While Turkey, a regional hegemon, can be a commanding presence on some fronts, it is but a “rising power” with limited means of hegemonic projections.
The past few months have seen Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan take up an active role on many fronts, from Idlib to Tripoli, and now increasingly in the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
On the Mediterranean front, the Turkish leader has bullied regional foes, urged Western allies, reassured Tripoli, all the while energetically telling anyone who would listen that Ankara should be part and parcel of any solution — political or military — to the Libyan crisis.
Even while occasionally cooling down and conceding that his aggressive and go-it-alone approach may not help him have the results he craves, Erdogan has been adamant that only naked power or at least some show of it would have the better of the “unreliable” and “illegitimate” East Libyan government led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Erdogan’s world order theory
In Erdogan’s all-encompassing theory of the Libyan crisis, America’s and the European Union’s wait-and-see diplomacy is not the way forward. It only leads to a diplomacy of indecision and vacillation—the kind that births inconclusive ceasefire deals and short-lived de-escalation. The way to go, Erdogan has insisted, is to “teach a lesson” to Haftar by engaging and defeating him militarily.
As Erdogan sees it, only by besieging and annihilating Haftar and his foreign backers’ excessive confidence can the international community hope to force the strong man of the Tobruk-based government to accept and abide by negotiation terms.
This, then, is Erdogan’s grand theory of the Libyan crisis: Haftar needs to be bullied and humbled into coming to the negotiating table without the braggadocio and self-entitlement he has repeatedly exuded as his military power, supplied by the UAE, Egypt, and Russian mercenaries, seemed to surpass that of the Tripoli-based, UN-recognized government.
And if no country is ready to undertake the necessary aggressiveness and bullying to confront and contain Haftar, Erdogan has maintained, Turkey is more than happy (or ready) to go up against both “warlord” Haftar and his pack of foreign, “illegitimate” backers.
“Today, Turkey can launch an operation to protect its national security without asking permission from anyone,” the Turkish president told a gathering of Britain’s Turkish community while visiting London last December. This was an articulate preface to the much-anticipated “aggressive” and extremely confident Turkey many observers had already predicted.
Erdogan’s grand theory is one of peace through confrontation and chaos, as he argued in a well-timed opinion article Politico Magazine published just a day before the now-failed Berlin conference on the Libyan conflict. In it, Erdogan railed against the “apathy” and irresponsibility of the international community, which he said has “failed… to restore peace and stability” in Libya.
“At this historic junction, those working for peace must be courageous and do everything in their power to end violence,” he wrote. “Europe can count on Turkey — an old friend and loyal ally — to achieve that goal.”
Of note here is the fact that Erdogan was not asking for anyone’s permission. He was merely announcing a decision he had already made, urging Tukey’s “European allies” to join Ankara on what he sees as the right side of history.
There have been some slight changes in Erdogan’s Libyan tunes on a few occasions in recent weeks. While visiting Algeria, for instance, he asserted, somewhat surprisingly, that “a solution to the conflict in Libya cannot be achieved through military means.” Most recently, Ankara welcomed Morocco’s mediation efforts in Libya, grandiosely congratulating Rabat on convening Libya’s two warring factions around the same negotiating table.
Of course, there are also some elements of pan-Islamist grandstanding and third worldist sentimentality in Erdogan’s Libya rhetoric. When Erdogan speaks about the “apathy” of the international community or Turkey’s courage to do “whatever is necessary” to keep peace and stability in Libya, he is also shrewdly saying to his usual — conservative and third worldist — audience that Turkey is always available to stand by its needy “brothers,” regardless of what that may cost Ankara.
It is a message about Turkey’s selflessness and responsibility. But it is also an effective way of foregrounding Turkey’s insistence on its special standing in the Muslim, non-Western world. Erdogan wants the Muslim, developing world to see in Turkey the unfalteringly available big brother, eternally poised to rise to rescue the damned of the asymetrical world order.
In Libya and Syria (and in any other places where Turkey is contending for frontbench access and strategic primacy), Erdogan is erecting a “mini-empire” whereby he can project Turkey as an able and reliable ally—but also as a protector.
Erdogan’s growing dilemmas
But the problem with achieving peace through constructive chaos — the linchpin of Erdogan’s Libyan strategy — is the inherent unpredictability of chaos. More often than not, unforeseen repercussions and “unintended consequences” are the things that fuel and sustain wars. By this account, Erdogan’s “pan-Islamic revivalism” may cost Turkey’s already battered economy far above the Turkish leader’s own, initial estimations.
As a Turkish columnist perfectly put it in the aftermath of the Berlin conference, Erdogan’s Libyan dilemma is that while his diagnosis of the problem is spot on, his preferred cure is as or more dangerous than the pathology itself. It is a hit and hope strategy. At issue, therefore, is Erdogan’s moral grandstanding about being on the right side, as well as his suicidal overestimations of what Turkey can do alone in shaping regional conflicts.
For one thing, recent reports of internal divides in the Tripoli-based government have put in the limelight the limits of Turkey’s hegemonic adventurism. If anything, Fayez al-Sarraj’s announcement that he is ready to step down as the chief of the Tripoli-based government was destined to ignite debates about the fate of the series of maritime and security agreements Ankara and Tripoli signed in November 2019.
These agreements are so far the cornerstone of Turkey’s newfound boldness, self-assigned primacy on the Mediterranean front. Erdogan is adamant that Turkey is backing the legitimate, UN-recognized government of Libya, whereas other foreign powers are helping a “warlord” and a “coup plotter.” But what happens to this grand narrative of Turkey’s “legitimate” presence in Libya should the pro-West wing of the Tripoli government emerge victorious from the ongoing internal divides?
Exacerbating the uncertainty surrounding Turkey’s adventure in the Eastern Mediterranean are reports that, contrary to Ankara’s official claims, Tripoli was almost bullied into embracing Erdogan’s security offer in exchange for the maritime delimitation deal.
“Several officials say their side entered the deals with Turkey reluctantly… believing they had no choice. They desperately needed an ally” to fend off Haftar’s successive offensives on Tripoli, AP reported last July. “It was a relentless pressure,” one official told AP, explaining that Tripoli faced ruthless pressure from both Ankara and Turkey-supporting Islamists inside Libya’s UN-recognized government.
Almost rueful and apparently hoping for support from other foreign sponsors to liberate Tripoli from “full reliance” on Erdogan, the official added: “Turkey was the only country that promised support, and we agreed only after all doors were closed.”
But there is more to Turkey’s increasingly in-doubt foray in Libya. According to a recent report by Al Monitor, “many in Tripoli have come to believe that many concessions have been given to Turkey, while its military support has fallen short of securing control of all of Libya.”
Still, Erdogan’s sternest test, the biggest blockade on the road to fulfilling his wide-ranging ambitions on multiple fronts, will come when — or rather if — France’s Emmanuel Macron finally persuades the EU to end its “appeasement” of what he has described as Erdogan’s expansionist, anti-Western, and authoritarian proclivities.
The Erdogan Effect: Neo-Ottoman hubris and postcolonial sentimentality
Ostensibly, Erdogan’s foreign policy is chiefly motivated by the noble, uncontroversial aspiration of defying Western arrogance. For his supporters, the Turkish leader is raging a much-needed, welcome crusade against the West’s self-importance and patent paternalism when dealing with the so-called developing world.
As a regional hegemon, this argument goes, Turkey is only awakening to its increasing cultural and ideological appeal in places where the West has caused havoc and is no longer really welcome. Seen from this lens, Erdogan is supposedly showing the way to other countries that have grown tired of having to constantly operate in the permanent shadow of the US and Europe.
In Africa, say the proponents of this narrative, Turkey is only interested in challenging, defeating France’s “colonial and neocolonial” grip on Francophone countries. In the Middle East and North Africa, the point of Turkey’s assertiveness, they insist, is to simultaneously defend Ankara’s “natural” role as a regional powerhouse and counter Western — mainly French and American — hegemony and patronizing hubris.
In this sense, even if there are regular reports of clashes and mounting hostilities with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, as well as ambiguous connections with Iran and Russia, the grand narrative is adamant that the West — or “the Christian club,” as nativist Turkish nationalists like to call it — is Erdogan’s real enemy. Erdogan, then, is pitched as the nemesis of Western expansionism, neocolonialism.
This can be called the Erdogan effect. It is the cunning creation of an invincible Turkey led by unparalleled chutzpah to preserve its own national interests while standing up for all the marginalized and downtrodden of the Muslim, postcolonial world.
And Turkey’s increasingly popular soap operas have greatly contributed to propagating this tale of Turkish invincibility, of Turkish soldiers’ boundless courage and nobility. Nationalism, pride, honor, pure love, righteous revenge, are, among other “Turkish traits,” the most recurrently, exuberantly celebrated themes in most Turkish shows.
Of all the Turkish TV series released in recent years, none makes this point more poignantly than a five-minute scene from the 65th episode of Soz (Promise), an action, military-themed soap opera. In the scene, a seven-member team of Turkish Special Forces stands outside a heavily-guarded prison on foreign soil, ready to defy the odds to liberate a Turkish soldier.
“If you do not free my soldier in one minute, I and my team will not be responsible for whatever takes place here at your facility,” the Turkish commander threatens the prison’s commanding officer.
To this, the prison’s commander looks in bemusement at the Turkish officer. Struggling to make sense of how, exactly, a seven-member team expected to stand up to hundreds of well-trained officers on the other side, he mockingly asks: “Are you saying that the seven of you will engage us to free your soldier?” Imperturbed, the Turkish commander replies, “Try us.”
The next sentences are telling, perfectly depicting this sense of Turkish invincibility. “Ah, you Turks!” exclaims the prison’s commander. “It is because of this audacity of yours that you are always defeated. You are always alone against the whole world.”
These words have a brief impact on the Turkish side: The commander knows that his team is on foreign soil, meaning that there will normally be no reinforcements to help them. From afar, however, he hears Turkish heroic chants, voiced by hundreds of Turkish soldiers coming to help.
At this point, the Turkish commanding officer looks up to see what is happening; he finally has a rejoinder to the other side’s comment on Turks’ suicidal audacity. “You are right. Being a Turk is indeed very hard, because you’ve got to stand up to the whole world. But not being a Turk is even harder, because you’ve got to fight against the Turks.”
To be fair, the point here is not exactly to question whether Turkey’s newfound boldness, regional assertiveness is legitimate or justified. That would be unhelpful and unfair: It is a universal truth in geopolitics that rising nations are hungry to expand their power, project their dominium in faraway lands. The question, thus, is whether Turkey is currently equipped to chew what it has been biting for the past years.
Turkey is undoubtedly a regional powerhouse. But if the failure of Erdogan’s go-it-alone adventurism in Syria should have taught Ankara any lesson, it is this: While Turkey can be a commanding presence or an indispensable voice in a global or regional coalition to resolve deep-seated regional conflicts, it is not yet in the coveted, ever-shrinking league of countries that can sometimes ignore regional, global dynamics and stand alone against everybody else.
Turkey is neither Russia nor China, who right now can claim to have the strategic bandwidth to destabilize and sow panic in the post-1945 world order.