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Jan 10, 2024

Turkey’s Geostrategy: Opportunism and Dissonance

Under AKP rule, Turkey has attempted to chart an independent course, focusing on the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and Africa while not shying away from confronting the West. But there are limits to this strategy.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan attends the Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Organization of Turkic States in Astana, Kazakhstan, November 3, 2023.
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Turkish foreign policy has undergone a massive transformation during the past two decades under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Today, Turkey is diplomatically, economically, and militarily active in its immediate and wider neighborhood. Ankara has a high potential to disrupt thanks to heavy investment in soft- and hard-power instruments. Turkish decision-makers, starting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the top, are less reluctant today to act independently of their Western allies.

But is there a grand strategy behind Turkey’s foreign policy activism? A simultaneous look at Turkish policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and Africa shows that Turkey’s goals and actual capacity are not always compatible. Ankara’s aspirations to gain influence are confined by its economic woes, fragile relations with its Western allies, and the limited ability to mobilize partners and allies in line with its interests.

Eastern Mediterranean Tensions: “Old” Problems, Regional Realignment

Long-lasting threat perceptions drive Turkish policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara’s priority is to prevent Kurdish autonomy under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, which Turkey sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The United States, the European Union, and Turkey regard the PKK as a terrorist organization. Since the collapse in 2015 of the so-called peace process with the organization, Ankara has largely pushed its affiliates and offshoots to Northern Syria and Northern Iraq. The aim is to weaken—if not eliminate—the organization’s senior leadership and infrastructural capacity by military means.

Meanwhile, Ankara is trying to mobilize its NATO allies to designate the PYD/YPG as a terrorist group. Not only does the Turkish government regard the support it receives from its allies in its fight against the PKK as insufficient, but it also sees the US partnership with the PYD/YPG in northern Syria as a hindrance to its policy. Turkey’s initial objection to the NATO membership bids of Sweden and Finland was driven by the urge to set a marker in this regard. Yet, initial negotiations yielded an outcome in which Sweden and Finland only confirmed their recognition of the PKK as a terrorist organization, in line with EU policy. The memorandum of understanding signed by Turkey and the two Nordic countries describes PYD/YPG as a “threat to [Turkey’s] national security.”  

Ankara’s Eastern Mediterranean policy is also motivated by efforts to re-integrate Turkey into a changing regional order. Turkey’s support for Sunni Islamists in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in 2011 and its increasingly confrontational foreign policy and expanding military footprint since 2016 has led to cooperation among Turkey’s partners, old and new rivals. Turkey found itself excluded from the EastMed Gas Forum, while military and diplomatic cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates increased.

To break its nearly decade-long isolation and to repair its economy, Ankara has been on a charm offensive since 2020. Accordingly, it signed cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in various sectors, including defense,while distancing itself from Sunni Islamists. Ankara has also shifted gears in Libya, engaging with political actors in the country’s eastern and western parts. Lastly, beyond Erdoğan’s rhetorical outbursts about Israel’s war on Gaza in the aftermath of the gruesome attacks by Hamas, its policy so far has largely aligned with the official position of the Arab League. 

If Ankara has been careful in mending ties with the Arab states, it is equally persistent in its support for a two-state solution in Cyprus. After almost five decades, the Cyprus conflict remains unsolved and is today an even more challenging stumbling block in Turkey’s relations with the EU. Having steadily expanded its grip over northern Cyprus, the Turkish strategy involves rallying support within the international community to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).  

Black Sea Opportunities: Transcontinental Connectivity

In November 2023, the ruling parties of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Northern Cyprus were reported to have signed a cooperation agreement based on the motto “three states, one nation.” Ankara announced in late 2022 that the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) had granted Northern Cyprus observer status. The EU swiftly rejected the announcement, and the issue remains a contested topic in the EU’s relations with Central Asian states. No representative from Northern Cyprus seems to have attended the OTS summit in November 2023.

The OTS emerged from the Cooperation of the Turkic Speaking States founded in 2009. It includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan as member countries—and Hungary (since 2018), Turkmenistan (2021), and the Economic Cooperation Organization (2023) as observers. Turkey’s economic woes, potential reconfiguration of global supply chains, and Russia’s war against Ukraine have renewed Ankara’s interest in a region that it has long considered kin to itself due to linguistic and cultural affinities.

Ankara sees the OTS as essential to its alliance-building efforts and, as such, to its ambitions to make Turkey the center of transcontinental connectivity. Amidst the unknowns triggered by a prolonged confrontation between Russia and Europe, the AKP leadership is capitalizing on the narrow window of opportunity created by the European efforts to decrease energy dependency on Moscow. Turkey recently signed agreements with Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary for gas deliveries to position Turkey as an essential player in Europe’s energy supply and security. Yet, the widely shared view that Ankara is helping Moscow circumvent sanctions is weakening its credibility in the eyes of its Western allies.  

Still, Turkey’s ruling elites are determined to reap the benefits that arise from geopolitical uncertainties. Its efforts to develop the Trans-Caspian-East-West Corridor, the so-called Middle Corridor, linking China and Europe through a network of railways and roads passing through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia is a case in point. Various diplomatic and military steps have been taken to this end. In March 2022, the governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey signed a declaration to improve transport routes in the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia as an alternative to the northern route via Russia. A few months later, a working group comprising Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan was established on the Trans-Caspian-East-West corridor.

These diplomatic moves were as much encouraged by Russia’s war against Ukraine as they were by the change in the status quo between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Azerbaijan’s military offensive in September 2023 that resulted in its capture of Nagorno-Karabakh brought Turkey and Azerbaijan one step closer to building the Zangezur Corridor linking mainland Azerbaijan with the small Azerbaijani enclave of Nakchivan to Armenia’s west, which borders Turkey and Iran. In late 2020, the ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia foresaw the establishment of a land corridor between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakchivan and left its security to Russian peacekeepers. Still unable to agree with Armenia on establishing the Zangezur Corridor, Azeri officials and Turkish decision-makers appear open to replacing the corridor with a route passing through Iran. Turkey’s proposal for a 3+3 initiative to include the three South Caucasus countries together with Iran, Turkey, and Russia was embraced by Tehran.

Expansion into Africa: Exploring New Markets, Confronting the West 

Africa is another region where Turkey is actively involved. Dating back to the late 1980s, Turkish interests in the continent have been primarily driven by the quest for new markets and business opportunities. Turkey’s trade volumewith African countries increased from $5.4 billion in 2003 to $34.5 billion in 2021, with North African countries constituting the highest share. Turkish construction companies are active in the region, first and foremost in Algeria and Libya, but lately, they are also increasingly present in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2021, the value of projects undertaken by Turkish contractors in Sub-Saharan Africa was $5 billion, constituting 17.8 percent of Turkish building projects abroad and ranking third after Eurasia and the Middle East (compared to 0.3 percent in 2008).

Meanwhile, defense exports have become essential to Turkey’s economic relations with African countries. According to figures from the Turkish Exporters Assembly, Turkey’s defense and aerospace exports to Africa reached $461 million in 2021, compared to $83 million the previous year. While exports to the continent ranked fifth in Turkey’s total exports during the first 11 months of 2021, African countries were second after the US during the first two months of 2022. Defense exports to African countries are part of “a mutually reinforcing policy design of arms exports, military training, and defense diplomacy.” Turkey has signed defense industry cooperation agreements with various countries, including Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Kongo, and Mali. Nigeria and Turkey also have a military training agreement.

Turkish policy in Africa is also intertwined with Ankara’s quest to position Turkey as the defender of the globally disenfranchised. The AKP leadership presents the motto “African issues require African solutions” as the driving principle of Turkey’s approach toward the region. This slogan aligns with Ankara’s criticism of Western states for their colonial past, one of the talking points in Turkish foreign policy. In the wake of the coup d’état in Niger in July 2023, for instance, Erdoğan described the coup as “a response to the years-long oppression by France” and noted that Turkey “will continue to develop positive relations with Africans.”

For government officials and pro-government commentators, Turkey’s perceived lack of colonial past and its Muslim identity is a competitive advantage in foreign policy (particularly in Africa but also in Syria). When the African Union was granted G20 permanent membership status in September 2023, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that Ankara “will continue its support for Africa to reach its deserved position in the international system” and “to make Africa’s voice heard.”   

Limitations to Aspirations for Influence

This statement is not isolated from the AKP leadership’s calls for an international order that “treats every nation on equal footing, and in which every country can feel safe and an equal partner.” Hakan Fidan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently described Turkey as a “system-transformative” power seeking “to contribute to a more inclusive and effective international system.” Unsurprisingly, Ankara often presents Turkey’s growing defense industry, military operations, mediation efforts, and constant criticism of Western supremacy as proof of the elevation of the country’s international standing over the past two decades.

Certainly, its geographical location gives Turkey leverage in international relations. Its NATO membership enables the AKP officials to enact their so-called balancing act between Turkey’s Western allies and Russia. At the same time, its rhetorical confrontation, particularly vis-à-vis the US and the EU, helps Ankara position itself as an actor that can play hardball with global powers. Moreover, Turkey’s increased economic connectivity with different regions accentuates its visibility.

Still, Ankara’s goals and actual capacity are not always perfectly aligned. Given the financial dependencies of the Turkish economy, Ankara’s aspirations for an independent foreign policy are not readily achievable. Moreover, fragile relations with its Western allies accrue costs given Turkey’s deep integration into Western economic and security structures. Overtly confronting its Western allies might help enhance Turkey’s soft power in its neighborhood. Yet, it also weakens its credibility.

Equally important, Turkey’s efforts to gain independence from its Western allies have not been accompanied by building sustainable alliances elsewhere. This is clear in Turkey’s waning influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also salient in the seeming difficulties in mobilizing partners toward recognizing Northern Cyprus. Overall, Turkey’s continuing financial dependence, increasingly fragile relations with the US and the EU, and limited ability to establish alternative alliances narrow Ankara’s room for maneuver.   

As narrow as it may be, however, the mounting geopolitical pressure inflicted by an emerging multipolar disorder in the face of the US’ “retreat from global dominance”, the EU’s insufficient capacity to assume a leadership role, and the revival of revisionism will continue to give Turkey leeway. Turkey is too big, too close, and too intertwined with Europe for the EU to engage Ankara only hesitantly. Brussels and Ankara should prioritise managing their disagreements by setting common rules for engagement. This could increase the likelihood of practical cooperation in trade, investments, migration, and defense.

Sinem Adar is Associate at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.