While the Syria-Russia-Iran axis started to pound Idlib, the last bastion of anti-Assad rebellion, Turkey is the country that has the most to lose. Indeed, Turkey has invested a lot of resources, firepower and time in one of its neighbors it wants to exert influence on. This is all part of President Erdogan grand strategy to restore a kind of new Ottoman empire. By Olivier Guitta 

First, over the past few years, Erdogan has made Syria one of its domestic and foreign policy priorities, mostly because of the large presence of Kurds. As the Ottoman empire controlled the region for 401 years, the Turkish public does not see Turkey as an outsider in Syria. Turkey has allegedly recruited and retrained Islamic State (IS) fighters - the relationship with IS was extremely cosy until just two years ago - to lead its invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria. Turkey’s military interventions in both Jarabulus and Afrin have turned these two enclaves into military and economic protectorates.

Turkey began to invest heavily in northern Syria in order to maximize its own interests and maintain order. Given the destruction during the Syrian “civil” war, Turkey began to re-build the infrastructure in order to also encourage its Syrians refugees to re-settle. Turkey’s involvement in this area increased the level of economic and political dependency on Ankara which has nearly reached the level of Turkey’s position in Northern Cyprus, de facto turning northern Syria into a kind of “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria”. For proof of that, the Turkish lira is used as the main currency; Turkey is paying the salaries of the doctors, teachers, fire fighters and the policemen as well as providing electricity to the region and even signs in Turkish are displayed in hospitals, schools, fire and police stations. Erdogan has argued that the only places in Syria where security and peace have been achieved are under Turkey’s control. He went as far as saying that he will establish the same peace in other parts of Syria too and in Iraq as well. Is that code language for Turkey will try to control the rest of Syria? In any case, Turkey does not plan on removing any of its long-term bases especially on the Kurdish border areas.

The second foreign policy priority for Erdogan is Greece. Since the beginning of the year, Turkish aggressive stance has ratcheted up tensions between the two nations. In April, a Greek fighter jet crashed into the sea after claims of a dog fight with Turkish planes in disputed airspace just days after Greek soldiers opened fire on a Turkish helicopter.

According to the Greek military, Turkish incursions into Greece airspace rose to 3,317 in 2017 from 1,269 in 2014, while maritime incursions rose to 1,998 from 371 in the same period. There has also been Turkish troop movements onto non-inhabited Greek Islands and also a blatant misuse of Greek shipping lanes. To boost its naval capabilities and to bolster its defences in the Aegean Sea amid growing tensions with Turkey, Greece has this summer leased two state-of-the-art French warships. To what, Turkish President Erdogan's chief advisor Yigit Bulut ironically commented:” If Greeks believe French president Macron would save Greece, they will be mistaken. France will run out of missiles and French navy would flee when confronted by Turkey's navy.”. Turkey still claims sovereignty over many Greek islands and landmass. It has been constantly probing for Greek weaknesses which one day will be exploited. A potential Turkish invasion of a few islands at first, but even including the mainland is a possibility, especially if EU support of Greece is waning. Fortunately for Greece, possibly because of growing tensions with Turkey, the US is to expand military presence in Greece. The US hopes to use collaboration with Athens to increase its military access to Syria and Libya in particular.

The main concern about Erdogan’s aggressive stance remains of course Cyprus. Turkish involvement in Cyprus is worrisome: the short-term strategy is to show a presence, the potential long-term could result in fighting breaking out between the Turkish and Greek sides of the island. Turkey has conducted military exercises to destabilize local government. In February and March, there were some small Turkish troop incursions and also one face to face with UN-operated Forces, that number 900 on the island. The UK who has two bases on the island has allegedly tried to warn its western allies of the risks of military escalation stemming from Erdogan’s policy. It seems that for now the EU, for one, has been unfazed by British concerns.

Interestingly Turkey has not restricted its expansion to its neighbours but also moved in on Bosnia and focused on Africa as well. For instance, last fall, Turkey opened a military base in Somalia, its first in Africa and largest overseas.

12/09/2018 - Any reproduction, copy, transmission or translation of this publication is prohibited

Le président Tayyip Erdogan sort d'une mosquée après la prière du vendredi dans la ville de Komotini, en Grèce, le 8 décembre 2017.
De Olivier Guitta