In the pursuit of national security, Turkey is taking assertive unilateral actions which are not only counterproductive in the sense that they are serving to isolate Ankara diplomatically, but also in that they are having a harmful effect on everyone else in the process.
The end of 2019 saw Turkey sign an agreement with Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) which quickly became a source of contention throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Most notably, the agreement provided the beleaguered GNA with the power to request military support from Turkey in its conflict with rival forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
While the GNA stands to benefit from Turkish support in Libya’s civil war, Ankara’s interest in this arrangement is to counter the influence of its regional rivals backing the LNA, namely Egypt and the UAE. It also seeks to protect the over $19 billion dollars worth of assets that Turkish businesses have invested in Libya, banking on a compliant GNA to secure dividends. However, propping up the GNA – which seems at present to be the losing party of the conflict – threatens to complicate the situation and could potentially drag Turkey into another foreign entanglement similar to that in Syria.
The agreement also delineates a zone of control through the Eastern Mediterranean between the Turkish and Libyan coasts, prompting outrage from Greece which claims a part of this area as its own maritime territory. The demarcation is aimed at disrupting plans to construct a pipeline linking the natural gas deposits of Cyprus and Israel with mainland Europe via Greece.
As the proposed pipeline would bypass Turkey, Ankara would miss out on the economic benefits of access to Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons. Given that in 2010 these deposits were estimated to consist of around 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as 1.7 billion barrels of oil, it is easy to understand why Turkey is determined to be included – and why its regional rivals are determined it isn’t.
In the same vein, the European Union is currently considering targeted sanctions in response to drilling activities conducted by Turkish vessels in Cypriot territorial waters, though Ankara maintains that these activities are to protect the economic rights of Turkish Cypriots and has threatened to block any explorations that do not have Turkish approval. Such disputes are not the only points of contention between Turkey and the EU, as the latter have also expressed concern that Ankara’s increased involvement in the Libyan conflict will further destabilise the region.
As per their agreement with the GNA, recent advances by LNA forces towards Tripoli prompted Turkey to redeploy militants from northern Syria, where they had taken part in operations against Kurdish groups, to western Libya. Upon arriving in Libya, however, some of these militants have reportedly dropped their weapons and fled towards Italy.
With regard to the aforementioned operations in northern Syria, many EU member states suspended arms sales to Turkey after condemning its actions. The operation in question was launched in October 2019 and dubbed 'Peace Spring', ostensibly aimed at creating a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria to combat ‘terrorism’ and facilitate the return of some of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees it is currently hosting.
In reality, Human Rights Watch has reported that within the safe zone, the Turkish Armed Forces and its affiliated insurgent groups have engaged in summary executions, looting, indiscriminate shelling, kidnapping and forced evictions, as well as preventing the return of displaced Kurdish families and unlawfully occupying or reappropriating their property.
Almost all of these abuses, many of which likely constitute war crimes and can be corroborated by video evidence, have been committed discriminately against the Kurdish population. This has caused significant, possibly indelible demographic changes and large-scale internal displacement in what critics have warned could lead to ethnic cleansing.
Yet, for Turkey, the safe zone provides a way to alleviate some of the economic strain of hosting so many refugees – more than any other country. Additionally, it serves as a security buffer against Kurdish militias, namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates which have been conducting an armed insurgency against the Turkish state since the 1980s that is believed to have claimed the lives of around 40,000 people. To this end, the Turkish military is also conducting Operation Claw in northern Iraq, aimed at degrading the PKK’s cross-border capabilities and securing Turkey’s frontiers.
Turkey’s conflict with the PKK has had much wider implications for the region. For instance, multiple sources have reported that former members of Islamic State (ISIL) have joined the ranks of Turkish-backed groups in the north, raising questions about Turkey’s murky, dubious history with ISIL.
According to a US official, ISIL insurgents had used a crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border as a major supply route from 2014 until it was sealed by the Turkish authorities only after the group were expelled from the area by Kurdish militias. Captured ISIL insurgents have also testified to being treated in Turkish hospitals, while the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has claimed that during Operation Peace Spring, Turkish shelling had damaged prisons holding ISIL detainees and allowed some inmates to escape.
Circumstantial as they are, such reports suggest that Turkey’s fight against the PKK has taken precedent over that against ISIL. This is a concern that has been recognised by NATO, for which Ankara has obstructed the bloc’s plans in the Baltic over its reluctance to condone the northern Syria operations.
With tensions between itself and its neighbours at an all time high, it seems the only significant diplomatic success for Turkey is its rapprochement with Russia. Yet this too is serving to deepen the rift between Turkey and its NATO allies, with the US threatening sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of the Russian S400 air defence system and suspending it from the F35 programme.
Perhaps the victim of a unique geopolitical position necessitating assertive measures, Turkey is nevertheless proving a danger to itself and everyone around it.