Ten years ago, the government of Turkey was claiming to be the force of stability and order in its volatile region. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a name for this policy: “Zero problems with neighbours.”
This week, as Mr. Erdogan plunged his country into a brutal new war between two of his neighbours while fighting active battles in at least two others and antagonizing half a dozen more, it is fair to say he has become the major problem for most of his neighbours. It is harder to say that he has any sensible goal or strategy or plan.
Even in 2010, there was reason to doubt he did. To become a broker of stability, Mr. Erdogan needed to reach a peaceful settlement with his own Kurdish minority, reconcile long-standing conflicts around Armenia and Cyprus, support the right forces in Syria, Egypt and Libya, keep a pathway open to Europe, maintain good relations with Israel and Iran, and avoid antagonizing both Russia and his country’s fellow NATO members.
He has spent the decade doing precisely the opposite on every one of those files.
In the 2010s, he worked to transform himself into a president for life in the Vladimir Putin mould, and appears to be parroting the Russian President’s method of becoming a regional strongman by stirring up chaos and instability in neighbouring countries. He’s doing this by using the Syrian uprising as an opportunity to wage war on Kurdish territory there, sending fighters to back Tripoli’s faction in the struggle for Libyan power and sending floods of refugees into Europe through Greece. It’s what you might call a strategy of “all problems with neighbours.”
He calls it “neo-Ottoman,” promoting himself as a pan-Islamic influencer across a region roughly coincident with the Istanbul-centred empire whose collapse a century ago created modern Turkey. More plausibly, he is trying to rescue his country’s flailing economy by turning Turkey into a pipeline empire, expanding lines across his country to carry gas and oil to Europe from Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Russia, and potentially Qatar and Israel, and making unlikely attempts to lay claim to parts of the eastern Mediterranean gas fields.
Still, it was possible to imagine Mr. Erdogan had some larger vision of Turkish influence and power – at least, until recent weeks. Whatever his long-term strategy may actually be, there is no way his latest military engagement could contribute to it.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region of Azerbaijan where the 150,000 people who live there are mostly ethnic Armenian and Christian, and have generally governed themselves as a “distinct society” for the past 25 years. Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union created the modern country of Azerbaijan – its people are mostly Muslim and Turkish-speaking – the region endured an ugly guerrilla war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over its status, killing 30,000 people.
This should be one of the world’s more easily resolved conflicts. Nagorno-Karabakh has little strategic or economic value; Armenia isn’t interested in claiming it as territory; negotiations toward some formal semi-autonomous status have been dragging on for years.
But over the summer, Azerbaijan’s dictator Ilham Aliyev declared he’d had it with talks, and that “all the occupied lands must be freed without exception” – a chilling suggestion of ethnic warfare. The past week has seen attacks on civilians; some credible reports, though not all, suggest those attacks are deliberate and co-ordinated, in the vein of Russia’s wars in Chechnya.
Although it is not surprising that Turkey is more aligned toward its long-time partner Azerbaijan, it would make far more strategic sense for Mr. Erdogan to attempt to play the peacemaker, as Russia did when a similar conflict flared up in 2016, only to be resolved fairly quickly with more talks.
Instead, Mr. Erdogan has plunged into the conflict with a fervour that has surprised even Turkish observers inured to his actions in the region. Turkish jets, tanks and munitions are pounding the area. Mr. Erdogan has egged on the Azerbaijani forces, declaring that the country “had to take matters into its own hands,” and even urging Armenians to overthrow their government (which came into power after a peaceful democracy uprising in 2018). Reporters from the BBC, Reuters and independent human-rights agencies have interviewed Syrian jihadi fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh who say they’re being paid by Turkey (whose officials deny this).
Turkey’s role is unquestionably central in turning an avoidable conflagration into a far larger war that has a real danger of provoking conflicts across several countries. But Mr. Erdogan clearly expects this unnecessary war to benefit him. How it will help him, his country or his “neighbours” is a question that has mystified even seasoned observers of the Turkish President’s methods – and this time, they are unlikely to find an answer. This time, the chaos and bloodshed really have no larger purpose, real or imagined.