Turkey’s militarized foreign policy provokes Iraq
For years, domestic balances, threat perceptions and foreign policymaking institutions have had an important effect on Turkey’s foreign policy pattern. However, the country’s foreign policymaking mechanisms have gone through serious structural changes in the past two decades.
Before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, foreign policy decision-making mechanisms were made up of both high-ranking military generals and diplomats. The National Security Council was the key body in those times. Civilian politicians and elected leaders were not very influential in the decision-making processes, especially concerning national security matters. It was always said that “national security matters are too important to be left to civilian officials.”
With the structural changes carried out by the AKP, however, Turkey’s foreign policymaking became more “civilized” compared to “militarized,” as the monopoly of the military bureaucracy and retired generals was challenged. Since then, almost everyone in Ankara has been able to speak on foreign policy matters and even take part in the process of implementing foreign policy. From the president’s spokesperson to interior minister, many officials other than the foreign minister regularly intervene in the foreign policymaking process.
Up until 2010, Ankara largely pursued soft power tools in its foreign policy, limiting its military force to countering the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) threat. However, since 2016, Turkey’s foreign policy has significantly altered from being soft to hard power-driven, as seen on several fronts. Both domestic and regional factors have driven this militarization. In the domestic realm, this policy strengthens the government’s hand in maintaining public support. In the regional realm, through this policy Ankara aims to recalibrate its position in the regional order, while facing disquieting risks to its stability.
Today, Turkey has its troops deployed in at least nine countries, from Syria to Iraq, Libya to Azerbaijan and Qatar to Somalia, while it also carries out a series of cross-border operations in its immediate neighborhood. However, its increasing reliance on military tools to pursue national security goals has put Ankara at odds with several actors in the region. The latest is Iraq.
Baghdad this week summoned the Turkish envoy to protest the visit of Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to a military base in northern Iraq, as Turkish troops continue their cross-border offensive against the PKK, which uses Iraqi soil to launch attacks on Turkey. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday that it handed the Turkish diplomat “a protest note” over “violations of Iraqi sovereignty” by Akar’s visit to the Turkish facility. Ankara responded that its cross-border operations and bases are not a violation of Iraqi sovereignty but an effort to eliminate the PKK, and it will continue to carry out its operations.
Akar, who visited the Turkish base in northern Iraq on Saturday, was accompanied by Chief of the General Staff Gen. Yasar Guler and Land Forces Commander Umit Dundar. During the visit, Turkish military officials were briefed about the latest offensive, called “Operation Claw Lightning,” in Metina in the northern Iraqi region of Dohuk. A day prior to this visit, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced that Turkey would be establishing a new base in Metina, similar to one in northern Syria, and it would be used to surveil and curtail the PKK’s movements between its strategic hiding places in the Qandil Mountains. Speaking to members of the AKP’s executive board, Soylu said: “Metina is an important region. Just as we did in Syria, we will build a base here and monitor the region. This area is a route to Qandil; we will control this route.”
Since 2016, Turkey’s foreign policy has significantly altered from being soft to hard power-driven.
Baghdad has protested against Turkey’s military operations on its soil several times in the past and complained about the growing Turkish military presence within its territory. In the past, Turkish-Iraqi relations were seriously strained by the presence of Turkish troops at the military base in Bashiqa, which Ankara established in 2015. However, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi seems unlikely to want to increase the tensions with Ankara at the moment due to its own domestic troubles. However, Iran, through its Shiite proxies in Iraq, seems to remain firmly against the growing Turkish military presence at its doorstep. Last month, the Bashiqa base was attacked by rockets likely to have been launched by Iran-backed militiamen. One Turkish soldier lost his life in this attack.
Amid the Turkish operations against the PKK that have caused problems with Iraq, a US delegation headed by Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk met with top Iraqi officials on Tuesday, before visiting northern Iraq on Wednesday. Turkey considers McGurk to be the architect of America’s cooperation with the Syrian wing of the PKK, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and accuses him of empowering Kurdish terrorism. Thus, while Turkey flexes its muscles against the PKK in the northern regions of Syria and Iraq, McGurk’s visit may encourage the Kurdish militias.
Turkey’s embrace of military tools in its foreign policy agenda is likely to run into local and foreign actors whose aims are to consolidate their power in the region at the expense of a Turkish military presence.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz