Russia's war in Ukraine has put a spotlight on Turkey as perhaps the only country with a relationship of genuine influence in both Kyiv and Moscow. It is this closeness that helps explain why Istanbul was the site of the latest attempt at peace talks this week. But while acting as a mediator, Turkey is also a key Ukrainian defense partner, especially with the supply of its now-renowned unmanned drones that had already been successful against Russian forces elsewhere.
Although Turkey's relationship with Ukraine has grown in importance in its own right, it should not come as a revelation to find the Turkish government supporting resistance to a Russian invasion. The apparent surprise of many observers in the West at the Turkish role in Ukraine is more revealing of a latent confusion in public opinion. Turkish drones helping Ukraine to uphold international law have earned praise, while Turkish drones being used to assert Azerbaijan's internationally recognized borders in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh earned Turkey an export ban on components in the drones that are procured from Canada. That Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia have faced no such interruption, despite atrocities in Yemen, is revealing of the relentless cycle of principles and hypocrisy that typifies Western regional engagement.
This balancing of interests goes far beyond Turkey's NATO membership, which has been contentious, to say the least. Turkey has a more recent history of confrontation with Russia, including in Syria and Libya, borne in part out of a Turkish preference for a regional political culture based on some degree of participatory democracy, versus a Russian comfort with base authoritarianism. Understanding this dynamic also illuminates something about the Turkish response to the Arab uprisings of 2011, widely known as the Arab Spring.
Although Turkey's relationship with Ukraine has grown in importance in its own right, it should not come as a revelation to find the Turkish government supporting resistance to a Russian invasion.
- Julian Sayarer
As their hands-off responses to the invasion of Ukraine have made clear, Russia enjoys warmer ties with Gulf Arab states and Egypt, and until now even some of their Western backers, than it does with Turkey—a relationship that has been typified by a cautious confrontation. Russia's increasing closeness with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's authoritarian regime in Cairo, and the monarchy in the United Arab Emirates, piggybacks on the United States' own support for Sisi following his 2013 coup, and the seemingly unconditional support of Sisi and the Emiratis from President Emmanuel Macron in France. An organized and collective media amnesia now reimagines Russian intervention in Syria as a rogue act to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, rather than one that was perceived as an anti-ISIS mission coordinated with U.S. Central Command at the highest levels. It goes without saying that Russia destroyed the areas it helped Assad's regime retake from ISIS, while a city like Mosul in Iraq, no less leveled by U.S. bombing in the campaign against ISIS, can instead be said to have been "liberated."
Although Turkey striking out with a more independent foreign policy in the region has been criticized by many Western observers as destabilizing or even neo-Ottoman, a changing Turkish attitude is no mystery. The early millennium saw steadfast and Islamophobic opposition to Turkish integration with the European Union, which encouraged Turkey to look to develop its historical ties in the Middle East and North Africa. The popular revolutions across the Arab world in 2011 presented Turkey with the opportunity to help develop democratic openings more in keeping with its own social-political fabric than the prevailing authoritarianism of the region, enmeshed as it remains with Western neocolonialism.
Turkey's most significant actions in this regard have notably been on the other side of Russia. The principal deployment of Turkish forces against Russia and its allies, of course, has been in Syria. In addition to hosting four million Syrian refugees since Syria's civil war began, Turkey has maintained a troop presence in Syria itself, in the northwestern province of Idlib, with the aim of securing the border to prevent an influx of more refugees. The deployment also prevents reprisals it justifiably fears would be perpetrated against the displaced and largely anti-regime population living in the northwest. In 2020, Turkey's incursion into northwest Syria led to fears of a direct conflict between Russia and Turkey, after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in Idlib.
Since consolidating its presence in Idlib, Turkey has not only provided military protection to Syrian civilians. It has also extended Turkish electricity infrastructure in order to provide power, and the Turkish lira has circulated informally, offering relative stability compared to the obliterated Syrian pound. Turkey, meanwhile, has nudged Syrian rebel groups toward more respect for international norms on the rights of displaced people, while also undertaking a program of home construction to get refugees out of tent encampments.
Turkey has a recent history of confrontation with Russia, in Syria and Libya, borne in part out of a Turkish preference for a regional political culture based on some degree of participatory democracy, versus a Russian comfort with base authoritarianism.
- Julian Sayarer
The second consequential deployment by Turkey against Russian-backed forces has been in Libya, where Turkey intervened, including with drones, to support the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli, which was besieged by warlord Khalifa Haftar and his breakaway Libyan National Army. Haftar, a Libyan general who also has U.S. citizenship, has counted on the support of a motley crew of the UAE, Egypt, Russia and its paramilitary organization, the Wagner Group (modeled on the U.S. private mercenary force, Blackwater), and even France.
Despite Haftar's bombing of civilians in Tripoli and evidence of war crimes, including mass graves at the nearby town of Tarhouna, none of it was enough to break either Russian support or that of the UAE, a key U.S. partner in the region. Italy—the Western country with most at stake, owing to the prospect of increasing refugee crossings from Libya and the nearby island of Lampedusa—was the sole Western government to give any support to Turkey's policy of backing the Tripoli government.
For its part, France, which is bemusingly often held up as a plausible leader of a "strategically autonomous" European foreign policy, went so far as to endorse Russia's role in Libya as recently as the summer of 2020, primarily out of French obsession with supporting any rival to Turkey in the Mediterranean. That created the spectacle of a NATO member backing the adversary of a fellow NATO member, in order to prolong the war in Libya, years after NATO's intervention, and further Russian interests—as close as it gets to the reverse of NATO's founding purposes, however dated they may be.
The U.S. under the Trump administration, meanwhile, greenlit Haftar's Russia-backed offensive on Tripoli in 2019, thus endorsing the return of a Gaddafi-era warlord, and so Libya, to the status quo ante. Whatever its controversial use of mercenaries from Syria inside Libya, Turkey in effect acted to safeguard whatever gains could be said to have emerged, including the rump of a political process, from the Libyan revolution and the subsequent, mostly disastrous NATO mission.
But even more than being on the opposite side of Russia in these conflicts, Turkey's actions reflect its role in the Arab uprisings. Turkey has been a haven not only to Syria's refugees but also its dissidents. To the fury of Sisi and his Gulf sponsors, Turkey also offered sanctuary to Egyptian dissidents, both secular and religious, ensuring that hundreds if not thousands of Egyptians now in Turkey have been spared the fate of those massacred in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square or thrown in Sisi's jails by the tens of thousands.
None of this is to assert some Turkish right to intervene militarily in other countries without scrutiny, nor to excuse political shortcomings within Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's own illiberalism, particularly in response to the attempted military coup in 2016, complicates the image of an aspiring regional power backing democratic movements against an authoritarian tide. Nonetheless, giving credit where it is due to Turkish policy also adds weight to constructive criticism where it is required—for example on the precarious status of the Kurdish-rooted Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) domestically, or the dire need for peace processes with Kurdish groups in and out of Turkey.
If Turkish support for Ukraine is further evidence of its growing role in containing Russian expansionism, the recent history of its support to Arab states, peoples and movements that face threats of authoritarianism or subjugation, including the Palestinians, has seen Turkey clash with the interests of the UAE, France, Israel and the U.S., not only those of Russia. Whether Turkey now sees further support for its policies outside of Ukraine will be a valuable test of how deep the West's recent commitment to democracy really is, and if it reaches into the Arab world.