Assessing Turkey’s Future Role in the Middle East

Nicholas Morgan is an M.A student studying Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at University College London.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing Turkey’s Future Role in the Middle East

Date Originally Written:  October 2, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  November 5, 2018.

Summary:  As a result of its unilateral foreign policy choices as well as a lingering currency crisis at home, Turkey will be forced to re-evaluate many of its present policies in relation to the Middle East. With ongoing threats of greater violence on its borders, increasing diplomatic isolation and economic decline, Turkey’s aspirations for greater regional influence are seriously reduced and it is likely that its position is to decline further because mounting problems at home and abroad.

Text:  Turkey’s challenged position within the Middle East is a result of regional dynamics that have de-stabilized its neighbors, whether it be from their own internal turmoil or geopolitical intrigues by larger powers. At the dawn of the Arab Spring, Turkish leaders saw it as an opportunity to assume a leadership position amidst the ashes of political upheaval and was upheld as a model by others. However, Turkish ventures into issues such as the Syrian Civil War and the blockade of Qatar have cost it significant political capital among its neighbors. An ongoing currency crisis, domestic political changes and fighting on its borders have only served to further weaken Turkey’s position in the Middle East.

The maelstrom that is Syria’s civil war can be considered the harbinger of many of Turkey’s present woes. The spillover effects from the war threatened to escalate as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has moved towards an offensive against Idlib province along Turkey’s southern border. Such a move would be nearly catastrophic for Turkish interests given its holdings in northern Syria, and the potential flood of refugees across its borders, when it already is the largest host of Syrians fleeing the war[1]. In addition to refugees, jihadist fighters targeted by Assad would likely retreat over the Turkish border or into holdings in Syria, raising the specter of violence there.

Caught in the spotlight of these circumstances are Turkey’s alliance with Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invested significantly into his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, frequently meeting with him to secure Russian concessions to Turkish concerns in Syria. The two have met several times in recent months to discuss Idlib, and it appears to have borne fruit as Russia recently delayed any offensive into the province while Turkey tries to disarm or remove jihadist fighters there[2]. However, Russia did not commit to a total halt of any offensive on Idlib, just to postpone one. Moscow is acutely aware of Turkey’s vulnerability in the event of an offensive and that Turkey will be unlikely to convince jihadist hardliners to abide by any ceasefire[3]. Ultimately, an attack on Idlib will come regardless given Assad’s desire to reunify his nation by force and as the past has shown, Russia will commit to assisting that goal. Neither has any desire to see a clash between their forces in the province, but Russia is more than aware of its leverage when an offensive is launched given the spillover risks to Turkey itself and the refusal of jihadist groups to abide by the ceasefire.

Another danger presented by any offensive on Idlib is the effect it would have on Turkey’s conflict with Kurdish militias it considers terrorist groups. Presently, with the looming threat of fighting Assad over Idlib, Turkey’s stance is precarious. Worried about a U.S withdrawal and the status of the lands they conquered, the Kurds have hedged their situation by opening negotiations with Damascus and Moscow[4]. If Turkey is seen as retreating under threat of confrontation with Syria, it could embolden the Kurds to seek deeper ties with the regime. Given Assad’s desire for restoring his rule over all Syria and the Kurds’ desire for recognition of their interests, an attack would call into question Turkey’s control over Afrin and other holdings. At that point, Turkey would be stuck in the unenviable position of being dragged deeper into the war or being made to surrender Kurdish lands it seized in recent years. This would defeat all of Ankara’s strategic objectives in engaging in Syria.

Beyond Syria, Turkey’s relationships with the other Middle Eastern powers are at a low point that shows little sign of improving. Its only ally within the region is Qatar because of Erdogan’s decision to back Doha in its dispute with other Gulf monarchies last year. The other Arab states allied to Saudi Arabia view Turkey with enmity, with the Saudi crown prince even declaring the Turks as part of a triangle of evil because of its support to Qatar and its position in the Syrian war[5]. Even Israel, who Turkey had just begun reproaching several years ago after a long period of tension, has found itself more aligned with the Arabs than Ankara. This alignment was evident in the Arab denunciation of Ankara for insisting the Arab League was hesitant to support the Palestinians, a cause Erdogan personally seeks to champion[6]. Given that Arab officials have gone to the point of warning Israel about excess Turkish influence in East Jerusalem, it is safe to suggest whatever leadership position Turkey aspires to in the region will remain a pipe dream[7].

Finally, considereing the fragile state of the Turkish economy in light of mounting foreign debt, high inflation and American sanctions, the country may soon be forced to focus on preventing a deeper recession than on foreign intrigues. The government’s response so far has not significantly halted either the currency’s decline nor has it halted the growth of inflation. Already, plans involve new austerity measures and support to larger institutions in restructuring their debt[8]. All the while, smaller businesses are bucking under increased costs from the lira’s weakness and consumers are beginning to feel the sting of rising inflation[9]. With the specter of renewed migration as a result of an attack on Idlib in Syria, Turkey’s domestic politics risk further unraveling. Between rising prices and the risk of unemployment as well as a reluctance to take in more refugees, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) may find their political position at greater risk in future elections[10].

Given its increasingly constrained position, Turkey is unlikely to be able to exert any greater influence over the wider Middle East. Facing security risks relating to the Syrian Civil War, diplomatic isolation from its decision to back Qatar and alienate the United States, and economic decline at home, Turkey will be forced to retreat from many of its policies across the region. Otherwise, Ankara’s own stability may be called into question, a scenario that all but ensures a further diminished posture and an end to any aspirations of leadership.


Endnotes:

[1] Schelin, Lisa. UN Official: Buffer Zone in Syria’s Idlib Province Averts War for Now. VOA. https://www.voanews.com/a/un-official-buffer-zone-syria-idlib-averts-war-for-now/4580255.html (September 20, 2018)

[2] DW. Russia, Turkey agree to create demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib. DW. https://www.dw.com/en/russia-turkey-agree-to-create-demilitarized-zone-around-syrias-idlib/a-45530727 (September 17, 2018)

[3] Decina, Alexander. ANALYSIS: How Security and Diplomacy Intersect in Russia and Turkey’s Idlib Deal. WANA Institute. http://wanainstitute.org/sites/default/files/publications/Publication_Idlib_English.pdf (October 2, 2018)

[4] Tastekin, Fehim. As conditions shift in Syria, Kurds open to talks with Damascus. al-Monitor.https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/06/turkey-syria-what-pushes-kurds-deal-with-regime.html (June 21, 2018)

[5] Evans, Dominic. Saudi Prince Says Turkey part of ‘Triangle of evil’-Egyptian Media. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-turkey/saudi-prince-says-turkey-part-of-triangle-of-evil-egyptian-media-idUSKCN1GJ1WW (March 7, 2018)

[6] Sawsan, Abu Hussein. Arab League Denounces Turkish Statements on Relocating U.S Embassy to Jerusalem. Asharq al-Awsat. https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1266991/arab-league-denounces-turkish-statements-relocating-us-embassy-jerusalem (May 13, 2018)

[7] Tibon, Amir & Kubovich, Yaniv. Jordan, Saudis and Palestineans warn Israel: Erdogan operating in East Jersusalem under your nose. Haaretz. (July 1, 2018)

[8] Albayrak, Ozlem. In Turkey, New Economic Plan Comes up Short. Asia Times. http://www.atimes.com/article/in-turkey-new-economic-plan-comes-up-short/ (September 21, 2018)

[9] Pitel, Laura & Guler, Funja. Turkey’s shopping centres at sharp end of currency crisis. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/90479ce0-bb64-11e8-8274-55b72926558f (September 19, 2018)

[10[ Brandt, Jessica & Kirsici, Kemal. Turkey’s economic woes could spell trouble for Syrian refugees. Axios. https://www.axios.com/turkeys-economic-woes-could-spell-trouble-for-syrian-refugees-d1eaae2e-fcd3-45ff-a1b1-a26567115e8b.html (August 28, 2018)

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