Turkey’s armed forces chief, General Hulusi Akar, is in Tehran for talks with Iran’s political and military leadership, including President Hassan Rouhani. His visit precedes President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit, scheduled for Wednesday, and comes as analysts suggest the use and threat of and military force are increasingly becoming part of Turkish foreign policy.
Analysts point out preliminary talks before a presidential visit are traditionally carried out by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, but note Akar’s agenda in Tehran had a strong military flavor.
Tehran and Ankara have issued thinly-veiled military threats to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, following its independence referendum last month. It passed with 92 percent of the vote.
News agencies on Monday reported the Iranian military had moved up heavy artillery to the Iraqi Kurdish border. The deployment matches that of the Turkish armed forces already massed on Turkey’s Iraqi Kurdish frontier, ostensibly for military drills.
“Turkey is now looking at a change in its foreign policy,” noted former Turkish ambassador to Iraq Unal Cevikoz. “Turkey is considering the threat of the use of force and the use of force as a viable option for realizing its foreign policy objectives, and that is dangerous.”
Cevikoz noted a possible increase in the Turkish military’s influence over foreign policy. Possible evidence of a growing military role in diplomatic affairs included an August visit by Russian and Iranian armed forces chiefs to the Turkish capital, Ankara. The visits reportedly focused on the ongoing civil war in Syria, where all of these countries have their military forces deployed.
Historic military role
Such a scenario is not new to Turkey. Throughout the 1990s, the peak of fighting by the Kurdish insurgent group the PKK, the military held sway over much of Turkish foreign policy.
In the 2000s, as part of his policy to demilitarize Turkish society, then-Prime Minister Erdogan ended the military role in foreign policy.
“Turkey believed that if Turkey wants to have a peaceful and stable environment in the Middle East, this could be achieved not through security policies or use of military power, but through enhancing economic cooperation,” noted Cevikoz, who now heads the Ankara Policy Center.
The 2015 collapse in Ankara’s peace process with the PKK, and the Syrian civil war, are seen as the impetus for a recalibration in Turkish foreign policy.
“When Syria became a very important area where international terrorism is now finding a fertile ground and when the civil war expanded in Syria, I think that saw Turkey is shifting back to its security policies,” Cevikoz said.
Some analysts see a more robust foreign policy backed up by force as a necessity.
“In such a turbulent and difficult region with a variety of security threats, Turkey needs hard power as part of a portfolio of instruments to influence regional developments,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Institute in Brussels. “In that sense, hard power in this region is necessary even if it’s to advance a diplomatic objective.”
Domestic politics could also be a factor driving Ankara’s more robust foreign policy approach, analysts note. In 2019, Turkey faces presidential and general elections; both are predicted to be close.
“President Erdogan increasingly has presidential elections in sight,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who is now a regional analyst.
Ankara has strained relations with several of its Western allies. And analysts warn there are questions over its future commitment to NATO as Erdogan’s rapprochement with Moscow deepens. The Turkish President has described his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as “a valuable friend.”
Erdogan is also looking to improve ties as he heads to Tehran.
Cevikoz said if Turkey is “serious about the secularization of its foreign policy,” then it will “have to coordinate with countries like Iran and Russia,” which are not allies.
But that will not be a permanent alliance, he said, which “in a way will leave Turkey as a kind of lone wolf in the region.”