to invite himself, if necessary to the forceps, to the negotiating table on Libya. It provoked the disapproval of Washington, European capitals … and the powers of the Gulf, including Abu Dhabi. “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates believe that Turkey has become a destabilizing force,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati observer.

Sinan Ulgen, head of the think tank Edam, based in Istanbul, judges that it is “inevitable” that, in a changing world, Turkey wishes to reassess its place in the concert of nations. “Any Turkish leader would have done it,” says the former diplomat, who considers that Western countries are partly responsible for the acrimony of Ankara, between “the collapse” of the relationship with the United States and “the EU’s “total ineffectiveness” as an alternative security partner. “Consequently, Turkey considered that it had to be more reactive in order to respond to its own security problems,” said Ulgen.

But one cannot exonerate Ankara from its wrongs, analyzes the same. The erosion of fundamental freedoms in the country over the past decade has chilled European and American officials, and caused initial friction on the diplomatic front. This internal backdrop made it “much more difficult” for Ankara to smoothly readjust internationally.

To strengthen the support of his opinion, Erdogan has redoubled efforts since 2016 in staging his showdown with the West. After having once cherished the hope of joining the EU, many Turkish officials now look down on Europe and doubt that Brussels has ever seriously considered admitting their country to it. “In the name of what would they have the right to give their opinion? A high-ranking official gets carried away when the EU describes Turkish drilling attempts near Cyprus as “illegal”.

If criticism of Europe is echoed in Turkey, Erdogan remains bound by Ankara’s commercial dependence on the West, the main source of foreign investment. This dependence was cruelly remembered in the country in 2018, during the monetary crisis following the economic sanctions imposed by Donald Trump to force the resolution of a diplomatic dispute.

“Turkey is diversifying its partners in the fields of security and defense, but not in economic matters,” confirms Ilke Toygur, an analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, based in Madrid. The deterioration of its relations [with the West] because of unilateral initiatives or in the name of its own security interests’ risks, de facto, making it economically vulnerable. In search of independence, Erdogan therefore has no choice but to seek new partners. The Turkish President, who visited Tunisia at the end of December 2019, is eyeing with increasing interest towards West Africa, where he made a mini-tour at the end of January – in Gambia and in Senegal -, in the wake of his visit to Algeria.

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