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How Turkey militarized its foreign policy

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ISTANBUL — “Zero problems with neighbors” was once the guiding mantra of Turkey’s foreign policy.

There’s little left of it now. A growing reliance on military might to pursue its goals has thrust Turkey into conflicts across its neighborhood as it challenges rivals and traditional allies alike.

The most recent reverberations jolted the Caucasus when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threw his country’s weight squarely behind close ally Azerbaijan after the eruption of hostilities with Armenia, providing weapons and military training and refusing to join international calls for a cease-fire.

That hard-nosed stance illustrates Ankara’s readiness to flex military muscle to achieve what it has not through diplomacy. At home, that posture has galvanized support among a public long suspicious of outside interference in the country’s own affairs and eager to project the clout it believes its large military and historical footprint have earned Turkey.

“Turkey has attained the power to carry out with active military support its political and economic policies on the ground,” Erdoğan said after a Cabinet meeting in early October. “Those accustomed to speaking to us with an imperious tone now negotiate with us on equal terms … We have fully subverted their policies to subjugate us to decisions taken without us on all regional and global matters.”

Threats of sanctions from the European Union over its power play in Libya and the Mediterranean Sea have so far mostly proved empty.

In the past year alone, Turkey has angered its neighbors — and often defied Russia, Europe and the United States — to stage two military operations in Syria, deploy commandos into Iraq, change the course of the war in Libya and dispatch warships to hunt for hydrocarbons in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Most recently, Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties, has accused it of entering the fray when the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh — an enclave controlled by Armenians since the 1990s but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan — reignited into open conflict late last month.

Turkey denies reports it sent Syrian mercenaries and fighter jets to Azerbaijan. But it has rejected a cease-fire call from the Minsk Group, an arbitration body to which it belongs, until the enclave is returned to Azerbaijani control.

That approach hasn’t made Turkey popular — but so far, it hasn’t backfired.

“Much of this is diplomacy by other means, intended to gain leverage in which Turkey is looking to make economic, diplomatic and sometimes territorial gains. Most regional and Western states are unhappy with Turkey’s aggressiveness, but so far it’s mainly working for the Turks,” said Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously worked at the U.S. State Department.

Turkish power projection has upended the civil war in Libya, where its military support for the U.N.-recognized government turned the tide against a rebel commander backed by France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. It also clinched energy deals with Tripoli that could complicate efforts by other Mediterranean states to exploit a potential natural gas bonanza beneath the seabed.

Threats of sanctions from the European Union over its power play in Libya and the Mediterranean Sea have so far mostly proved empty. Ankara has also managed to avoid sanctions the United States said it would impose over its purchase of a Russian missile system designed to shoot down NATO jets.

This backpedaling has likely bolstered Ankara’s faith that it is too strategically vital — whether due to Turkish military bases used by NATO or Erdoğan’s threat to “open the gates” to Europe for the millions of refugees it hosts — to face meaningful blowback.

“Turkey has long been told that it is indispensable to the West, feeding a superiority complex,” said Salih Bıçakcı, an international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “Its hard power means it has the strength to ruin the game, but Turkey is still forced to play the hand it is dealt.”

From zero problems to zero friends

For decades, Turkey’s Western-oriented outlook largely adhered to the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s prescript of “peace at home, peace in the world.” During the first half of his 17 years in power, Erdoğan set about building trade and diplomatic ties across the region with the slogan “zero problems with neighbors.”

But the United States’ withdrawal from the Middle East and the European Union’s lack of a unified front have opened up a void in which Turkey can more forcefully assert itself, said Senem Aydin-Düzgit, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

Turkey is not the only country seeking to fill the vacuum. That has bred distrust with Egypt and its allies — especially after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi deposed Erdoğan’s co-ideologue Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and Saudi Arabia’s gambit to become the region’s heavyweight in the wake of the Arab Spring — as well as Russia, which backs opposing sides from Turkey in Syria and Libya.

Turkish military vehicles near the Syrian town of Ariha | Omar Haj Kodur/AFP via Getty Images

The bitterness with Egypt, as well as tensions with Cyprus and Israel, kept Turkey out of the deal-making when they and other Mediterranean littoral states drew up exclusive economic zones demarcating undersea gas fields.

In this new realm, Turkey’s preference for force over compromise has shrunk its options. “The thinking is military methods get clearer results. But it also arises out of necessity. Past political mistakes, including not opening the needed diplomatic channels, have left Turkey on its own, without much other than military instruments at its disposal,” Aydin-Düzgit said.

Meanwhile, fears that Kurdish steps toward autonomy in Syria and Iraq would stimulate separatism among its own, far larger population of Kurds has pushed Turkey into those countries. And a less-than-full-throated condemnation in the wake of a failed military coup against Erdoğan in 2016 fed his own distrust of the West and a narrative that the conflagrations around Turkey are in reality a plot against his own nation.

“Turkey is the real target of a siege that stretches from the Caucasus to the Balkans, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and the adjoining regions,” Erdoğan said in his speech. “As long as Turkey stands strong, none of these scenarios will succeed.”

Even many of Erdoğan’s critics at home have backed the country’s interventions in Syria and joined the chorus of support for Azerbaijan.

In the face of this perceived onslaught, Erdoğan’s pledge to assert Turkey’s interests as a distinctly Muslim power taps into nationalist sentiment among a public that overwhelmingly views itself as a natural leader for the Muslim world, according to research by Makovsky’s think tank.

“Erdoğan’s quest for renewed Turkish grandeur, and his use of religion to achieve it, lashed to Turkey’s growing military confidence, thrills his supporters and even wins begrudging support from some of his domestic detractors,” Makovsky said.

“The risks are that Turkey could overextend itself militarily and become involved in unwanted hostilities. Its deteriorating economy also may be a restraint. Given its unpopularity in the region, other states that are already trying to isolate Turkey diplomatically may also try to inflict economic damage,” he added.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, following a Cabinet meeting | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Turkish troops are now present in at least nine countries, from Iraq to Somalia as well as internationally unrecognized Northern Cyprus, and operate a large base in Qatar. Turkey also controls swaths of territory in northern Syria following a series of cross-border incursions.

The pivot to the military — as well as the intelligence agency — in what was diplomats’ domain coincides with an expansion of Turkey’s armed forces, already NATO’s second-biggest. The government has doubled military spending over the last decade and intends to manufacture all of its own weapons by 2023.

Erdoğan has cast those investments, even during the country’s current economic contraction, as a necessity, required to restore the sort of supremacy the Ottoman Empire enjoyed in the Mediterranean and across the Middle East before its collapse after World War I.

The war in Libya has torn the country apart and left thousands dead | Abdullah Doma/AFP via Getty Images

Even many of Erdoğan’s critics at home have backed the country’s interventions in Syria and joined the chorus of support for Azerbaijan. Opinion polls show Turks are divided when it comes to sending soldiers abroad, backing the move when close to home in Syria, but disapproving when it’s farther afield in Libya.

The recession has hit support for Erdoğan’s party, but he insists financial hardship is the cost Turks must bear as the country fights these “struggles on its own,” suggesting that the country’s economy is the target of another form of warfare by its foes.

“Of course we are paying a price … and we are concerned about every citizen who is affected by the economic attacks,” he said. “God willing, will soon reap the rewards of the difficulties we are now enduring.”

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