Riskier Turkish adventurism may threaten Middle East and beyond

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The secret of success for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan around the Middle East used to be the exports of soap operas depicting the ideal Muslim society. A skyrocketing entertainment industry attracting millions of Arab viewers into dramatic plots coincided with the rise of Turkish “soft power” premised on a model of economic success and multiparty politics that is harmonious with Islam. This has since been steadily taken over with Turkish military muscle in no less than three incursions in Syria since 2016, and the current conflict in Libya with no end in sight, even as peace talks are unfolding, with the United States absent from the field.

Turkey is not new to the area as heir to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the Muslim world and a portion of Europe. However, its involvement has been very mixed. At times, it is responsive to threats, while at others, it is driven by economic interests. Turkey is starting to use military might more than diplomacy to project supremacy. For the last year, it occupied northeast Syria, increased its military presence in Iraq, and intervened in the civil war in Libya. It now has bases in Qatar and Somalia, and scored temporary control of the Suakin Island in Sudan and a defense deal with Kuwait, securing a hold in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

Turkey is now calling the tune in Syria. Clashes last year between forces backed by Russia and opposition groups assisted by Turkey sparked the establishment of a security corridor on the border, jointly monitored by Turkey and Russia but is under “rebel” control. Ankara is motivated by a desire to thwart Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and anxiety about the national security risks posed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party for Syria. It hopes to establish a buffer zone to resettle the more than three million Syrian refugees who are also turning into a liability.

There is a gradual takeover by Turkish culture for northern Syria with no political deal in sight. Having sent more than 10,000 forces, a safe zone development plan will now reconstruct the areas under Turkish control, creating new local governments and infrastructure overseen by Turkish authorities. Local governments in Aleppo and Idlib have settled into use the Turkish lira as the legal tender to steady prices in the region. But the situation in Syria is volatile and a military escalation brews.

Turkish policy toward Libya, which hinges on support to the Government of National Accord, is tied to the creation of an exclusive economic zone from the southern shore of Turkey to the northeast coast of Libya. Ankara has had a contentious deal with Tripoli that delineates a shared maritime border in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to run gas exploration activities in contested waters, raising tensions with Israel, Greece, and others. For return, Ankara has shifted the war in favor of the Government of National Accord in sending arms and Syrian mercenaries. Further, Qatar bankrolls its actions while the United States remains on the sidelines.

But the Turkish intervention in Libya is a gamble, not only because of the volatile situation on the ground, but because the government it supports does not even control the land next to the area delimited by the maritime deal. If the Government of National Accord loses the war, Ankara will lose access to coveted gas fields. Such ambitions may prove costly, given the resignation of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, despite a new round of talks next month in Geneva. Moreover, tensions are rising with the United States and Russia over Turkish involvement in northern Syria. Libya could also turn into an unfinished project that ultimately backfires.

The tug of war between malign actors is intensifying, and Turkey is not a bystander anymore. Despite setbacks and potential spillover of conflicts in Syria and Libya, Turkey has emerged as a power player as Erdogan has tried to lead in an order that the United States is clearly absent from. But the Middle East citizens who fell under the sway of all those Turkish soap operas might not be as receptive to the expansionist overtures of Ankara. They will be reminded of worse times under the Ottoman Empire. So left unchecked, the effects of Turkish adventurism will endanger, not just its immediate borders, but the entire Middle East. Finally, the United States will not be spared, as it will be called on to write a new script.

Patricia Karam is regional director for the Middle East at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy.

Tags Democracy Government International Libya Military Security Syria Turkey

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