American Univesity of Beirut

Summary: Making Sense of Turkey’s Foreign policy

​Making Sense of Turkey’s Foreign policy​

The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) held a webinar titled “Making Sense of Turkey's Foreign policy" on Friday December 18, 2020. The webinar explored the drivers behind Turkey's - often described as - “aggressive adventurism" abroad, and whether it possesses the resources to sustain its assertive “emergent power" posturing, and its constant involvement in proliferated proxy warfare. The discussion also focused on the new US administration relation with Ankara, and what role is Turkey playing or willing to play in Lebanon.

The panel hosted Hürcan Asli Aksoy, deputy head of the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Henri J. Barkey, cohen professor of international relations at the Lehigh University in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) and adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Jana Jabbour, professor at Sciences Po Paris and at the University of Saint-Joseph (USJ) in Beirut.

Joseph Bahout, IFI's director, moderated the panel.

Hürcan Asli Aksoy started the discussion by clarifying that Turkey is not the only regional actor that has militarized its foreign policy and has been pursuing an assertive and confrontational policy, amid the changing dynamics of the international order, the volatile security situation, and the raising regional competition. She explained that a number of “domestic factors lie behind Ankara's policies abroad."

“The first factor is the growing defense industry and the increase in military expenditure [that Turkey is willing to make use of to assert itself as a regional power]," noted Aksoy. “The second factor is, of course, the shift to the presidential system".

In fact, “the concentration of executive power in (the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip) Erdogan hands was accompanied by the personalization and deinstitutionalization of foreign policy".

“The third factor is the economic crisis," she continued. “As Ankara faces more and more economic trouble, the Turkish president tries to turn the attention of the population to Turkey's international and regional affairs, and its claims in different conflicts".

“The fourth factor is actually the fading domestic support", she added.

Furthermore, Aksoy predicted further Turkish military engagements in the neighborhood. “Erdogan needs this so-called assertiveness abroad", said Aksoy. “But these engagements are not sustainable in the long run."

According to Aksoy, Ankara is instrumentalizing the use of Islamic ideology, as it pursues an economic and security interest-based “nationalistic foreign policy," especially in dealing with Russia (on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) and with China (on economic matters). 

Lastly, the speaker assumed that the Turkish assertiveness and involvement abroad “has reached its limit now" from the economic point of view; thus, “the Turks will continue to mingle between powers".

“Historically, the Ottoman Empire has similarly played with the different superpowers" to achieve its interests, she concluded.

Henri J. Bakery described Turkey as a “revisionist power that is emerging on the regional level."

“Underlying this aggressive revisionism is obviously an attempt by Erdogan to make Turkey a consequential global power," he pinpointed.

On the question of how the West perceives Turkey, Bakery said that the dominant opinion in the US and Europe, sees that Turkey is a difficult ally to manage, and has always been so, even before Erdogan's access to power. These opinion holders are convinced that dealing with Turkey is no longer an option, but a must, given its strategic location and the fact that it is the second largest army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance.

“It is also a country that is willing to use force, unlike many other NATO members," continued Bakery. “This position has allowed Turkey to 'get away' with many things it has done over the last years."

However, there's another increasingly emerging school of thought in the US and Europe, according to Bakery. This other school thinks that the 'western powers' need to start taking a firm stance on Turkey' behavior abroad, otherwise, Turkey will keep pushing the limits further, and will get more and more revisionist and we can end up with really severe problems.

“The collision that took place between two Greek and Turkish naval ships, as well as the accident that took place between a French Navy ship and a Turkish naval ship off the coast of Libya" are examples that can illustrate the kind problems that can be expected.

He added: “The S400 purchase is an interesting emblematic issue in this context". But “the Turks will end up figuring out that they made a costly miscalculation with regard to moving forward with this deal", he predicted.

On the US-Turkey relations under the upcoming Joe Biden presidency, Bakery foresaw this issue's precedence in terms of the bilateral relations, with focus on the Turkish role in the protracted Syria war, where the refugee crisis - a dagger launched at the heart of both Turkey and Europe- is persistent. But most importantly, where the “Islamic State" organization has not been defeated as much as the existing president of the United States Donald Trump pretends, while fact, around 10,000 Da'esh (IS organization) fighters are currently organizing in northern Syria and Iraq.

“We will see a renewed commitment of the Biden administration to fighting the organization in Syria, with the (People's Protection Units) YPG being at the heart of these efforts, and maybe the deployment of even more US troops in northern Syria," he added. “This constitutes a redline for the Turks, who are determined that after Syria's civil war is over, its Kurds are going to get what the Iraqi Kurds got, maybe we will not see Syria as a Federation, but the Kurds might be rewarded with some kind of consolidation of the now existing autonomous situation."

Jana Jabbour highlighted the fact that “Ankara made a false calculation when the Arab revolutions occurred." It assumed that “Muslim Brotherhood movements" in the Arab world are going to win the elections, and imagined that these “Islamist parties" are going to build a new regional order that gravitates around Ankara, in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions.

"Now, of course, this calculation proved to be completely wrong and misguided because not only those Islamist in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Morocco, did not stay in power, but also they were not willing to actually implement a Turkish-led or Turkish inspired agenda, when they were in power," said Jabbour. "And of course, the biggest mistake of Ankara happened in Syria: What has been achieved so far in Syria for Turkey? Nothing much."

In terms of Turkish interest in Lebanon, Jabbour stated that “Turkey has strategic interests in Lebanon, namely containing Iran, containing Shi'a influence and Shi'a expansionism in Lebanon through Hezbollah, securing its energy interests; in particular, those recently discovered oil and gas resources in the East met, expanding its economic and political influence and presence in Lebanon, in particular, through building solid relations with the Sunni community here.

She explained that “96% of the Turkmens of Lebanon voted in favor of Erdogan, which was the biggest score he got from votes cast abroad."

“Turkey has been very much involved at the soft power level, but not at all in terms of hard power," she added.

However, in terms of challenges, Jabbour saw that Turkey's influence and popularity in Lebanon remains limited to the Sunni community, amid its failure in formulating a clear action plan and a long-term strategy for Lebanon.

“There are a lot of talks today about Turkey wanting to use Lebanon as a negotiating card, not only vis-à-vis the Gulf, but more importantly, vis-à-vis Europe," she continued.

She reminded of the recent Turkish alliances with the Sunnis in Lebanon strictly, whereas the French, and in particular French President Emmanuel Macron's administration sees the Christians of Lebanon as its “protégé."

On top of that, “they (France and Turkey) are competing about who's going to secure their energy interests first."

Jabbour concluded by saying that “Turkey knows perfectly that it has absolutely no strategic alternative to the West and to its western affiliations, and neither Iran nor Russia nor China can offer a credible alternative to it being part of NATO."


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