Erdogan's foreign policy in the shadow of coronavirus

In the age of corona, Ankara's regional power strategy is twofold: on the one hand, Turkey is engaged in a charm offensive to revamp its political image, which has suffered lately in certain quarters. On the other, President Erdogan is pursuing a tough policy of interests backed up by military force. By Ronald Meinardus

By Ronald Meinardus

"We are not the wealthiest country in the world, but we are the most generous," remarked Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. Turkey continues to supply medical equipment on a large scale to many countries around the world. Ankara's public relations have made much of this "mask diplomacy". In detailed press reports, government-affiliated media have proudly claimed that two-thirds of the world has asked for help, resulting in medical equipment being duly delivered to 81 countries to date.

Over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, the newsworthiness of the war in Syria, long the epicentre of Turkish foreign and military policy, has declined somewhat. The ceasefire arranged between Erdogan and Putin at the beginning of March seems to be holding, with the warring parties taking a breather.

But the current state of calm is deceptive, with little prospect of lasting. The causes of the conflict have not changed, and the country is still far from finding a political solution to its long-drawn-out civil war. 

Turkey re-arming in Idlib province

Meanwhile, Turkey is taking advantage of the ceasefire to re-arm in the territories of Idlib province under its control. The military has dispatched 10,000 troops to Idlib, plus a number of tanks and vehicles as well as state-of-the-art air defence systems, reports the information portal Al Monitor. The introduction of the Turkish lira as currency in parts of northern Syria is a further indication that Ankara aims to further cement its influence.

Turkish military convoy in the vicinity of Idlib, Syria (photo: picture-alliance/AA/I. Khatib)
Neuorientierung der türkischen Außenpolitik: Im Zuge der Corona-Krise hat der Krieg in Syrien, lange das Epizentrum der türkischen Außen- und Militärpolitik, an Brisanz verloren. Der Anfang März zwischen Erdoğan und Putin vereinbarte Waffenstillstand scheint zu halten, die Kriegsparteien gönnen sich eine Verschnaufpause.

The international community has been hesitant to put up resistance to Erdogan's policy in Syria. The Europeans for their part are evidently loath to tangle with the Turkish leader over Syria: "European countries appear happy enough with the gradual 'Turkification' of regions in Northern Syria west of the Euphrates," writes Semih Idiz in Al Monitor. "That complacency is driven mainly by a deep-rooted fear of a fresh flood of refugees heading to Europe.”

You may also like: How can Europe help prevent the carving-up of Libya?

Libya as top issue

In the meantime, Turkish foreign policy has shifted its focus from Syria to Libya and the adjacent territorial waters: "Libya is the top item on Turkey's foreign policy agenda," writes Burhanettin Duran in the pro-government paper Daily Sabah. Erdogan is playing for high stakes in Libya. But current developments show that he has put his money on the right card.

In the autumn of last year, Turkey concluded two far-reaching agreements with the Libyan unity government, which is currently under considerable military pressure. The treaties involve the demarcation of the territorial waters between Libya and Turkey and the provision of military assistance.

But things have now progressed beyond mere declarations of intent: in both cases, Turkey has already made good on its promises. With the help of Turkish military advisers and the support of combat drones and Syrian mercenaries recruited by Ankara, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who is recognised by the United Nations, has succeeded in driving back the rebel general Khalifa Haftar. The New York Times spoke at the end of May of a "stunning reversal" on the North African battlefield.

A bloody proxy war is thus raging in Libya. Taking sides with the government in Tripoli are Turkey, Qatar and Italy, while the momentarily defeated military leader from the east, Haftar, is in turn supported by a coalition of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France and Greece. A key role in this informal alliance is played by Russia, which, like Turkey, is inflaming the conflict further through mercenaries and weapons.

Wrestling for power and influence in the eastern Mediterranean

"It's Turkey's Libya now" is the title of a recent study by the European Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFR) in Brussels. Nearly forgotten by now are the declarations of intent issued by the Berlin Conference on Libya earlier this year. In the shadow of the coronavirus, the militarisation of the conflict is progressing in leaps and bounds. This is largely the result of the inability of the Europeans to make themselves heard on the southern periphery. Weapons are pouring into the desert country from many different sources. And Ankara is heavily involved.

"Libya is more than Libya," says Can Kasapoglu, an expert on Turkey who works for the think tank EDAM. What happens in Libya has far-reaching implications for regional policy. If Erdogan succeeds in asserting Turkish supremacy, this will strengthen Turkey's position in the struggle for power and influence in the adjacent territorial seas – and its control over the raw materials suspected beneath the seabed. "We want to expand our cooperation, including exploration and drilling, in order to exploit the natural riches of the eastern Mediterranean," Erdogan said during Libyan Prime Minister al-Sarraj's visit to Turkey.

For Greece and Cyprus, the Turkish advance is a provocation. The Greek defence minister said that the country would defend its own sovereign zones by all means necessary, including military force. As if the never-ending Turkish-Greek conflict wasn't complicated enough, new fuel has now been added to the fire.

In the dispute with Ankara, the Greeks can rely on European support. The EU has already imposed sanctions on Turkey for "illegal exploratory drilling". Only recently, Brussels reiterated its demand that Ankara comply with international law. But Turkey merely brushed off this reprimand. Meanwhile, Turkish Air Force manoeuvres over the Greek Aegean Islands are further inciting tensions on NATO's south-eastern flank.

The Turkish foreign minister recently speculated on live TV about a new onslaught of refugees arriving at Europe's external borders. To defuse the dispute between Ankara and the EU over refugee aid, Brussels now wants to make an additional half a billion euros available to the Turks. But Ankara's main focus right now is on Libya. And its adversary on that front is not the EU but Russia. Moscow's foreign and defence ministers were originally scheduled to come to Turkey in mid-June for negotiations on Libya. However, the trip was cancelled at short notice.

You may also like: EU divisions over Libya leave a gap for others

The exclusion of Europe

President of France Emmanuel Macron (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Scharfer Gegenwind für Erdoğans Libyenpolitik aus dem Elysée-Palast: Frankreichs Präsident Emmanuel Macron hat die Türkei für die Unterstützung der international anerkannten Regierung in Libyen heftig kritisiert. Die Türkei spiele "ein gefährliches Spiel", erklärte Macron am 22. Juni in Paris. "Wir werden die Rolle, die die Türkei heute in Libyen spielt, nicht tolerieren."

Not long afterward, Ankara's Foreign Minister Mesut Cavusoglu visited the Libyan capital of Tripoli. "A very important visit" was the headline in the Daily Sabah. One topic on the agenda was the role of Turkish companies in reconstructing the country that has been so devastated by civil war. Ankara wants to cash in here in the future. Another issue is Turkey's desire for a permanent military presence in Libya: in addition to an air force base, Erdogan also wants a naval base in Misrata, according to media reports.

Foreign policy experts are meanwhile discussing scenarios for a Russian-Turkish condominium in Libya – in plain language: a division of the country into a Turkish zone of influence in the west and a Russian sphere of influence in the east. "The risk of de facto partition is there," says Dario Cristiani, Mediterranean expert at the German Marshall Fund (GMF). The Italian notes "a complete collapse of European capacity to have an impact on the ground in Libya".

Only the French are putting up a fight. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Dran called the Turkish forward strategy "a danger to ourselves, an unacceptable strategic risk". France wants to make Turkish policy on Libya a NATO issue.

But the Turkish government is showing little willingness to forfeit the supremacy it has gained on the battlefield: "This is just the beginning of the fight over the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya", writes Burhanettin Duran, whose opinion pieces often reflect the mind-set in the Turkish power centre.         

Ronald Meinardus

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Dr Ronald Meinardus is head of the office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Istanbul.