In the annals of Turkish political history, the November 2002 elections will be mentioned as landmark point as they inaugurated a new era for the Turkish foreign policy both in terms of substance and scope. Indicative of the country’s policy diversification has been the re-emergence of the Middle East as a focal point of the renascent Turkish foreign policy. Indeed, after 2002, Turkey abandoned its bystander role for the sake of a more assertive, multi-dimensional and soft power based engagement in the Middle Eastern affairs. But for Turkey, this infant dynamism in the external realm was not accompanied by a troubleshooting in the country’s long-lasting internal problems.
On this paradox, there could be no more telling story than the Turkish experience of July-August 2016. Although some kind of introversion might have been expected, it was almost a month after the failed coup attempt which jarred the Turkish state institutions that Ankara would undertake a military intervention in northern Syria in order to establish a buffer zone in the neighboring country. Codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield (OES), the intervention officially aimed to secure the zone along Turkey’s southern border from the Islamic State but, in its entirety, it also purported in curbing Syria-based Kurdish forces eastwards of Euphrates. In this way, Operation Euphrates Shield was another episode in Ankara’s perennial fight against PKK which the Turkish leadership identifies with PYD in Syria despite the two organizations’ different perceptions.
The military success on its double front notwithstanding, Ankara’s decision to broaden the scope of OES as of late September has yielded questions about Turkish ambitions in Syria and northern Iraq. Presented as a mission to liberate former Ottoman lands rather than as a fully-fledged military intervention and embellished with nationalistic discourses involving some revised history and an added dose of religion, OES has ultimately reinvigorated discussions upon continuities between the current Turkish policy and its Ottoman past.
But is Turkey trying to annex parts of Iraq and Syria through its military presence on the ground? Most probably not. At the same time however, invocations of the Ottoman days that may have been effective in Ankara’s effort to normalize its relations with its Arab neighbors a decade ago, nowadays seem to have counter-productive effects. Besides, Turkish chronic military presence near Mosul in order to contain PKK is a source of increased controversy rather than congruence. On that, Baghdad’s latest calls for a U.N meeting on the deployment of Turkish forces in the Iraqi territory are revealing. On top of that, at least publicly, neither the U.S-led alliance against ISIS appears to endorse Turkish interventionism in Iraq.
In the internal dimension, the Turkish state does not appear to hold a much better record in terms of legitimacy. The July 15th has well exposed the vulnerabilities of the Erdogan establishment while its blast is still palpable. Most importantly, the coup gave the chance to the Turkish government to further cement its authoritarian tendencies materialized in an increased oppression of free expression, thousands of army officers been relieved of duty and massive arrests. In a sense therefore, it would be a safe interpretation to assume that, among others, OES aimed to abstract opposition voices from the domestic situation, in a period when the political establishment would theoretically be preoccupied with the internal challenges.
Such developments point to an increasingly risky position for Turkey. Ankara seems to have overestimated its leverage in its vicinity, signifying that undertaking a leading role in the Middle East was a much more difficult project than expected by the Turkish elites. With the U.S-Turkish relations suffering, the Russian-Turkish rapprochement in Syria still not having born any remarkable fruits and the internal stability always in a precarious position, Turkish actions resemble ambitions set on fragile foundations rather than a granite structure. Given the fluidity of the regional and Turkish affairs, whether Turkey has turned to be another Goldilocks in the story of the three bears might be proven wrong as events unfold. But from a purely theoretical point of view, we can probably speak of a dicey strategy of over-extension inasmuch the term is not strictly defined as territorial expansion.