By George Friedman
History swirled around Turkey this week. The European Union summit with Turkey on managing the refugee flow from Syria was pushed back to March after terrorist explosions hit Ankara. The Turks blamed the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) for the attacks but on Feb. 19, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, active in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, claimed responsibility. In the wake of the bombings, the Turks warned the Russians, whose airstrikes have helped the YPG in Syria, that if such attacks continued Russia would be held responsible. The Russians responded by charging that the Turks were recruiting for the Islamic State. In the chaos of charges, counter-charges, demands and mutual recriminations, there was one constant this week: they all swirled around the Turks.
As I have argued, the Eurasian land mass is in crisis. Three of these crises are beginning to interact. The European crisis is an institutional one, as the European Union has failed to find lasting solutions to the financial and migration issues. The Russian crisis is both strategic and economic, with the loss of Ukraine posing a strategic threat to Russia and the collapse in oil prices causing a profound economic crisis. In the Middle East, the states created by the British and French after World War I are collapsing and emerging forces, like the Islamic State, are reshaping the region. Add to this the collapse of oil prices – in part due to a decrease in demand from China and its impact on regional producers – and there is no sign that the instability in the region will subside.
Each of these crises began as separate and distinct events. Inevitably, they are beginning to intersect. The Middle East crisis has generated a flow of refugees, particularly from Syria, who have, to a great extent, sought refuge in Turkey and Europe. This has placed a major strain on Europe’s administrative structure and cohesiveness. Middle Eastern groups like IS have launched terrorist attacks in Europe, such as the attack in Paris. This in turn has intensified European military operations in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. Both of these developments have in some ways affected European-Turkish relations.
The Russians began carrying out airstrikes in Syria in September 2015. This was in part due to their support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It also had to do with the events that led to the fall of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine. The operation in Syria allows Russia to demonstrate to its public that in spite of severe economic problems, Russia is a significant global power. However, the Russian intervention in Syria has run counter to Turkish interests. The Turks are hostile to Assad’s regime because of previous attacks on the Turkmen minority and Sunnis in Syria and the increasing threats to Turkey from the region. In November, Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft intruding in Turkish airspace. In addition, during the Ukraine crisis, Turks symbolically intervened against Russia and in favor of the Tatar minority in Crimea. The Turks have also on occasion harassed Russian ships in the Bosporus, a water way that is critical to Russian commerce and strategy and ultimately vulnerable to Turkish actions.
Finally, the dissolution of Syria and Iraq has drawn Turkey into the battles there, not only to defend the security of Turkish borders but also to shape events, particularly in northern Iraq. Here, Turkey has interests in Iraqi oil, but more important, in the evolution of the Kurdish region. The Kurds are a distinct national grouping, lacking their own state, with a large population in Turkey and significant population in Iraq, Iran and Syria. The Turkish Kurds have demanded increased autonomy and have carried out terrorist attacks against Turkey, including possibly the Ankara attacks this week. As Iraq disintegrates, the Turks are concerned that the Iraqi Kurds will seek to form an independent state that would serve as the nucleus for a broader Kurdish state. This would trigger a movement in Turkey to join the Kurdish state and, therefore, create a more potent secessionist movement than what currently exists.
Three distinct crises in Europe, Russia and the Middle East have Turkey at their center. The best analogy is that Turkey is the eye of a hurricane swirling in the western Eurasian land mass. Turkey is the one country that is physically and institutionally stable in the region. The institutional future of Europe, Russia and the Middle East is very much at risk. Turkey’s is fairly secure. Europe’s physical security, terrorism aside, is solid, but its political cohesion is eroding. Russia’s security, stability and regime are to some degree in question, while the Middle East is uncertain in all dimensions.
The global power, the United States, has adopted what might be called a complex position. It has stayed out of the European crisis, except for concerns that the problems of the EU might become the problem of NATO as well. This is a concern even though NATO has declined in military significance. The United States is interested in containing Russia but not engaging it. It is building an anti-Russian alliance anchored on Poland and Romania. In the Middle East, the United States is placing minimal forces on the ground, while using air power against IS. But Turkey is critical to the United States. Since the U.S. has minimal ground forces, it needs Turkey to commit to playing a bigger role. The U.S. wants Turkey to help manage the Middle East and to focus its policies on defeating IS and not on the Kurds. It wants Turkey to serve as a strong ally in NATO – both countries have substantially more military power than most of the other NATO states — and therefore the U.S. sees Turkey as a potential partner. And ultimately, if the Russian-American confrontation intensifies, the U.S. will see Turkey as part of the containment system and the Turks will see the Americans as guarantors of their security.
The U.S. has been called the indispensable country, in the sense that its power is such that it must participate in all global issues. Turkey is now also an indispensable country, not so much for its power – although that is not negligible – but rather for its geography. Its location means that each major regional conflict or issue converges on Turkey. That means none of the problems can be solved without Turkey, and Turkey can choose to complicate the problem simply by refusing the participate.
Refusing to participate is precisely what Turkey’s power was in the first phases of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On the one hand, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) saw a significant future role for Turkey in the region. On the other hand, Erdoğan recognized that Turkey had not yet reached the position internally and institutionally necessary to project power. Power projection requires resources, from intelligence to diplomacy to capital for investment, that Turkey had not yet developed. Therefore, rhetoric aside, he adopted a strategy of having no enemies. His strategy was not to become engaged in regional conflicts and certainly not conflicts outside the region. Until the post-2008 crises began to emerge, and particularly until the Arab Spring, Turkey was able to maintain that posture.
In many ways, Turkey is continuing to maintain that posture in a very different environment. Ankara opposes the Assad government, but it understands the risks of power projection, and has adopted a strategy of covert involvement in the Syrian conflict on multiple sides rather than overt involvement. It also intends its covert activities to be minimal, exposing it to the least possible risk of retaliation. Turkey plans its involvement to be broad, so it curries favor – and influence – with many factions.
It has been noted by many – and not just the Russians – that the Turks seem to be facilitating or, at the very least, turning a blind eye to some aspects of IS operations. These suspicions particularly focused on the movement of manpower and permitting financial and commercial transactions through Turkey. If this is the case – and I tend to believe it is, although it is hard to see in the murk – then it is part of a coherent strategy, the follow on to Turkey’s ‘no enemies’ strategy. IS is a regional power, and minimizing direct conflict with it makes sense if the Turks are not prepared to directly engage in war, as they presently are not. Also, given the limited engagement of other powers, like Russia and the United States, Turkey is not prepared to absorb the risk. Russia and the U.S. can withdraw. Turkey cannot.
For the Turks, the key distinction between major threats and minor ones is whether they are internal or external. The Kurds are internal to Turkey, and what they do matters intensely. Since the Kurds also exist outside of Turkey, the Turks must increase their involvement in Iraq or Syria. The Turkish government may see Assad as an enemy, but the civil war has reduced his threat. Therefore, its involvement in Syria has over time been covert and actually quite minimal. The Turks did not pose the primary threat to the Assad regime.
The Europeans are asking the Turks to stem the flow of Syrian refugees. This is a request that is coming from the European Union, which, despite its rhetoric, opposes Turkey’s application for membership. If Turkey blocks Syrian refugees from coming across the border, it will be condemned by Europe on humanitarian grounds. If it holds the refugees in Turkey, it creates national security and economic issues for itself in order to save Europe from the same challenges. Europe is offering money to Turkey to take this risk. Turkey could certainly use the money but it doesn’t need it enough to make the potential risk worthwhile. It maintains its ‘no enemies’ stance, but accepts the minimal risk involved in irritating the Europeans.
Similarly, while Russian-Turkish tensions are substantial, neither the Russians nor Turks want a conflict. At this point, neither can invade the other. Turkey has the upper hand in that its control of the Bosporus poses a significant strategic problem for the Russians. Therefore, the policy of ‘no enemies’ holds. There is anger between the two countries but neither intend to have an extended military engagement. This poses a greater military problem for Russia than Turkey. Russia is projecting power in Syria, and Turkey can do much to interfere with Russian lines of supply. But merely posing a threat to Russia is sufficient for Turkish needs. It need not act on it.
In the Arab world, the Turks see few opportunities and many risks. They want the friendship of the United States but know the U.S. can’t afford to alienate Turkey in the long run. Therefore, Turkey has no need to play the role that the United States has assigned it, which is to bear the brunt of the war against IS while leaving the Syrian Kurds to pursue their own war. Neither of these American requirements attract Turkey at this point. The Turks may flirt with these objectives and with European ideas, but ultimately they will pursue their own strategy.
Turkey has two strategies. One is to contain the threat of a Kurdish state. The second is to avoid more than minimal and covert involvement on multiple sides on issues surrounding it. But this cannot be the long-term strategy. The Arab world is disintegrating. Russia has lost control of Crimea and is staggering under the load of low oil prices. It has now reportedly decided to cut military spending, decreasing the likelihood it can expand its regional power. Meanwhile, the Europeans have a problem that is not a Turkish problem. They will talk but not act.
But step back and look at what is happening. There is disintegration in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. The Turks can hold back on involvement, but as the disintegration increases, the potential threats do as well. And so do the commercial and strategic opportunities. The Middle East, southeastern Europe and even southern Ukraine and the Black Sea Basin were part of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed about a century ago. Some of this area – such as the eastern Mediterranean – was pursued by the Ottomans to increase the power of their empire. In other parts, the Ottomans asserted their authority in order to stabilize the areas on its borders. That was the Middle East.
When we look at the range of instability and the manner in which it intersects in Turkey, we note an interesting thing. Turkey was the core of the Ottoman Empire. Beyond Erdoğan’s caution, there is a real ambition, which is the resurrection of that empire. I have written that Turkey will be, by the the middle of the century, a major regional power. As we look at the news of this past week, it is becoming clearer how that will happen.
The Turkish Week: Caution and Ambition
By George Friedman