Erdogan Seizes a Strategic Opportunity in Afghanistan

Erdogan Seizes a Strategic Opportunity in Afghanistan

Following the Taliban takeover, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decided that Turkey will maintain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan while its fellow NATO allies complete their evacuation. This development in Turkish foreign policy may be seen as part of a shift in strategic thinking in Ankara. Although Erdogan’s assertive approach to foreign affairs has shored up his political standing at home, it has resulted in Turkey becoming increasingly isolated. With the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, Erdogan is seizing the opportunity to reinvigorate his country’s strategic regional importance.

Assertive Foreign Policy proves Costly

It is clear that the post-Cold War order is shifting. The costly wars of Afghanistan and Iraq are calling into question the pre-eminence of the United States in international security affairs. Russia shows no fear to act outside its borders and China is in a good position to become the world’s largest economy. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, eyes an opportunity to cement his grip on power by transforming Turkey into a key regional player in the emerging multipolar system.

The instability following the Arab Spring in 2011 provided Erdogan with a regional environment where he could tap into Turkish nationalist sentiments and shore up his domestic political standing. Following his intervention in northeastern Syria, Erdogan successfully negotiated an agreement with Russia on removing Kurdish fighters along the southern Turkish border. Similarly, in Libya, Ankara became a key mediator through facilitating a long-term peace settlement with Moscow. Turning to the issue of Cypriot energy resources, Turkish backing of the UN-sanctioned Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli placed Ankara in a strong position to determine maritime boundary demarcation.

However, while securing geopolitical gains, Turkey’s assertive manoeuvres have put it at risk of isolation. A regional group under Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also been competing for influence since the 2011 uprisings. With Turkey breaking off diplomatic relations with Egypt after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed Mohammed Morsi in 2013, Ankara and the Saudi-Emirati-led bloc have been locked in a rivalry. Tensions have since escalated following Turkey’s backing of Qatar in the Gulf dispute and its intervention in Libya. As for the West, Turkish involvement in the conflict in Syria led to a deterioration in relations with the US while the issue over Cyprus resulted in EU sanctions.

Afghanistan Crisis offers a New Strategic Opportunity for Erdogan

Despite the risk of isolation causing problems for Erdogan, the crisis in Afghanistan adds a new regional dynamic where Ankara may acquire leverage.

The decision to maintain Turkey’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan enables Erdogan to address US security concerns. Following the NATO summit this year, the respective Turkish and US defence ministries held positive talks on securing Hamid Karzai International Airport following the US withdrawal. Erdogan’s initiative to discuss with the Taliban the future security of the airport represents a significant step towards mending Turkish-US relations. In holding such talks, Turkey is in a position to facilitate the objective of the Biden administration to ensure that the supply of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan remains.

Turkey’s continued commitment in Afghanistan also allows Ankara the chance to revive the important role it plays with the European Union. Ankara has been a key partner for Brussels in the management of irregular migration into Europe. Despite recent tensions, the risk of a refugee influx as a result of the Afghan crisis means that Brussels is under pressure to revisit its 2016 agreement on migration with Ankara. Taking full advantage of this, Erdogan warned the EU in a televised address that his country has ‘no duty, responsibility, or obligation to be Europe’s refugee house.’

In the Middle East, Iran’s influence puts Ankara in a good position to reduce tensions. Tehran made moves to step up its presence in Afghanistan prior to the NATO withdrawal in August. This comes amid the Gulf states’ efforts to alleviate tensions with the Islamic Republic. The Gulf Cooperation Council lifted the blockade on Qatar, which served to heal the rift in relations as a result of the UAE-Israel agreement. Since the Biden administration plans to restore the Iran nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia hopes that this soft stance will fuel positive relations with Washington. The free-hand given to Tehran means that Riyadh may have to look to Turkey to counter Iran in Afghanistan.  

Can Turkey Maintain Regional Influence without Causing Tensions? 

Turkey is facing the risk of isolation. Relations between Ankara and the regional bloc under Saudi Arabia and the UAE have struggled to advance positively since the Arab Spring. Although Erdogan’s assertive foreign policy in Libya and in Syria shored up his domestic political standing, it has alienated Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Turkish unilateralism abroad has also led to a rift in its relationships with Washington and Brussels.

Nonetheless, the crisis in Afghanistan has forced a geopolitical recalculation that heightens Turkey’s strategic regional importance. The continuation of a Turkish diplomatic presence in Afghanistan means that it would be in EU and US interests to work with Ankara to stabilise the region. Despite the purchase of a S-400 missile system from Russia remaining a source of tension in US-Turkey relations, Washington may welcome Turkey’s stabilising role in Afghanistan. Moreover, Turkish coordination of efforts on the crisis with Pakistan means that Ankara plays a key role in responding to Chinese influence in Central Asia. The EU, for its part, views the involvement of third countries, primarily Turkey, as key to regional security.

As for the Gulf states, the challenge Iran poses in Afghanistan means that Turkey is well-placed to improve its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Despite the risk of further isolation as a result of Turkish engagement with the Taliban, the current political environment in the region favours a reset. The end to the blockade on Qatar removes a key barrier to rebuilding Turkish-Saudi relations. Riyadh’s ally, Egypt, has also expressed a willingness to reach a compromise with Turkey over gas quotas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Lastly, in the summer, the UAE made moves to re-engage with Turkey after its economy took a hit as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The question is whether Erdogan can build on these efforts to normalise relations with the West and the Gulf. With the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, the Turkish president is in a strong position to do so.

Categories: Insights, Politics

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