Turkey occupies a highly influential role in multiple regional conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Each of which have potential to create issues for committed U.S. interests in the region. But Turkish cooperation is far from guaranteed, and in some areas, it is instigating these tensions. The United States must carefully factor in Turkey’s internal and external situations as it attempts to navigate situations with Ukraine, Syria, and even the E.U. 's plans for defense, and yet Turkey has proven difficult to rely on in cooperating with any of these interests. The most likely points of direct conflict remain northern Syria and the Black Sea.
Turkey is heavily involved in the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which flared up last year into open conflict. That conflict was negotiated into a ceasefire with the participation of both Turkey and Russia, and the two operate a joint monitoring force on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Turkey has a history of conflict with Armenia and supports Azerbaijan in the current tensions, and the recent ceasefires have cemented Azerbaijani gains. Russia has a 1997 mutual defense treaty with Armenia. Open fighting broke out again in mid-November 2021, instigated by Azerbaijan with the likely purpose of obtaining a stronger negotiating position. Russia is hosting a multi-lateral peace conference starting December 9, 2021, at the request of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Because of the joint nature of the ceasefire efforts, peace in the area largely depends on the willingness of Turkey and Russia to cooperate with each other. This creates complexity as Turkey and Russia also engage in the diplomatic tension in the Black Sea and Ukraine.
Turkey shows signs of instability in its economy, its relationship with internal dissent, and its conflicting messaging towards nearby states. The Turkish lira has suffered heavily from inflation this year, reaching record lows, while President Erdogan has resisted raising interest rates (a conventional response to weakening currency). Erdogan has called higher interest rates “an evil that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer,” thereby publicly making his decisions in the economic crisis a matter of moral good. Meanwhile, nearly every major news source in Turkey is unable to criticize the regime due to political, economic, and legal pressures. Erdogan’s regime relies heavily on these methods of corruption and cronyism, making an ideological opposition to interest rates unlikely to be the real reason for his policy. Increasing prices are facts which citizens observe regardless of news coverage, however, representing a special point of vulnerability which appears to be fomenting dissatisfaction with the government.
Recently, speculation arose that Erdogan was physically unwell, only for those suggestions to be cracked down on by Turkish police. In November, Turkey detained an Israeli tourist couple on accusations of espionage, only to release them a week later. Their release was secured without apparent quid pro quo from Israel, and Israel appears to believe Turkey intends warmer relations, as Erdogan has previously signaled and as Turkish authorities reiterated in late November. Turkey also stated its intention to reconcile with the UAE, which recently conducted joint exercises with Greece. In October, Turkey threatened to expel 10 ambassadors, a majority of which (7) were from NATO countries, only to back down a few days later. This type of erratic diplomatic maneuvering highlights the apparent contradictions in Turkey’s longstanding relationships with western countries alongside its Islamist-leaning government and Erdogan’s dictatorial tendencies. While Erdogan has historically been successful in suppressing internal dissent, such as in the 2016 coup attempt, if the renewal of these pressures is actually occurring alongside weakening health on his part, it is possible that he may ultimately be unsuccessful in doing so the next time open conflict emerges.
In the Syrian Civil War, Turkey initially supported the U.S. air campaign against IS while Russia was supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. One of the most successful anti-IS militant groups, however, proved to be the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Since the Kurds are an ethnic minority divided among Syria, Iraq (where they have an autonomous zone), and Turkey, Turkey has a vested interest in denying the Kurds any sense of power or ability that would lean towards a Kurdish nation-state. This controversy between the U.S. and Turkey has led to a regional realignment that drew Turkey closer to Russia in the civil war and has also led to a number of ground clashes and movements as the Turks enforce a border zone against the Peshmerga. The Turkish government is entirely insecure with the United States supporting militia groups that Turkey believes to be part of a terrorist group against its government, while the United States for its part knows that the Peshmerga are more reliable and committed allies against IS, believing also that Turkey’s border policies made it all too easy for more jihadis to reach Syria in the civil war and bolster IS ranks. Future Turkish military campaigning against the Kurds, and the destabilization that might incur on the multi-polar power balance in the region, is still a real possibility that Erdogan is actively considering.
This predicament affects even broader fields of Turkish foreign policy. Turkish media claim that “Russia has not fulfilled its promises to control the [Kurds in Syria],” and continues to assert that the Kurds are carrying out attacks against its military and civilians in the country. Even Turkey’s relations with China are affected, with the two powers exchanging blows over China’s treatment of the Turkic Uighurs and China responding by calling Turkey’s north Syrian actions as illegal.
Turkey also currently holds more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Since public opinion in the EU has soured on the intake of mass immigration, and the refugee crisis has put extensive strain on eastern European states including and especially Greece, the status of these refugees and their potential passage into Europe across the straits has become an essential bargaining chip for the Turkish government. The U.S. has increased cooperation with Greece, including joint exercises, deployments, and sale of warships; Erdogan has responded by likening Greece itself to an oversized U.S. military base. With a Cold War history of Turkey joining NATO and hosting U.S. nuclear missiles, the realignment under Erdogan’s regime has rarely proved starker. French President Emmanuel Macron has also taken an opportunity to increase military ties with Greece and make clear French support for Greece’s position in the migrant crisis. In 2016, Turkey used its situation with the migrants to bring Europe to the table – that negotiation ended with a clearer path to Turkish membership in the EU. In the years since, however, Greece has seen Erdogan continue to leverage migrants as political tools, and tensions remain high between Brussels and Ankara, leaving Turkey’s long-awaited path into the EU just as uncertain as its effective status in NATO.
In the midst of that uncertainty, Turkey has attempted to maintain close ties with Ukraine even as it interacts with Russia diplomatically in Armenia and in Syria. Turkey holds the Bosporus straits, and therefore has power to dictate what warships can reach the Black Sea and the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and has continued to allow U.S. warships passage to conduct exercises, but appears entirely uncommitted to what NATO views as its obligations – senior Turkish officials have declared that the regime will not confront Russia over an invasion of Ukraine. While
, Moscow has rejected these, and so Turkey’s status and positioning in the most volatile position of the region currently remains entirely uncertain. It is likely that Erdogan’s regime will continue to prevaricate, remaining unwilling to devote any large number of troops or materiel to any conflict for both economic and political reasons while still attempting to resolve the matter diplomatically.
Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO, and it occupies a critical crossroads position adjacent to multiple unstable conflict zones. Syria and Ukraine take precedence; in the former, Turkey sees its interests as directly hostile to U.S. policy with the Kurds, while in the latter, Turkey is unwilling to escalate against Russia while the two countries have so many different diplomatic cross-points. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s continued path of dictatorship is unlikely to change, meaning values-based diplomacy from the U.S. or the rest of NATO will be inherently at odds with the Turkish regime. Future U.S. strategies in these two conflicts or in other regions such as southern Europe or the Caucasus need to not only consider these regions as isolated incidents but part of the network of interactions which inevitably will affect relations with Turkey and thereby all other conflicts. The United States needs to determine its uncertain future with Turkey and operate intentionally in the myriad of ways in which it influences the regional power.