Turkish Interventionism: Calculated Chaos to Consolidate Control

Turkish Interventionism: Calculated Chaos to Consolidate Control

. 6 min read

When discussing major powers within international politics, Türkiye is not normally the first country that comes to mind.  However, in the past two decades, Türkiye has positioned itself to be one of the upcoming major influences in global politics. The country's geographical and political positioning between Europe and the Middle East and the solidification of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership in the 2023 presidential elections suggest that Türkiye’s current international strategy—building many conflicting relationships and strategically playing opposite sides—will only continue. Türkiye has built unique relationships in the Middle East, within NATO, and with Russia and China that often conflict with one another. If left unchecked, this contradictory behavior will continue to threaten stable democracies.

Intervention in International Conflicts: Escalating not Negotiating

Syria. Within the Middle East, Türkiye has strategically positioned itself as a negotiator and unbiased ally on which countries can rely to resolve conflicts. In Syria, however, Türkiye’s foreign diplomacy often creates conflict instead of resolving it. In 2016, Erdoğan was a fundamental actor in helping Russia eliminate Islamist activists in Aleppo, which massively harmed the anti-Assad Islamist coalition’s war efforts. This coalition consisted of US-backed groups that supported democracy, and by helping Russia, Türkiye made it more difficult for the United States and other Western countries to have direct influence in the region. This military collaboration effectively solidified the relationship between the Russian and Syrian governments, which made it difficult for the United States to be involved in the conflict because intervention could cause conflict with Russia, a nuclear power. This initiative also escalated smaller-scale conflicts around the country because Russia could then sell and support Syria with weapons and air strikes. Türkiye gained credibility with Russia while still being a member of Western alliances.

Iraq. Türkiye’s contradictory actions and beliefs surrounding Islam suggest that Erdoğan’s goals are more about promoting himself politically than formulating a coherent foreign policy strategy. This motive can often be seen in his actions against the Kurdish people. In 2017, Erdoğan aided Iraq in ending Kurdish control in Kirkuk, helping the Shia government even though Türkiye’s government is Sunni. Erdoğan has spoken out against and ignored Shia populations within Türkiye, which is representative of how his foreign policy often contradicts his domestic policy. Erdoğan consistently prioritizes political expediency over any set ideology, including Sunni Islam.

A Western Ally Fraternizing with the West’s Enemies

Türkiye’s role in the Middle East has also evolved dramatically in the past year. Historically, Türkiye was much more hostile to Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE because it viewed regional dynamics as a geopolitical power play in which the only way to gain economic independence and eventually regional power was to be more aggressive. This resulted in Türkiye’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the Arab Spring. However, general discontentment in the country—the majority of the population believed that Erdoğan’s insular and sometimes hostile foreign policy goals were harming the Turkish economy—left Erdoğan vulnerable in the 2023 elections and forced him to focus on building relationships with other regional powers.

In the past few months, Erdoğan has visited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince has visited Türkiye more frequently to signal a normalization in relations. This growing alliance should be particularly concerning to the United States. Türkiye had been extremely hostile to Saudi Arabia since 2018 when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul at the Saudi consulate. The shift also seems to have occurred suddenly with little other context than the Turkish presidential elections. There are theories that this budding alliance is an economic move for Türkiye and offers another major trading partner, which would make Türkiye less dependent on the United States for arms sales and less reliant on Russia for gas and oil.

In a statement regarding the relationships, Erdoğan said “We need to enter a new process with countries in the region with whom we share the same faith, same ideas. This is not a process about increasing our enemies but about winning friends.” This statement is concerning for Western nations for several reasons. First, there is a focus on faith and Islam that Erdoğan has not pushed very hard as a unifying narrative in the past. He has begun to use this rhetoric as a reason the people of Türkiye are fundamentally opposed to Western nations. Second, the statement makes it clear that this friendship with Saudi Arabia is not a one-off-event, but rather a new strategy in foreign policy. This strategy reflects a shift away from reliance on the United States for both international credibility and for physical materials like arms sales.

Stoking Conflict within NATO

Türkiye has not only expanded its influence within its region but also within international alliances. Albeit never a typical member of NATO, Türkiye has only become more atypical and contentious in the past few years. For example, there were many questions about the integrity of Türkiye’s election this year, and there were reports of Erdoğan imprisoning journalists who spoke out against him.  Türkiye is one of the few countries in NATO that is only marginally democratic.

Erdoğan has always been careful to avoid or minimize leaders who are too outspoken about his autocratic regime. This posture has resulted in Türkiye blocking specific actions within NATO in the past. For example, Türkiye blocked actions by NATO to end support for the Syrian Democratic Forces and increase pressure on The Kurdistan Workers' Party. However, Türkiye’s blockage (and final relent) to allowing Finland and Sweden to join NATO has been more contentious and more calculated than past disagreements.  Erdoğan repeatedly leveraged Türkiye’s  dissent to convince the United States to sell the country F-16s and used both the sale of F-16 and his rhetoric against Kurdish populations in Sweden to help him win the 2023 election. This is particularly concerning within the alliance because of NATO’s consensus decision-making mechanism, which requires every member to approve important decisions and consequently allows Türkiye to hold the alliance hostage and require NATO to “buy” the outcome it wants. This tactic could drastically undermine the effectiveness of any decision-making within the alliance, which is a fundamental protection of democracy internationally. NATO’s ability to respond to conflicts quickly (like the Ukraine War) could be undermined in a world where an authoritarian actor is actively working against the alliance. More perceptually, NATO’s credibility is weakened when the alliance fails to function cohesively. That perception of democratic failure impacts democratic strength internationally.

Given its contradictory web of alliances, Türkiye also often plays an arbiter role, allowing the country to assume a leadership role that would normally fall to democratic superpowers like the United States or the United Kingdom. This dynamic can be seen in Türkiye’s role in the Ukraine conflict: the NATO negotiator that can work with both Ukraine and Russia. It also makes it more difficult for the United States to enhance security cooperation with EU allies because NATO cannot be efficient in approving actions. Furthermore, Türkiye cannot act as a reasonable, unbiased actor when the country is often involved in stoking conflict abroad, as in Syria and Iraq. This easily could lead to a future where Türkiye has commitments to both the US and Russia in a conflict somewhere like Syria. In this situation, Türkiye would have to choose sides, which could inevitably cause more conflict to break out.

Türkiye has been the only member of NATO to refuse to impose sanctions on Russia for the entirety of the Ukraine war and, at the same time, has started to import gold from Russia, which is also exporting gold to China and the UAE. This import agreement unites US allies with US enemies to pose a unique threat. It also allows Türkiye to play both sides, maintaining NATO membership while simultaneously building an anti-Western alliance.

Looking Ahead: How Should the West Respond?

So, with all of the dangers that Türkiye’s contradictory international strategy poses to democratic nations globally, the question of what the United States and its allies can do to prevent Türkiye’s continued increases in (and abuses of) power is essential. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Türkiye has maneuvered all NATO countries into a precarious corner in which punitive measures could cause Erdoğan to sabotage any future NATO action.

However, even though Türkiye is currently a major player in the international sphere, the country still has intense domestic problems, both culturally and economically. Türkiye faces an inflation rate of about 40 percent, and armed Kurdish forces continue to fight the Turkish military. Even though Erdoğan won the 2023 election, the threat of collapse, both within Türkiye’s economy and internal cultural disputes, should be enough to keep him in relative check if the United States and its allies can effectively leverage these domestic problems to contain Türkiye. For instance, these countries could stop significant arms sales to Türkiye. Erdoğan uses these sales to become more popular domestically, and the United States cutting them off could deal a considerable blow to his popular support. This solution would need to be done with clear justifications and in a gradual manner to ensure that Türkiye does not derail NATO in response.

As long as Erdoğan continues on Türkiye’s current foreign policy path, he will not only undermine Western power but also exploit and exacerbate tensions between the Middle East and the West and incapacitate NATO as a crucial bulwark of democracy worldwide. The danger of Türkiye’s power lies in its ability to change stances and play all sides, which is apparent both in the country’s Middle Eastern policies and its actions within NATO.  The United States and its allies must recognize this threat and act accordingly. Without concrete actions, a level of unprecedented power will continue to grow in Erdoğan’s Türkiye.