After an eight-and-a-half-week campaign, Operation Olive Branch has finally come to an end with the fall of Afrin by the hands of the Turkish and Free Syrian Army forces. Nevertheless, caution must be exercised in viewing the occupation of the Kurdish enclave as the end of Turkey’s intervention in Syria. Although Mr Erdogan ruled out any plans of annexation, it is likely that Turkey will proceed to secure the rest of its south-eastern border by concentrating its efforts in a continued military campaign against the Kurds. What instead seems less likely is a continuation of Mr Erdogan’s post-Arab Spring imperial fantasy.
A Good Neighbour
Turkey’s intervention in Syria marks a significant shift from the pan-Islamic, anti-Western, and neo-Ottoman “zero problems with neighbours” approach – the cornerstone of the AKP’s foreign policy for more than eight years. Following the 2010 uprisings, Mr Erdogan had envisioned Turkey as the benevolent shepherd of a Muslim Brotherhood-belt stretching from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to Syria. Such a role would have allowed the country to finally shape the flow of history by securing its leadership role in the region.
The overthrow of the Egyptian Morsi regime, the defeat of the Islamic Ennahda party in the Tunisian elections and Russia’s pro-Assad intervention have all forced Mr Erdogan to realise that his Muslim Brotherhood-belt gamble, rather than uniting the Islamic world under his leadership, has led to a “zero neighbours without problems” scenario.
Having turned its back on the west and found itself more isolated than ever, Turkey’s ideological preferences now seem to have been trumped by a more pragmatic approach. Realpolitik has taken the upper hand, the reconciliation with Russia proof of this radical shift in strategy. The new reality in Syria cannot be ignored and Mr Erdogan has been forced to substitute his initial aim of regime change with securing Turkey’s border against the perceived Kurdish threat. In short, the AKP’s foreign policy failures have made Turkey much more decisive in intervening muscularly in the name of national security rather than ideology.
A New Departure
This is not to mean that Mr Erdogan has given up on his dream of Turkey playing a leading role in the Middle East. Turkey’s president has spearheaded the Islamic reaction to Mr Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, bitterly condemning Israel and the US. His comments on the Rohingya crisis are a testament to his willingness to act as the international spokesman of Muslims globally. However, the image of a strong Erdogan, paladin and protector of Islam abroad, has recently become mostly self-serving, having benefits in domestic politics.
Mr Erdogan’s foreign policy agenda now appears to be dictated by a nationalist raison d’état rather than Islamic imperialism. The consequences of such a shift will most likely affect the region’s stability in the following years. For this reason, instead of insisting on an incongruently aggressive approach which is likely to reproduce the “zero neighbours without problems” scenario, Turkey should aspire to become the democratic broker of the region’s conflicts. A more comprehensive strategy, combined with Turkey’s economic and military powerhouse and secular history, would allow the country to expand its influence while offering a more progressive alternative to Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s vision of leadership.
For now, however, Mr Erdogan seems to have other ideas. Turkey’s president should nevertheless recognise that, as long as he keeps aspiring to be the strongman of the Middle East, his country will never become a model for the Islamic world. And in doing so, it will lose its chance to lead it.