Turkey's expansive foreign policy and the imminent offensive in Libya - long read

''Up against the seven powers...'' This historic expression (''Yedi düvele karşı'') remains rooted deeply in the Turkish psyche and has become part of the recurring narrative, whenever Turkey's perception of itself vis a vis the West (and Russia) surfaced. In short, Turks have no friends; all are against them. This is the concept that guides Turkish foreign policy today.

The dramatic dimension of it is that its defenders in Ankara push the country into an adventurism which can only be compared to the late Ottoman government's erratic move to drag itself to WW1 in 1914.

It is impossible to understand the state of Turkish foreign policy without such a historic context. The end result of WW1 - the actual source of the ''seven powers'' idiom - still haunts the continuously hard-nationalist rulers of the country. As the Germans in the 1920s blamed the Versailles Treaty for all the suffering they had to face, it is not a hidden fact anymore that the current power constellation in Ankara - a curious blend of Islamists and aggressive secular nationalists - is increasingly verbal - albeit discreet - in questioning some key aspects of the Lausanne Treaty, which shaped modern Turkey as we know it today.

''Everyone should know that the Turkish nation, if it is pushed into self-isolation, an indifference to the developments in its vicinity, will cause irreparable risks for our homeland in the mid- and long run,'' said Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the ultra-nationalist party, the MHP, which is allied with the government.

He went on:

''The ultimate defence line of the homeland shall have to begin with the thresholds defined in the map of 'National Oath' (Misak-ı Milli). If Turkey makes any concessions from its rights, its thesis and ideals, it will mean making them debatable. The sole ground for our presence in the adjacent territories and countries is the interpretation of our national security and international law. Let it be known that if we ever retreat from those areas across our borders, if we buckle under the threats, Turkish homelands will be subject to simultaneous attacks by the traitors and oppressors.''

Such statements should never be taken as blurt-outs due to populism, nor as empty threats. Bahçeli is very serious, and he is the one which rules Ankara - including Erdoğan who is dependent on his support - as a de facto president of Turkey. He means what he says and knows that he has the backing of the ruling cadres and large bulks of society.

The crisis-ridden internal conditions of Turkey make it ripe for all sorts of anger-projections and daredevil adventure.

If anything, those who observe Turkey today should take it into account, with the perspective of what the duo of Erdoğan and Bahçeli - backed by some staunchly expansionist radical officers - envision for the country in 2023 - its centennial as a republic. The goal is ''Turkey made great again'', with permanent footholds in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, large chunks of the Eastern Mediterranean seabed, and Libya.

The latter, the most visible and fastest rising objective of Turkish ambitions, is actually its most decisive, yet, paradoxically, its weakest.

Whereas Ankara's cross-border incursions into Iraq and Syria have been met by timid and wobbly reactions from its allies, its daring intervention in Libya truly promises to place Turkey against the ''seven powers''.

The countries where concern is brewing include France, Russia, China (all of which are part of the Permanent Five at the United Nations), Israel, Egypt and Greece - not to mention Libya's neighbours, Tunisia and Algiers.

What about the United States? What keeps Washington in a hesitant position has to do mainly with Russia's intentions, but it is reasonable to argue that Erdoğan's push for a permanent foothold in Libya - widely criticised as a vital pillar of Turkey's Islamo-Nationalist aspiration of colonialism - exposes a huge gap between President Donald Trump and the key American institutions.

And this, namely the factor of Trump, is what Ankara sees as the weakest link in its challenge to the chain of the ''seven powers''. Each and every move by the Erdoğan-Bahçeli coalition in the East Med, and Libya, was emboldened by Trump's non-policy in those areas. Erdoğan noted success each time he cunningly kept Trump in his wobbly position and drove a wedge within NATO.

In short, it could be argued that, when the history about a large-scale calamity in the region is written in the future, Trump will be seen as the main culprit.

But, more than that, the laxness with which the peace-seeking segments of the West displayed in analysing the gravity of Turkish foreign policy is perplexing. The shock of COVID-19 could be to blame for this incomprehension, but it should have been predicted that such an outbreak during times in which multi-polarity is reigning in the international scene, mean extreme dynamics can be set in motion to feed on world disorder.

Erdoğan has read it correctly to his advantage, and keeps moving on, with success. He is far ahead of the ''seven powers'', including Russia.

What is at the core of current Turkish foreign policy? What to expect next in Libya, if it is a final testing ground for Ankara's new doctrine?

Here, Ilhan Uzgel's analysis can be of assistance in putting bits and pieces together. In a compelling piece of work, Uzgel - a columnist with the alternative digital media outlet, Duvar - offers us his ''tomography'' of Ankara's utterly decisive mindset. He calls it ''forward defence'' - fitting the policy line Bahçeli has been advocating all along - and offers us another key expression: ''Military first''.

Uzgel argues that it was no coincidence that the so-called ''Blue Homeland doctrine'' (developed by Admiral Cem Gürdeniz in 2006) then resurfaced. Yet because that was a time when the “Zero Problem with Neighbors” (ZPN) policy developed by ex-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was on the table, the former was shelved.

''Contrary to its passive connotation, the “Zero Problem with Neighbors” policy was an expansionist project aimed at reigning in the former territories ruled by the Ottoman Empire through soft power instruments... Although the ZPN policy challenged the Kemalist ideology, and the Blue Homeland doctrine is a product of Kemalist maritime officers, both ultimately relied on the idea of re-asserting Turkey’s influence in its wider region.''

''Yet after 2015, these two doctrines merged into a new synergy and formed the backbone of a more assertive and militarised foreign policy posture. The nationalists realised that allying with Erdoğan would bring crucial advantages, such as using the radical Islamists as a proxy back and forth in Syria and in Libya, and forging military ties with Qatar and Somalia. 

“The secular nationalists do not oppose forging ties with the Islamist Serraj-led government in Libya. Thus, both strategic doctrines merged silently and brought a new dynamism, which is reflected in growing authoritarianism at home and militarisation abroad. The political opposition, aside from the pro-Kurdish HDP, while critical of its domestic consequences, was largely behind this new assertive foreign policy. Public opinion, meanwhile, is generally supportive of it, except for the overseas Libya incursion'', Uzgel writes.

Has the doctrine proved successful in practice?

Uzgel’s conclusion is this:

''It helped it to obtain critical and strategic gains which Turkey would be unlikely to relinquish even if the AKP were to step down. The trio of traditional Turkish military might, its recent technological advancements (drones, airlift capabilities, professionalised army, its modernised warships) and effective use of Islamist fighters in the form of mercenaries or as proxies proved a formidable force in overturning the balance of forces on the ground.''

I find these observations - and therefore I quoted them largely - enlightening. Because these assertions help us understand how serious Erdoğan and Bahçeli are in their ambitions to advance as far as possible, ignoring the ceasefire calls to the full, in Libya, until they secure a victory in the city of Sirte and take the Jufra airbase. Given the stakes, and the duo's assessments on domestic crisis and world disorder, there should be no doubt about it.

Indeed, the signals from Ankara point to a roadmap of whipping-up Islamic and nationalistic sentiments vertically in the coming weeks. It seems that Erdoğan sees the fourth anniversary of the attempted coup as a symbol for launching a series of acts that aim to cement his power. Converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is therefore high on the agenda this week. But, what about Libya?

''Despite cease-fire calls from Moscow and others, Ankara’s operational preparations suggest that its allies in Libya — the forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord — might attempt to advance toward Sirte and al-Jufra in the second half of July,’’ wrote Metin Gürcan, a columnist with a military background, in a latest article for Al-Monitor.

Is it likely? Indeed it is. Erdoğan is the master of creating crisis, using the weaknesses in his antagonists, duping rivals, employing divide and rule policies.

Above all, his equation is simple: In order to survive politically, he has to constantly raise the stakes in a daredevil gamble. He may or he may not, but the fact of the matter is, the foreign policy he has helped shape will offer more problems than solutions in tackling the current world disorder.

The words ''civilised negotiations'' do not exist in this playbook, unfortunately.

Still, the Libyan crisis is only at the initial phase. The stage is set for a horror show.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.