Turkey’s recent purchase of the S-400 caused outrage for its defiance of the NATO alliance. But this action was a part of a much broader pattern in President Erdogan’s foreign policy: one which has increasingly engaged in foreign aggression, proxy warfare, saber-rattling and ethnic cleansing.
In addition to persecuting those Kurds who live within Turkey’s borders, Erdogan has attacked Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s devastating invasion of northern Syria has displaced roughly 600,000 people, and critically endangered already persecuted religious minorities such as Yazidis and Christians. Turkey is also targeting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the United States’ most reliable partner in Syria and the coalition most responsible for the demise of ISIS.
Failure to hold Turkey accountable for its actions in Syria has emboldened Erdogan to act in other countries. The Turkish military is now heavily involved in Libya, where its presence and material support has prolonged an already bloody decade-long civil war. Meanwhile in the contested Caucasian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey provided key material support to Azerbaijan as it sought to crush the Armenian-backed Republic of Artsakh, escalating the conflict into a much bloodier war than it had been.
- Military Occupation
- Proxy Warfare/ Turkish Military Hardware Present
- Military Harassment
- Election Interference
Turkey is illegally occupying a large portion of Northern Syria – specifically Kurdish-majority areas on its border. Since it began its occupation, the Turkish military has engaged in ethnic cleansing and fomenting religious extremism. As a neighbor of Syria and host to the largest portion of Syrian refugees in the world, Turkey has been a stakeholder in Syrian affairs since the start of the civil war in 2011. While Erdogan initially supported efforts to overthrow Bashar Al Assad, his aims have since turned towards stopping suspected Kurdish political ambitions in the region. Since 2014, the Turkish military has been far more concerned with destroying Kurdish aspirations than defeating jihadist groups or tempering Assad’s destructive hold.
When ISIS conquered large swaths of Syrian territory, the Turkish military sat by idly on its side of the border as the former crushed nearly all Kurdish resistance. It was only when the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) managed to turn the tide against ISIS that Erdogan decided to turn its forces against the Kurds. As the SDF were fighting ISIS, it also had to fight off Turkish attacks from air and artillery – which proved extremely counterproductive to NATO’s fight against ISIS. These actions once again prove Turkey to be an unreliable NATO member, putting its own concerns about the Kurds before the interests of not only its NATO allies but of long-lasting peace in the region. Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria has lasted for two years now, and its showing no signs of ending any time soon. The longer Turkey’s involvement in Syria continues, the less likely it will become a functional or even unified state again.
When ISIS was defeated, the Turkish military launched two invasions into Kurdish-held territory. The first, in early 2018 around the Canton of Afrin, resulted in 300,000 civilians displaced and their replacement with ethnic Arab and Turkmens. Afrin’s 10,000 Yazidis have all had to flee, and many of them are still missing. In October 2019, Turkey staged an even larger invasion of Kurdish-held territory, resulting an additional displacement of 300,000 people and a similar pattern of ethnic cleansing and resettlement.
SDF leader Mazloum Kobani describes the Turkish occupation of Syrian Kurdish land: “The Turkish invasion caused tremendous harm to our people. Turkey invaded a part of Syria. It brought terrorist groups into the areas inhabited by our people. I am referring to al-Qaeda-linked groups, radical Islamic groups. Our people suffered mass displacement. They were subjected to demographic engineering and ethnic cleansing. Those Kurds can no longer return to their homes.”
Ankara has shown that it has no plans to leave northern Syria. Erdogan is treating the region like a colony for resettlement, with plans to establish a university in the works, in addition to the use of Kurdish agricultural land to sell olive products, some of which even end up being sold in the European Union and the United States. Turkey’s mission in Syria is to thwart Kurdish political aspirations and resettle Kurdish majority areas with Arabs and Turkmen.
Turkish activity in Iraq, particularly in the Kurdish Regional Government in the north, has seen a massive uptick under President Erdogan. The Turkish air force regularly conducts bombing campaigns against suspected PKK targets in the mountainous border region, always with zero consideration for Iraq’s territorial integrity. Erdogan is increasingly treating Iraq like it is an extension of Turkish territory, useful only for the pursuit of regional military ambitions and anti-Kurdish raids.
Turkey was once a positive influence in Iraq, both for the government of Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. In the 2000s, Erdogan defied expectations by opening relations with the Kurdish government, helping to restore its economy and turn it into a relatively booming region – in return, Turkey became the largest trading partner for the KRG and its main window to the rest of the world.
When Turkey resumed its conflict with the PKK in 2015, it spelt the end to any positive influence that it could play in Iraq. Any place that is suspected of harboring PKK members is indiscriminately bombed, and Ankara ignored the high rate of civilian causalities. Turkey also illegally occupies several military bases, most significant among them at Bashiqa, and has stated its intention to build more. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has made Turkey’s motives in the region clear, saying “Just as we did in Syria, we will build a base here and monitor the region. We will control this route.”
As US influence wanes in Iraq, Turkey is filling the vacuum alongside Iran. Erdogan has shown that he has no problem working with Iran to attack Kurdish targets within Iraq, despite the asymmetrical threat that Iran poses to Turkey’s interest in the region. As in Syria, Erdogan has clearly displayed that in Iraq, the desire to destroy Kurdish political aspirations triumphs over all other considerations.
Turkish involvement in Cyprus has escalated under President Erdogan. Since the Turkish invasion in 1974, Cyprus has been split, with Turkey occupying roughly 33% of the island’s northern region. The unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has traditionally followed in Turkey’s footsteps, though since Erdogan’s election the two states have found themselves increasingly at odds with each other.
In 2020, as Erdogan’s Eastern Mediterranean ambitions grew, he sought to influence the election in Cyprus against its staunchly secular president Mustafa Akinci. Akinci alleged that Turkish officials had threatened him with his life if he did not withdraw his candidacy, while the pro-government press in Turkey ran a smear campaign against him across Turkey and Cyprus. The result was the election of the staunchly pro-Turkey Ersin Tatar, who supports a two-state solution for the Cypriot issue rather than a federated single state issue like his predecessors.
Since Tatar’s election, Turkey has played a much larger role in Cypriot issues, demanding that Northern Cyprus enact an Islamist education and pushing for the implementation of a two-state solution on the global stage. This increased role in northern Cyprus means that Turkish Cypriots are watching their political agency erode as Ankara steps up its legally dubious role on the island. Turkey’s military occupation is not meant to be permanent, but a two-state solution, as opposed to a unified multiethnic Cyprus would give Turkey a reason to stay in Cyprus for as long as it pleases, and to get involved more deeply in Eastern Mediterranean affairs.
Although Turkey and Greece are de jure allies as fellow NATO members, President Erdogan treats Greece like an enemy. Rather than build on the once promised foreign policy doctrine of “zero problems with neighbors”, Erdogan has instead opted to provoke Greece by creating one of the most heated border disputes today.
With Greece’s many islands, some of which are almost a stone’s throw away from Turkey, borders with Turkey are naturally confusing. Erdogan has taken advantage of this confusion to demand the redrawing of maritime boundaries based on the expansionist policy of mavi vatan, which postulates that Turkey should take control of the entirety of the eastern Mediterranean region, as well as other regions historically controlled by the Ottoman Empire – all the way to the Atlantic coast of Morocco.
In November 2019, Ankara signed a maritime border agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) which divided the Mediterranean Sea between the two countries down the middle, with zero consideration for the Greek territory between Turkey and Libya – even prominent islands such as Rhodes or Crete. Turkey then began to claim drilling rights in suspected oil reserve sites in Greek territory.
In 2020, despite strong Greek protest against Turkey’s disregard for its borders, Ankara sent its navy into Greece’s maritime borders, including the research vessel Oruc Reis, which it sent south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Erdogan also drummed up anti-Greek rhetoric at home, demanding that Greece bow to Turkish territorial demands and reconsider its maritime borders – even though both countries long ago signed agreements about their borders. “They’re either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or in the field with painful experiences” the Turkish president said about its Greek ally.
Erdogan has taken advantage of the chaos caused by the aftermath of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya that overthrew the decades-long rule of Muammar Gaddafi. While Turkey played a limited role in the 2011 conflict, it has taken the side of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the still ongoing civil war between the (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA). Turkish involvement in the Libyan Civil War sees Ankara pitted against several geostrategic players, most notably Egypt, its main rival in the Arab world, and Russia.
Although there is a United Nations arms embargo on Libya, Turkey has turned the country into a testing ground for its home-grown weapons industry. In 2020, Turkey sent four cargo ships full of weapons to the GNA, most critically 86 Turkish-made TB2 drones, which have been credited for turning the civil war in the GNA’s favor and indefinitely extending the already decade-old conflict. There are reportedly at least 100 Turkish military advisors in Libya, as well as 4,000 Syrian mercenaries sent by Ankara, some of whom are child soldiers as young as 14 years old.
Turkey sees two opportunities in Libya. Erdogan wishes to install an Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood-friendly government through the GNA—one which will operate in a similar majoritarian manner as the AKP does at home. Doing so will provide a bulwark against Egypt and install a pro-Turkey country in Northern Africa.
But Turkey’s biggest interest in Libya is economic. For Turkey’s blue homeland doctrine to become effective, it needs Libya’s cooperation: to win Libya over would be to secure a large portion of the waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, facilitating Turkey’s exploration of suspected oil deposits in the region. Turkey needs Libya if it is to challenge Greece’s established borders, and courting Libya is already in its post-conflict calculations; the Turkish-Libya business council predicts that Turkey will increase its market share in the Libyan economy to roughly 30%.