Brief n.8, January 2021

In the past couple of years Turkish foreign policy had been taking an ideological turn. Turkey wants to become the leader of the Muslim world, using the Muslim discrimination narrative to justify its geopolitical ambitions. Turkey considers that Muslims lack a decisive voice in the most important international organization – the UN. Erdogan’s approach to global politics can be summed up as "the world is bigger than five”. This refers to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, whose unconditional influence, according to Turkey, is no longer relevant. As a result, the new international reality should be formalized in new international political forms and institutions.

Erdogan systematically chastises Western racism, which, according to Erdogan, is manifested in the form of Islamophobia. Islamophobia is a favorite topic of discussion in expert circles close to the Turkish leadership. Every year a number of analytical reports is devoted to manifestations of Islamophobia around the globe. Accordingly, Turkey tries to play the role of the main Muslim advocate on the international arena. Domestically, the topic of Islamophobia is constantly intertwined with the criticism of Turkish "fascism" in the 1930s and 1940s, during the rule of the People's Republican Party. Kemalist Turkey is regularly accused of close ties to fascist Italy, repressions against Muslims and disregard for the Ottoman traditions and culture.


Turkey's official position on the Syrian settlement is based on unconditional recognition of Syrian territorial integrity, as well as the principle that the fate of Syria should be decided by Syrians. In this regard, Turkey's position is no different than that of Russia or Iran. However, Turkey dims unacceptable that the Alawite (Nusairite) minority, and especially the Assad family and the clan associated with it, remains in power in Syria. Turkey views the Assad regime as criminal and backs international efforts to organize a constitutional reform in Syria, expecting that a new constitution would give power to the Sunni majority. In this case, Turkey's role in Syrian affairs would rapidly increase.

Turkey's policy in the Syrian territories under its control (Afrin and several others) may be viewes as a form of annexation. Turkey is actively developing regional infrastructure (roads, energy grid, mobile communications) and has introduced the Turkish lira. Some Turkish observers consider that Turkey is thus fulfilling the so-called "National Oath," adopted in 1920 by members of the Ottoman parliament. This document marked the "national territories" of Turkey after the actual collapse of the empire. According to the "National Oath," cities like Aleppo, Mosul, Batum, Western Thrace and Cyprus were to be part of the new Turkish state and Turkey has never abandoned its claims to these territories. Some opposition politicians are actively discussing the idea that by the centenary of the Republic of Turkey (2023), Erdogan wants to "restart" Turkey on new principles, finally rejecting Kemalism and its "heavy secular past," and re-establish Turkey in new boundaries.

At the same time, given the situation in Syria and Iraq, Turkey is facing much more prosaic tasks related to the ongoing struggle against the Kurdistan Workers' Party and its affiliates. Turkey, cooperating in this struggle with Iraqi Kurdistan, controls some Iraqi territories without the consent of the Iraqi government, while trying to persuade the Iraqis to strengthen the Turkish military presence in the Qandil Mountains, to have access to the Iraqi air space. Meanwhile Turkish support of the armed opposition groups in Syria continues. In February 2020 Turkey suffered serious losses (36 Turkish servicemen were killed) in Idlib area as a result of an air strike. Turkey blamed Russian forces for the strike. The incident caused considerable aggravation in the Turkish-Russian relations

With the new agreement between Turkey and Russia, Turkish observation posts were moved to new locations and Turkey had to frame a more explicit policy toward the disparate opposition groups, which included openly extremist forces. The names of opposition "parties," "armies" and "fronts" change frequently, groups split up and merge, and the names that appear in the press often have no basis in reality.

The undoubtedly Turkish-backed opposition group in Syria are Turkmens (Turkomans). A large number of Turkmens have moved to Turkey long ago, and their armed groups have well protected rears in the form of their relatives, who live there. Syrian Turkmens have the support of nationalist groups in Turkey, and often joined by the volunteers willing to "fight for the Turkic world.”

The Syrian National Army or Free Syrian Army, largely composed of groups close to the "Muslim Brotherhood" movement, also enjoys Turkey's full support.

Arab tribal militias have emerged as another important player in northern Syria, with which Turkey is trying to collaborate.

Turkey forged relations with a number of Salafist and other extremist groups, formerly part of al-Qaeda and ISIS, that are active in the Idlib area. These include many groups with a pronounced ethnic membership, including North Caucasians, Central Asians, Uighurs, East Asians and others. This conglomerate of Islamists, densely populating a relatively small territory appears as a natural ally against the "Assad regime." In reality, however, they are uncooperative and pose a serious threat to the Turkish domestic stability.

Turkey must also deal with thousands of its own citizens who travelled to join ISIS and have now returned. Turkish police and military forces conduct regular operations against the alleged ISIS cells in various Turkish cities, some far from the Syrian border. These cells are often mixed and include Turks, Syrians, and Iraqis.


Turkish position in the Libyan conflict is similar to its position on Syria. Turkey is in favor of a unified Libya. It backs the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by the "ideologically close" Muslim Brothers. The official Turkish rhetoric invariably refers to this government as "recognized by the UN" and "legitimate," despite the "provisional" status it has received from the international community. (At the same time, the Syrian government, recognized permanently by the UN, is referred to as the “illegitimate Assad regime.”) In 2020, when the situation in Libya started to deteriorate, Turkey stepped in to help the Government of National Accord to fight the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Belqasim Haftar. Turkish military advisers and Turkish military hardware, like drones, played a major role in stopping the offensive of the Libyan National Army, thus affecting the military situation on the ground. However, if the PNC forces successfully repelled the LNA offensive against Tripoli, they lacked the strength and means to turn the tide of war and pursue further offensive actions.

The current status quo provided a chance to restart international negotiations on Libya. At the same time, the NTC and Turkey are well aware that the resumption of hostilities could lead to the most unpredictable consequences associated with the hypothetical involvement of new players in the fighting (e.g., the Egyptian army).

Russian involvement in the Libyan conflict was never formally recognized by the Kremlin. Russia backs the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar and relies on a private military company Wagner (Russian version of Blackwater) to assist Haftar troops. Turkish leaders, including Erdogan, have repeatedly stated that Wagner fighters are simple mercenaries, paid for by the United Arab Emirates, despite the fact that the man alleged to finance Wagner, Russian billionaire Evgeny Prigozhin, had attended meetings with Khalifa Haftar in Moscow.

Turkey wants to avoid open confrontion with Russia in Libya (the UAE, France and Egypt are in the forefront). It is possible that in the complex process of a Libyan political settlement, Russia and Turkey could be on the same side.

Eastern Mediterranean

Turkish support of the NTC is connected to the aggravating situation in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey needs an allied Libyan government to promote its own agenda. Turkey's long-term political and economic strategy, aimed at securing its energy independence through the development of offshore gas fields, is centered on the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey and Greece are locked in a dispute over the extent of their continental shelves and conflicting claims to hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean. The row began in August 2020, when Turkey sent a seismic survey vessel into waters also claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

In 2020, the dispute between Turkey, the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Libyan National Accord Government, on the one hand, and Greece, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and France, on the other, on the boundaries of territorial waters and exclusive economic activity zones in the waters allegedly containing large hydrocarbon reserves, brought Turkey literally to the brink of military conflict with its NATO ally Greece. This dispute is unlikely to have a simple legal solution since each side has its own legal vision of the situation. Undoubtedly, in 2021 Turkey will not give up attempts of geological research in the disputed waters, as it does not consider its rivals capable of confronting it openly. Erdogan does not believe the West is capable to start a war over the disputed waters.

Although in 2020 Turkey enjoyed some success in Libya, but did attain an unconditional victory. This, allegedly, is the reason for which Turkey was so active in supporting Azerbaijan in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Turkish-Azeri operation in Karabakh relied on the experience gained by the Turkish UAV operators in Syria. Turkish military command may be eager to use their unique skills as well as their new technology in a new war. However, given that Azerbaijan has been preparing the war in Nagorno-Karabakh by for thirty years, Turkish current ambitions may not match their real capabilities.

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