Erdogan reviving Ottoman role of regional power and defender of faithful
Turkey’s involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh most recent in series of opportunistic moves
A man prays inside the bomb-damaged Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha, 15km from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region’s capital Stepanakert. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty
Gone are the days when Turkey vowed “no problems with neighbours”. This was the policy adopted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party after it came to power in 2002 but the vow has been replaced by external military adventures which have embroiled and alienated neighbours as well as countries further afield.
The latest example is Nagorno-Karabakh. Since 1988 relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia have been strained over control of an Armenian majority enclave within Azerbaijan. War flared between Azeris and Armenians following the dissolution of the Soviet Union which had kept a lid on conflict between the competing ethnic groups. The Armenians and Karabakh Armenians declared independence in 1991 and during ensuing fighting 600,000 Azeris were driven from Karabakh. Azerbaijan has vowed to regain the territory so they could go back. The ongoing bout of fighting is the worst since a ceasefire was imposed in 1994.
Emboldened by Turkey, the Azeris launched an offensive on Karabakh on September 27th. The pretext appears to have been Armenian shelling of a border area which killed two Azeri generals in July. Turkey has not only provided weapons and armed drones to the Azeris but has also dispatched mercenary fighters from Syria to do battle with the Armenian defenders of Karabakh. They in turn have been bolstered by Armenian volunteers from elsewhere, thereby widening the scope of the conflict .
Turkey has been the chief politico-military ally of rebels and jihadis seeking to overthrow the Russian-backed Syrian government
Although Turkey denies sending mercenaries from Syria to reinforce the Azeris, interviews with fighters from Syria (some of whom may be foreign jihadis), reveal that this accusation is true. The Guardian reported that 1,000 mercenaries, recruited by Turkish firms with the offer of a monthly payment of $1,300, have arrived in Karabakh to support Azeri forces. The Wall Street Journal has confirmed the deployment of “hundreds” of mercenaries. French president Emmanuel Macron has declared that at least 300 passed through Turkey to Karabakh. Dozens have been reported killed.
Having signed a treaty to defend Armenia but not Karabakh, Russia is caught between the two sides and has tried to impose a ceasefire. The Karabakh conflict is the third theatre of war where Ankara is at odds with Moscow. Since 2011, Turkey has been the chief politico-military ally of rebels and jihadis seeking to overthrow the Russian-backed Syrian government. Turkey has invaded and occupied strategic enclaves in northern Syria and deployed thousands of Turkish troops in jihadi-held northwestern Idlib province to halt a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive to regain the province in the campaign to re-establish Syrian sovereignty throughout the country.
Since late last year Turkey has intervened with weapons and Syrian mercenaries to rescue the UN-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli, Libya, while besieged by Russian, UAE, Egyptian, and French-backed rebel Gen Khalifa Haftar on behalf of a rival regime based in Tobruk.
Turkey has also intervened in Iraq and the eastern Mediterranean. Since negotiations between Erdogan’s government and Turkish Kurds collapsed in 2015, Turkey has conducted operations against dissident Turkish Kurds based in northern Iraq where Ankara has established a dozen military posts.
While the US waged war in 1991 to liberate oil-rich Kuwait from Iraq, other aggressors, including Turkey, have not been addressed
Ankara’s price for providing military support for Tripoli was an agreement for the creation of a joint maritime economic zone stretching across the eastern Mediterranean from Libya’s to Turkey’s shores. This bisects the sea between Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus in the east and countries to the west of the zone. Turkey has threatened to use its navy to defend the deal.
Turkey has dispatched troops to protect Qatar which has been blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates since 2017 due to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist movement which is outlawed in most Gulf states but promoted by Turkey.
Turkey’s shift from “no problems with neighbours” to military outreach is opportunistic . Ankara’s objective is to fill vacuums left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the United States, the world’s sole hyperpower, to act as global policeman.
Instead, Washington has been highly selective. While the US waged war in 1991 to liberate oil-rich Kuwait from Iraq, other aggressors, including Turkey, have not been addressed.
The 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington prompted the US to proclaim a “war on terror” in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere at the expense of playing a decisive role in regional peacemaking and economic development which might have averted the rise of jihadi movements which Turkey has exploited.
The US inability to defeat the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s Afghan host, the disastrous US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and consequent regional chaos have provided Turkey with multiple opportunities to proceed with Erdogan’s quest to become regional hegemon and defender of the Muslim faithful across the world.
Having been rejected by the eastern Arab World, Erdogan has moved on to oil-blessed Libya in north Africa and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and the natural gas resources beneath the waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan has used involvement in foreign dramas to divert domestic attention from rampant corruption, economic woes and a rising Covid-19 infection rate. He has justified Turkish expansionism by claiming he is recovering Ottoman glory and influence.