Turkey’s military adventurism in Syria and Iraq has long spurred talk that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to reclaim areas of the former Ottoman Empire, but a string of more recent clashes has sparked mounting concern in Washington that a key NATO ally has become a potentially dangerous and destabilizing geopolitical force.
At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey seems embroiled in clashes wherever one looks: a military escalation with Greece over Mediterranean drilling rights, siding heavily with Azerbaijan in its suddenly hot war with Armenia, an angry political exchange with French President Emmanuel Macron over Islam and politician rights.
The Trump administration has struggled for four years to influence Turkey’s behavior as a NATO ally, with limited success despite the personal bond forged between Mr. Erdogan and President Trump. Turkey’s claims to oil and natural gas fields in the Mediterranean have frustrated Western Europe and Israel, and its shipment of Syrian jihadis to Libya has outraged Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Then there is Turkey’s downright confusing relationship with traditional rival Russia. The Erdogan government is engaged with Moscow in three proxy wars — in Syria, Libya and now Azerbaijan — despite its defiance last year of NATO and the U.S. by proceeding with the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system for the Turkish military.
Mr. Erdogan, who came to power nearly two decades ago with a reputation as a moderate Islamist, has consolidated his power and sharpened Turkey’s bid for greater influence its region since winning reelection as president in 2018. Having survived a military coup attempt in 2016, he has cemented increasingly authoritarian powers since winning a controversial national referendum.
The period has also been one of historic economic downturn in Turkey. The Turkish lira has plummeted to an all-time low against the dollar over the past three years, and regional analysts say Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy is a bid by Mr. Erdogan to reverse, or at least distract from, the country’s domestic challenges.
“Erdogan is using this overseas adventurism to draw the Turkish public’s attention away from how poorly the Turkish economy is doing,” said Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The standoff between Turkey and Greece this summer began after Ankara dispatched a research vessel accompanied by Turkish warships to search for energy reserves off Greece’s coast. The the two NATO members engaged in competing military exercises that nearly led to a clash in mid-August when a Turkish and a Greek warship collided.
“We will not back down in the face of sanctions and threats,” the blunt-speaking Mr. Erdogan said in August. “We will never bow to banditry on our continental shelf.”
Ms. Ellehuus said in an interview that the aggressive claims fit with Mr. Erdogan’s aim to stir up nationalistic fervor inside Turkey, reviving long-standing territorial disputes with Greece.
“Erdogan is all about staying in power, and in order to do that, he needs the support of Turkish nationalists,” Ms. Ellehuus said.
She noted the Turkish president’s outspoken backing for right-wing Turkish Cypriot nationalist Ersin Tatar, who was elected leader of Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus this month. Mr. Tartar ran on a promise to push for Turkish Cypriot independence and abandon long-running United Nations-led efforts to reunify northern Cyprus with the Greek Cypriot in the south of the divided island.
Away from the friction with Greece, Ms. Ellehuus said, the Erdogan government’s move are likely also driven by a desire to make money for an elite sector of Turkish companies. Part of Ankara’s motivation for getting militarily involved in Libya and Azerbaijan, she said, is a desire to line up key Turkish weapons sales and maintenance contracts with both of those nations as a cushion should Turkey’s economy continue to struggle.
The ‘leading Muslim power’
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, said there is a sentiment within Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party — a nationalist party known by its Turkish acronym, AKP — that Turkey should exert its influence in conflicts across the region and “should be a leading Muslim power.”
As Arab Gulf states have softened their hostility toward Israel in recent months, Turkey remains an outspoken champion of the Palestinian cause, a critic of the Trump administration’s Middle East policies and a supporter of the Palestinian group Hamas, despite the State Department’s designation of it as a terrorist organization. Turkey has steadfastly backed the Tripoli-based Libyan government despite criticism in the region that it has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey also has been outspoken in support for Azerbaijan, a largely Muslim state, in its deadly clash with Christian Armenia over control of the Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, even as Russia and the U.S. try to forge a cease-fire.
“The world must support the right side in the Nagorno-Karabakh tension, and the right side is Azerbaijan,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on a visit early last month. “The international community treats the occupier, Armenia, and the victim, Azerbaijan, the same. This approach does not lead to a solution to the conflict.”
The catch, Mr. Cook said, is that while Mr. Erdogan’s stands may be playing well with his core constituency in Turkey, Ankara’s destabilizing role in the region is bringing sharp and rising criticism abroad.
“I wouldn’t say Turkey is the principled party here by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. Cook said. “Turkey has done quite a bit to undermine stability in the region and to undermine U.S. efforts to mediate in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as to undermine U.S. efforts in the fight against [the Islamic State group] in Syria.”
Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian war across its borders, which has sent millions fleeing to refugee camps inside Turkey, has unnerved U.S. officials. Turks see the Syrian Kurds, who have proved the Pentagon’s most effective allies in defeating the Islamic State, as closely tied to the long-running Kurdish separatist movement inside Turkey.
Turkish military forces reportedly have been shipping militants from jihadi groups previously active in Syria to Libya to battle a Russia-backed rebel movement that Mr. Trump once personally praised as a key ground-level force against terrorism in North Africa.
More recent reports say Ankara has been transporting hundreds of battle-hardened Syrian fighters to aid Azerbaijan’s fight with Armenia. Azerbaijan has strongly denied those reports and called them “pure Russian propaganda.”
The Armenian-Azerbaijani war, re-igniting a frozen conflict that dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, has the potential to draw Turkey into an even more momentous foreign policy clash. Russia has close security ties with Armenia, and the fighting jeopardizes key oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia and connect to Turkey.
Analysts warn of the rising prospect of an all-out regional war that could draw in other players, most notably Iran.
Mr. Erdogan has inflamed the situation by openly criticizing France, the U.S. and Russia — the three chairs of the Minsk Group, which was set up in 1992 to find a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — for what he calls their failure to resolve the issue for 30 years.
The U.S., Russia and France struggled throughout October to mediate a solution to the conflict. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts for talks in Washington late last month, but a cease-fire appeared to break down quickly as each side accused the other of violations.
Some argue that Turkey remains the antagonist and that Mr. Erdogan won’t respond to the Trump administration’s overtures because of the ill will over the Russian S-400 missile defense purchase.
The U.S. has sent mixed signals of its own. Mr. Trump reportedly has a strong rapport with Mr. Erdogan, but many in his administration and on Capitol Hill take a much dimmer view of the Turkish president.
Mr. Erdogan recently appeared to be taunting the U.S. over threats of new sanctions over the S-400 deal and over a possible Turkish intervention in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict.
“We are not a tribal state,” he told a gathering of his ruling party Oct. 25. “We are Turkey.”
U.S. officials have warned that Turkey could use the S-400 to gather data on the capabilities of the American-made F-35 stealth fighter jet and that such information in turn could end up in Russian hands. The U.S. kicked Turkey out of the F-35 development program last year, and the Pentagon slammed Ankara last week after Mr. Erdogan confirmed that Turkey had tested the S-400.
But the U.S. administration has stopped short of imposing sanctions despite pressure from Republican and Democratic lawmakers who say the White House is required by law to act.
Mr. Cook told The Times that the legislation is “very specific” in this regard but Mr. Trump has “blown it off.”
Mr. Cook said a potential Biden administration in Washington might impose the sanctions and be tougher on Turkey on other issues as well.
Whoever wins the presidential election, he said, should “recognize that Turkey views the world differently and has different goals and priorities than the United States and that Turkey doesn’t necessarily see the U.S.-led order in the region as very good for Turkey’s power.”
The U.S., he added, should embrace a policy of working “against the Turks in some areas and cooperating with them in others,” and keep in mind that “Erdogan tends to respond to tough messages and not efforts to placate him.”
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