Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday he is closely monitoring the aftermath of the assassination of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad “for its potential risks to regional peace and stability,” and added with certainty that “this [crisis] won’t end here.” “They have done everything and continue to do so to constantly turn the Middle East into something like a lake of blood,” he stressed and urged all leaders near and far to take utmost restraint dealing with this critical moment in the region. “We need to make sure to let diplomacy get the lead. If this stability is broken, Iran will suffer; Iraq will suffer; Turkey will suffer.”
Turkey’s policies however in its own weight and capacity did not always help to calm down the rough edges in its neighborhood. Case in point: TurkStream, S-400 (Syria) and Libya. TurkStream, which will transport Russian natural gas across the Black Sea and connect it to the Turkish pipeline system onshore for domestic and foreign distribution, will unquestionably benefit Russia far more than it will Turkey. Putin and Erdogan met in Istanbul on Jan. 8 to launch the pipeline.
Kremlin reported in advance Putin would discuss Turkey’s Jan. 2 parliamentary decision to send troops to support Libya’s UN-recognized government, which is fighting to survive a months long offensive on Tripoli by rebel commander Khalifa Haftar, who receives the support from Russia and a number of other countries.
Despite its disagreement with Russia on Libya, Erdogan’s government has cooperated with Moscow in Syria — which included Turkey buying the long-range surface-to-air missile defense system S-400s and senselessly and timelessly casting doubt on its Western orientation and NATO membership. Both because of the TurkStream and the S-400 purchase, Turkey faces potential U.S. sanctions.
Yet Erdogan’s government talks — untruthfully — as though it had no choice in either decision. Turkey could have closely cooperated with Russia in Syria without raising questions about its commitment to the Western alliance. It did not really need to buy the S400s. And it certainly could have sought diplomatic dialogue with Haftar or the countries supporting him to secure two recent agreements signed by Libyan Government of National Accord: one about maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea and one on expanded security and military cooperation. If the point of sending Turkish troops to Libya is to keep the Fayez al-Sarraj government in place, this deal will likely become void sometime in the horizon, and Turkey should not depend on Sarraj to protect its Eastern Mediterranean interests.
If there are obviously other ways to promote Turkish interests, why do these actions continuously escalate existing problems and turn them into disasters? With Iraq in the spotlight again after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, will it really serve Turkey’s interests to take sides in the Libyan civil war? How will that move help further improve any kind of whatever left of stability in the region? Will that calm down the sectarian unrest? Is it possible that Erdogan really thinks he’s capable of managing anything and everyone to serve his best interests? Could he be thinking just the presence of a parliamentary motion authorizing sending off troops be enough to bring Haftar to his knees? Or could he be in it to pursue an Islamic agenda in the region and still push for a “Muslim Brotherhood belt”?
The answer is not clear, but any of those options could be motivating Turkey’s leadership. For years they took pride in putting down the “Old Turkey” and building the “New Turkey,” and now it is clear that a new world order is gradually taking shape in the Middle East and there is hardly anyone with a clear mind who really believes Turkey is in the right direction. It seems impossible to trust governments to read these developments right when everything politicians do seems designed only to keep them in office. Many in Ankara whisper – without proof – that the Libyan decision could only have come about with some financial benefit that’s not in public eye.
Erdogan has become a master of such diversionary politics. He did not do it all alone, but there are only a few left around him when he first established the Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.). For example, he promoted his foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu, to the country’s foreign minister and premier, respectively — and now the two have fallen out. Davutoglu resigned from the A.K.P. in September and formed his own “Future Party” in December. In between, Erdogan accused him of corruption and Davutoglu warned him if he were to open his mouth about the true story of how the terrorist attacks that claimed nearly 1,000 lives between the repeated elections of 2015, he won’t be able to face the nation. Yet despite this rift, Erdogan seems still to be following Davutoglu-era foreign policy.
Davutoglu’s opposition to sending troops to Libya could be either just for the sake of doing something against Erdogan or a way of admitting his mistakes in Syria — that it was wrong to push Assad to share power with Muslim Brotherhood. Accordingly, when Davutoglu met Assad in August 2011 for a meeting that lasted over six-long-hours, he persuaded him to go to an election on the condition that four members of the Muslim Brotherhood take ministerial positions in the new government. In September 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad personally confirmed this episode to a visiting CHP delegation, headed by Faruk Logoğlu. Assad reportedly said, “Davutoğlu’s request was a massive, unconscionable intrusion into our affairs. I am the head of this state and I decide who is and who is not going to be in my government. That was the moment when our ties went bad.” Logoğlu, also one of the former Turkish ambassadors to Washington, D.C., said, “Keep in mind that according to Baath ideology, Syria is a secular state.”
The rest is history. Erdogan’s government made it a policy to overthrow the Assad regime and turned Turkey’s 911-kilometer border with Syria into a freeway for foreign fighters to infiltrate and create as much chaos and bloodshed as possible. With half a million dead and over 6 million either seeking refuge in foreign countries or being displaced in their own lands, Syria is now a mess because the Erdogan governments initially believed they could create a “Muslim Brotherhood belt” in these Arab countries torn by revolution.
Erdogan’s motivation sending out troops to Libya could still be the same and he could still believe that all these former Ottoman lands will eventually gather under his leadership. Or it could very likely be possible that he’s awoken to the emptiness of this dream, but feels so trapped in it with no clear easy exit to walk back the path without losing his office, he just digs deeper into the problem.
Retired Turkish Brigadier Haldun Solmazturk is concerned that Turkey’s global military footprint is “exceeding its limit of measured risk taking capacity.” Turkey has troops in Somalia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Balkans, and soon in Libya, as well as the Turkish navy patrols the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to protect energy and territorial interests. “If something breaks out from somewhere,” he said, Turkey could find itself in difficulty responding the needs.
What matters now is that Turkey should not be pulled into the growing fire in the Middle East — not that it knows how to avert such dangers. But it is clear that if the Muslim Brotherhood or the surge of Sunni Islamic politics are pursued, the security threat in the region will quadruple, bringing unprecedented risks to Europe and the Western alliance. Just as Erdogan said, this is the time for smart diplomacy to take action – but it is no where to be found.