Turkey Consults With Azerbaijan Amid Rising Regional Clout
Ankara is becoming a political force to reckon with as it grows its military presence, analysts say
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Tuesday to discuss the clashes in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in an example of Ankara’s increasingly aggressive diplomatic (and military) efforts to assert itself on the world stage.
Violence has been ongoing between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the enclave since the end of September, resulting in dozens of deaths.
Nagorno-Karabakh, with a population of about 150,000, is controlled by ethnic Armenians but is part of Azerbaijan under international law, and has been at the center of a decadeslong conflict between the two sides.
For years, Turkey pushed its ally Azerbaijan to negotiate, keen to avoid a confrontation with Russia, which backs Armenia.
There is a conflict that Turkey didn’t necessarily start, but it’s a conflict that Turkey can benefit from
Armenia has accused Turkey of providing military support to its ally and sending fighters from Syria to fight in the current clashes.
“There is a conflict that Turkey didn’t necessarily start, but it’s a conflict that Turkey can benefit from,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Stratfor geopolitical intelligence platform and publisher.
Bohl told The Media Line that Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is an attempt to show other countries in the region that it is a reliable ally as well as a power to be taken seriously in other conflicts.
Turkey in recent years has projected an increasing military presence in the wider region, including in Syria, Libya and Iraq.
“[Turkey] wants to be a competitor with countries like Russia, with countries like Iran who are also asserting their own individual interests … in this geopolitical vacuum that’s being caused by the United States retrenching and being unwilling to always act as the world’s policeman,” said Bohl.
Over the summer, tensions intensified with rival Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, where the two sides are arguing over maritime rights and gas exploration.
The European Union has warned Turkey it could face sanctions; however, there have been recent attempts between Ankara and Athens to de-escalate tensions.
Bohl told The Media Line that Turkey’s increased regional aggression is motivated by a range of issues, from those that matter to the average citizen, such as border security and migration, to a more general goal of expanding Ankara’s geopolitical influence.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also provides President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a distraction from the pandemic and Turkey’s economic struggles, Bohl said.
Berk Esen, an associate professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, does not believe there will be domestic backlash over Turkey’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, because it has widespread support, including from most of the opposition.
“The government is very smart to seize the initiative, take an active stance and then force the opposition to rally around the flag,” he said.
Another benefit for the Turkish government in increasing military activity is that it gets to have a voice in what happens with its neighbors.
“It has a seat at the table,” Esen said.
That, in turn, would provide a boost for the Kremlin, which would be dealing with Turkey rather than a strong power such as the US or EU.
Turkey has really steered away from this pro-Western axis and is increasingly acting more independently. That has allowed the current Turkish government to negotiate directly with Russia
In March, Ankara and Moscow struck a cease-fire deal after clashes left scores of Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian soldiers dead in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province.
The agreement stated that Turkey and Russia were committed to the sovereignty of Syria and determined to fight terrorism, both of which were key talking points for Moscow and its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The statement effectively allowed Assad to take back the entire country, which would include areas where Turkey and its allies had a military presence, meaning future clashes on the Anatolian nation’s border were likely.
Esen said something similar could happen in Libya, where Ankara and Moscow also support opposing sides in the civil war.
While Russia and Turkey have historically been enemies, Erdoğan has recently moved his country closer to Moscow as it drifts away from NATO allies.
Esen told The Media Line that Ankara’s distancing from its erstwhile allies means it has more latitude in how it deals with its neighbors.
“Turkey has really steered away from this pro-Western axis and is increasingly acting more independently,” he said. “That has allowed the current Turkish government to negotiate directly with Russia.”
Last year, Moscow delivered the S-400 anti-missile defense system to Turkey, which has angered the US.
Weapons used by NATO members are supposed to interoperable but those made by Russia would not be.
Washington fears that if Ankara uses the system along with American-made fighter jets, it could allow Moscow to figure out the US’s stealth technology.
Washington has threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey over the S-400 deal and has removed it from the F-35 fighter jet program.
Bohl said the key question is how severely Ankara’s aggressive global stance will damage its alliances.
“The more independent Turkey goes, the further it pushes itself away from its NATO and US allies, and it doesn’t have a backup,” he said. “If they do lose those close relationships, that would be a significant setback for Turkey.”