The Great Turkish Gambit from Idlib to Karabakh – Zvezda Weekly

Exporting chaos becomes the most important vector of Turkish foreign policy.

Master destroyer

The plans of Turkish leader Tayyip Recep Erdogan to form a “Turkish world” from North Africa to the Caspian Sea and further to Central Asia are no longer in doubt. And the “new padishah” himself does not even try to hide his geopolitical fantasies. And although the mechanisms of Turkish foreign policy can be called peculiar, in the modern world they turn out to be quite effective: initially a deliberately risky scenario is declared, then the space is filled with executors, resources and political capabilities of pro-Turkish groups of influence.

And as a result of an unprincipled “sacrifice” in favor of a stronger partner, the situation begins to turn into a kind of “resource” that has an asymmetric value for Erdogan. Turkey retains a relatively large free hand, with the ability to further escalate the situation, while everyone else is interested in reducing tensions. The trick is that Turkey “sacrifices” initially doomed resources, and its opponents are forced to very clearly calculate the consequences of their actions.

In such scenarios, there is a quite obvious geopolitical logic: Erdogan fills the geopolitical vacuum, being interested in changing or even breaking the status quo that has formed in the respective regions after various events and processes. Most of the other players, with whose interests Turkey came into contact in one way or another, on the contrary, were interested in maintaining the status quo and did not have the resources for a serious escalation.

Who came to the Caucasus with a sword?

Such a “gambit” tactic has been used by Ankara relatively often lately. The most striking example is not even the Karabakh crisis of September-October 2020, when Ankara assumed direct control of hostilities and political processes, but the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey initiated a crisis around gas fields using military power tools, as a result of which the next iteration of Turkish policy may well be the question of the annexation of Northern Cyprus.

In any case, the legalization of the Turkish protectorate over the northern part of the island has already actually taken place (the case of Famagusta is an allusion with an ancient ghost town). Moreover, neither France, nor Greece, nor other states have the resources to contain Turkey through military-force confrontation. In other words, Erdogan achieved a profound reconfiguration of the geo-economic space of the most important region with comparatively “economical” means.

It was the comparative ease with which he got what he wanted in the situation with Cyprus, and prompted him to take significantly more risky actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, the purpose of which is to reconfigure the space around the Caspian Sea, which is most important for the “Turkish future” and further – in Central Asia. The “Turkish future”, as it is easy to assume, means the new Ottoman Empire.

The goal of Erdogan’s risky actions in Nagorno-Karabakh is to reconfigure the space around the Caspian Sea, which is most important for the “Turkish future,” and further in Central Asia.

Of course, the political style of modern Turkey is largely determined by the personality of the Turkish leader himself. And here it should be borne in mind that Erdogan is an adventurer and an opportunist at the same time. That is, this is a person who is ready to take risks even outside the so-called reasonable limits, and at the same time a person who uses every opportunity to strengthen his personal positions. And he is opposed by leaders who have absorbed with the mother’s milk the supposedly immutable truth: it is better to sacrifice a little than to lose everything. We emphasize not to lose, but even to risk loss. It is this difference in temperaments that determines the fundamental difference between political models.

Throw for red flags

Erdogan was the first to risk playing in the post-global and post-institutional world, he was the first to risk going beyond the flags of global economic interdependence, seemingly in a losing configuration (much more losing than, for example, Russia, and, probably, China), and while he a lot comes out. And if we pick up sonorous comparisons, then we can say that Erdogan’s policy is a gambit in conditions of economic and political lack of self-sufficiency. However, we have to admit that it was Recep Erdogan who became the leader in the forceful formation of what can be considered a fact of geo-economic regionalization, as well as in the creation of his own protected space. 

If we evaluate the specifics of the spaces where the Turkish leader previously realized his claims to leadership, it becomes clear that he is already very cramped here. A year ago, the logic of “filling the vacuum” dictated to Erdogan the need to reduce activity around Idlib, and six months later – in Libya and look for a new direction to increase his influence – where there is a “rarefied space”.

It must be admitted that the southern tip of Eurasia and the area adjacent to the Caspian Sea are almost ideal for the development and continuation of Turkish geopolitical expansion. And the fact that other players in these regions did not notice this in a timely manner is an extremely bad symptom. It remains to be hoped that the next rush of Turkey (quite possibly from the western to the eastern coast of the Caspian, who will stop Erdogan now?) will be tracked at least in time.

What Erdogan is doing now can hardly be called soft power, although his security officials do not shine on the front lines in Nagorno-Karabakh. But since Erdogan’s policy is inseparable from power tools and does not exist outside of them, Turkey’s political style can rather be called “semi-hard power”. So Ankara’s influence is ensured not only through institutional channels, as the experience of the 1990s and 2000s showed, Turkey is not the most powerful. Influence is ensured through the direct presence and control of the military-power policy of partners, and in relatively harsh forms, as the Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev could see. The concept of creating a single “Army of Turan” within the framework of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking states, periodically voiced by a number of Turkish experts close to the ruling elite, is more than indicative. Erdogan has already felt both the taste of power and the taste of blood, so it will not be easy to lead him astray.

The 7th summit of the heads of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking states (Turkic Council) was held in Baku.

But let’s look not at what Erdogan wants and what he strives for, but how he achieves the intended goals, since a lot of instructive can be found in the actions of the Turkish side.

First. Active and, admittedly, very successful use of junior partners by the Turkish side, which are dependent on Ankara. Instead of acting within the framework of traditional institutions (NATO, dialogue with the EU, etc.), Erdogan made a sharp turn in the institutional plane and began to rely on institutions and mechanisms where he and only he can determine the rules of the game.

Erdogan’s foreign power policy is the apotheosis of situationality, reflecting not only the ambiguity of the strategy, but also the nature of the space surrounding Turkey, where the possibilities for building stable systems are limited. On the other hand, it is obvious that such a policy is a continuation of Erdogan’s course towards the formation of a single core of the “Turkish world” in the form of the current or slightly expanded national territory of Turkey, around which relatively weak states (Azerbaijan), non-states (in the form of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) and military-politically chaotic spaces (Idlib and a number of spaces in northern Syria) are concentrated.

Full-fledged partnership in these conditions becomes completely redundant. As a result, we are witnessing the restoration of relations of suzerainty, which was absolutely clearly manifested during the contacts between the Turkish and Azerbaijani sides during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Second. The Turkish side to the greatest extent, in comparison with other global and regional players, has mastered the principle of conducting military operations using “partner” power formations – often paramilitary (which are now called proxies) and not directly related to Turkey. This removes for the Turks most of the risks associated with the consequences of the deaths of people attracted to hot spots. In addition, such a mechanism for maintaining a high intensity of military-power policy for Turkey is relatively cheap.

A serious competitive advantage of Turkey and Erdogan personally is the presence of a significant “reservoir of militants” in Idlib, which can be exploited for a relatively long time.

Of course, a serious competitive advantage of Turkey and Erdogan personally is the presence of a significant “reservoir of militants” in Idlib, which can be exploited for a relatively long time. But the same fact is that this potential was deliberately designed by the Turkish side with the indirect assistance of other forces, not excluding Russia, who “squeezed out” the militants from the controlled territories, and did not destroy them.

It is also a fact that other forces can construct similar “tanks of militants” on a different demographic basis, for example, using radical nationalist militants in Ukraine. The concept of the “United Army of Turan” (six states – one force) is also unlikely to be replenished at the expense of the national armed forces of the respective states. Most likely, non-state, semi-state and private security structures from all over the world, primarily Islamic, will join this project.

Third. Using the principle of “drone wars”, the basis of remote warfare, to the maximum of possibilities. We saw this to a greater extent in Libya, but in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani troops owe their tactical successes, to a large extent, to Turkish drones. And in a sense, it can be considered that it is the unmanned aerial support systems for ground forces that are the technological basis of the Turkish military-political export model, which dominates over the rest of the components.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani troops owe much of their tactical successes to Turkish drones.

At the same time, it must be admitted that a full-fledged system of countering power technologies with a high degree of distance has not yet been invented, although the actions of the Turkish-Azerbaijani coalition in Nagorno-Karabakh will probably give a lot of ground for thought. In the meantime, neutralizing the undivided unmanned air dominance has proved to be an extremely difficult task.

But at the moment when systemic countermeasures are developed, a significant part of the Turkish expansion potential is devalued.

Fourth.The most significant factor in ensuring the continuity of Erdogan’s gambits is logistics, which none of the opposing forces tried to disrupt, although this was not a problem from a military-power point of view. From which it is possible to draw the following conclusion: by creating a logistics potential, mainly located in the private “civil” sector (for example, Burak Air, which transported Syrian Islamist militants to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh), Erdogan strove to keep his logistics infrastructure in zone of international “inviolability”, when any tough attempt to suppress the transportation of power resources will cause a political scandal at the international level – as happened in 2010, when Israel intercepted the Turkish ship “Mavi Marmara” from the so-called “Peace Flotilla”,heading with a dubious cargo to the Gaza Strip. By the way, it is possible that the soft attitude of other countries towards today’s logistics operations of Turkey in the Mediterranean and Transcaucasia from other countries is associated with the fear of a repetition of exactly that aggravation.

In 2010, Israel intercepted the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel from the Peace Flotilla, heading with a questionable cargo to the Gaza Strip.

Fifth. Aggressive information policy with direct involvement of the country’s political leadership. Of course, Turkish propaganda can be considered both nationalist and frankly rude, nevertheless it is quite effective, since it is designed not for the elite, but for the broad masses in Turkey and in other countries. Reliance on the Turkic and now Islamic “street” significantly expands the freedom of political maneuver, although the Turkish leader does not seem to claim the status of a national hero. And the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh has confirmed this. Erdogan is completely unconcerned about his reputation as a “civilized leader,” making radical statements and sometimes direct threats.

It is also important to note that the Turkish information policy is not built in a counter-propaganda mode, but, on the contrary, on the principle of frankly rude, maximally aggravated, and therefore understandable, promoting exclusively its “agenda”. And we must admit that such a policy turns out to be much more effective than the practice of a subtle information game that other countries are trying to carry out with respect to Turkey.

This is exactly what Nagorno-Karabakh showed.

Amid the degradation of the West

And the situation around Erdogan’s repeated gambits over and over again can be described as tactical aggression against the backdrop of his own strategic weakness. But it, as already noted, leads to success against the background of even greater weakness and indecision of competitors, especially the so-called great powers. At the same time, internal problems do not restrain the Turkish leader, but, on the contrary, are pushing for more active behavior in the foreign policy arena. For it is only on the basis of foreign policy successes that Erdogan gets a chance for a favorable reconfiguration of the domestic political situation.

Well, the geopolitical configuration being formed by Turkey not only fixes the state of institutional degradation of key Western institutions, but also gives Erdogan the opportunity to play on the contradictions of the main powers of the world.

So, let’s draw a conclusion. It is obvious that for Turkey, the export of chaos is becoming the most important vector of foreign policy. The problem, however, is that “chaos for export” performed by Turkey turns out to be quite in demand in today’s world, since it becomes a competitor a few years ago to absolutely dominant stability through international law, the dismantling of which we are now witnessing. In general, a new era is coming, and Erdogan is fully consistent with it, winning the sympathy of relatively wide layers of not only the Turkic-speaking community.

I remember that in the forties of the last century a very similar situation developed. Only it was not Turkey, but Germany. And it is well known how that retro chaos ended.

Dmitry Evstafiev, political scientist, professor at the Higher School of Economics, candidate of political sciences

Source: Большой турецкий гамбит от Идлиба до Карабаха (google translated from original)