Turkey’s foreign policy and the myth of neo-Ottomanism

Contrary to what many observers believe, Turkey’s foreign policy is not expansionist. It is defensive and pragmatic.

Turkish troops return after a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol
Turkish troops return after a joint US-Turkey patrol in northern Syria, as seen from near the Turkish town of Akcakale, Turkey, on September 8, 2019 [Reuters/Murad Sezer]

Over the past few years, Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy has been felt throughout its neighbourhood. In July, following the clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ankara launched military exercises with the Azerbaijani army, making it clear it stood by its ally.

In May, Turkish military support helped the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli to expel the forces of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Russia, Egypt and the UAE, from most of western Libya.

In February, Turkey’s military intervention aborted an attempt by the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies to take control of the last opposition stronghold in Syria’s Idlib province and forced Moscow to honour the 2018 de-escalation zone agreement.

Indeed, today Turkish foreign policy has sway from the Western Balkans and the Caucasus to the Gulf and all the way to the Horn of Africa. This has led some analysts to perceive Turkish policies as “neo-Ottoman” ambitions for regional hegemony. Pointing at official rhetoric, they have concluded that Ankara’s strategy is guided by “neo-Ottoman ideology”.

But beyond rhetoric and symbolic gestures, Turkey’s foreign policy appears very much defensive in nature and it is determined by three main considerations: Internal stability and territorial integrity; a perceived threat of regional rivals filling the vacuum left behind by the United States in the Middle East; and energy independence.

Defending domestic stability

Turkey’s projection of power marks a clean break from the early years of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) government, which revolved around the “zero problems with neighbours” doctrine, developed by then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. This doctrine was eclipsed by the events of the “Arab Spring” and the vacuum left behind by the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

The rush by various regional powers to determine the outcome of the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 and Washington’s dwindling interest in the region forced Turkey to reconsider its regional approach. The 2015 conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an armed uprising against the Turkish states for more than 40 years, and the July 2016 failed coup attempt only reinforced this thinking, as the Turkish leadership became increasingly concerned about external threats to domestic stability.

In 2017, the Turkish constitution was amended to give the presidency sweeping powers in the realm of foreign and security policy, which enabled President Erdogan to pursue a more assertive regional strategy.

The first major change in policy happened in the Syria file. By 2016, Ankara had realised it had lost the opportunity to shape the outcome of the Syrian conflict. Although it has a 900km (559-mile) border with Syria, it was clear it had failed to achieve any of its key policy objectives in the Syrian civil war: Removing the regime of Bashar al-Assad and installing a friendly government in Damascus.

By contrast, Russia and Iran, both of which do not share borders with Syria, were more successful in securing their interests in the war-stricken country. They managed to save the Assad regime from collapsing and put a stop to the advance of the Turkish-backed opposition.

Following the September 2015 Russian military intervention in support of the Assad regime, Turkey’s ability to influence the course of the conflict was reduced to a minimum. US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian branch of PKK, in the fight against ISIL (ISIS) also alarmed the Turkish government and forced it to rethink its Syria policy.

As a result, it set a more modest objective: To prevent the establishment of a PKK-dominated Kurdish enclave along the southern border, which could destabilise Turkey’s Kurdish regions. Ankara softened its position on al-Assad in order to win Russia’s approval for its military intervention in the north and northwest of Syria to pursue this new goal.

Thus, Turkish interests in Syria became confined to the areas adjacent to its borders and are no longer concerned with the future of the regime in Damascus. Containing the destabilising effect of the Syrian conflict on its own territory became Ankara’s main concern.

Regional threats and energy independence

An important driver of Turkey’s foreign policy is also energy security, which itself is intertwined with various threats stemming from regional rivals. Currently, Russia and Iran supply approximately 80 percent of Turkey’s energy needs. Its rivalry with both puts Ankara in a delicate position.

That is why, over the past few years it has pursued diversification of energy supplies and increased its efforts in energy exploration in adjacent waters, including the Mediterranean Sea. This has directly affected its policy on Libya.

When the second Libyan civil war in 2014 broke out, as Haftar sought to unite Libya under his rule, Turkey did not seem interested in playing any major role in the Libyan conflict. Its attention was focused on next-door Syria and on other immediate threats. Turkish support for the Tripoli-based GNA was limited to media and diplomatic backing.

The establishment of the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF) in early 2019 by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA) increased Turkey’s sense of insecurity, as it was excluded from this regional arrangement to transform the Eastern Mediterranean into a major energy hub.

It was then that Libya emerged as Turkey’s most promising opportunity to counter efforts to isolate it. Increasing hostility by Egypt and the UAE also hastened this change of policy.

In November 2019, the Turkish government signed an agreement with the GNA on maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean, which fundamentally altered the boundaries of the exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean, signalling Turkey’s intent to block any project to export energy to Europe without its consent. Hence, the survival of the GNA in Tripoli became a core Turkish interest. When Haftar renewed his offensive on Tripoli earlier this year, Turkey put its weight behind the GNA, changing the dynamic of the Libyan conflict.

Regional rivalry with the UAE, which Turkey suspects of being involved in the 2016 coup attempt and in supporting the YPG and the PKK, also prompted it in 2017 to take action on the blockade against Qatar, its main Arab ally and an increasingly important gas supplier.

The Turkish government interpreted the actions by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt as an attempt to carry out regime change in Doha – a sort of a follow-up on the coup attempt in Turkey.

Since 2011, Abu Dhabi, along with its allies in Riyadh, has sought to undermine the rise of Islamist-leaning forces across the Arab world who Ankara has found common ground with. In 2013, the UAE helped orchestrate the military coup against Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi.

After the coup attempt failed in Turkey, the UAE urged Saudi Arabia and other regional allies to go after Qatar. By supporting Qatar, Turkey was in fact defending itself and shoring up its position vis-a-vis its rival. The Turkish parliament rushed to ratify the military agreement with Doha and troops were dispatched to the allied country to deter possible Saudi-Emirati military action.

Thus, behind what appears to be an aggressive Turkish foreign policy lies a defensive pragmatism rather than an ambition to restore Ottoman glory. Indeed, in most of its power projection undertakings, Turkey’s hand has been forced by external circumstances, rather than an expansionist drive. This is one of the many consequences of the US pivot out of the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.