Once known for its soft power and neighbourly ties, Turkey is nowadays almost exclusively being discussed for its hard power on multiple fronts.
Up until 2016, Turkey was confined to its territory and avoided using its military power. The “Strategic Depth” doctrine, a guiding foreign policy tool in the initial years of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was based on soft power.
Much has changed in the country after the failed 2016 coup attempt, including the checks and balances over President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as the Turkish military and state.
Only weeks after the traumatic failed putsch in which Erdoğan’s life was at the stake, Turkey launched a military operation into Syrian lands, claiming a chunk of territory.
Turkey and its proxy forces, including Syrian Arab and Turkmen fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), took control of the region near the Turkish border following Operation Euphrates Shield, launched on Aug. 24, 2016. Then, following a two-month offensive backed by FSA fighters in 2018, Turkey captured Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in March.
Ankara sees the Kurdish militia as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and, as seen in its second operation, dubbed “Olive Branch,” Turkey steadily increased its troop presence in the northern province of Idlib, boosting its manpower to tens of thousands, in a face-off with the Syrian and Russian forces.
In October, Turkey again entered northern Syria for the third time, taking another chunk of territory between Serakaniye and Tel Abyad. Operation Peace Spring was launched shortly after United States President Donald Trump announced he was pulling U.S. forces from the border area days before.
Since Sunday, Turkey has once again been flexing its muscles, this time in northern Iraq, starting with air strikes, then with commandos taking on the PKK. But these operations make up only fraction of Turkish hard power.
Turkey’s aggressive steps in the eastern Mediterranean, expanding all the way to Libya’s shores and turning the tide against the forces of the Libyan National Army, is one of the latest Turkish military fronts. Turkey is also at loggerheads with Greece, deploying drilling ships with escorts of Turkish warships near Cyprus. Ankara has invited the United States and NATO to fight against Russia in Libya but accuses leading NATO member France of being a “dark” force in the war-torn country.
Turkey’s aggressive stance on all these fronts, which is triggering a geopolitical earthquake in the region, prompted a French Defence Ministry official to suggest on Wednesday that NATO should draw attention to Ankara’s “unacceptable” conduct on a host of issues.
The official referred to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defence system and blocking NATO defence planning in eastern Europe.
“We have known complicated moments in the alliance, but we can’t be an ostrich and can’t pretend there isn’t a Turkey problem at NATO. We have to see it, say it and handle it,” the official told Reuters on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s close relations with Trump is one of the most important factors boosting the belligerent stance of Turkey’s strongman, in addition to his relentless craving to use military power.
Following a phone call with Trump last week, Erdoğan said that Turkey may start a new era in its relations with the United States through common policies towards Libya.
In the same call, the duo cracked jokes and exchanged pleasantries, such as telling each other how great they look, according to a Turkish columnist with close connections to the presidential palace in Ankara.
Let us recall that Trump has been able to halt all prepared Congressional sanctions packages that were supposed to hit the Erdoğan administration due to the S-400 purchase. Trump did impose some temporary sanctions on Turkish ministers following the third Turkish operation into north Syria in October, only to lift them once a ceasefire was brokered with Turkey, on Ankara’s terms.
U.S. envoy for Syria Ambassador James Jeffrey and his deputy, Richard Outzen, are other actors that will be remembered in this phase for propping up Turkish military operations against Russians in both Syria and Libya, and against the Syrian regime in Damascus. The enthusiasm that both U.S. officials have displayed in recent months in endorsing Turkish operations into these countries to confront Russian power is notable.
The Caesar Act, which took effect on Wednesday, also greatly helps the Turkish administration against the Assad regime, which is facing one of the gravest threats in the nine-year-old civil war. Even before the sanctions kicked in, they had already contributed to the collapse of Syria’s pound and economy. Since the sanction package directly targets Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies, some of whom are Erdoğan’s main enemies, this will greatly help Ankara in its fight against Damascus.
Meanwhile, the European Union, Greece and Cyprus are struggling to counter Turkish moves, Trump adamantly supports Erdoğan with his envoys, who use their Turkish language skills to embolden Erdoğan’s actions without any condemnation of gross human right violations, which have been documented as recently as last week by Nadine Maenza , the Vice Chair of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who said the Turkish government are directing operation leading to ethnic cleansing. We have seen when Turkey invaded Syrian territories they “take away religious freedom” and “impose harsh conditions.”
There is no criticism coming from Washington. On the contrary, Trump with his frequent phone calls to Ankara, became the big booster of Erdoğan not only against Russia and Syria, but also against the European Union and other NATO members.