Is Erdoğan extending his influence into the Caucasus?
Not satisfied with his efforts to extend Turkey’s influence into the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, which has proved harder than similar efforts on land in Libya and Syria, President Erdogan has backed President Ilham Aliyev’s efforts in Azerbaijan’s decades long simmering conflict with Armenia.
Given Armenia’s dearth of Western political supporters, and its peripheral status within the West’s religio-cultural community, Erdogan only has to face down Russian interests to extend Turkey’s influence into the Caucasus.
Media reports allege that as Turkey did in Libya, it has moved allied irregular fighters from northern Syria to Azerbaijan. It has sold arms to Azerbaijan, reaping profits for the Turkish defense industry. In parallel, it has been fomenting the notion of pan-Turkism, calling for Azeris to recognize and embrace their natural affinity with Turks, a call aided by the closeness of the two languages, both now written in Latin script.
Now with the outbreak of hostilities, Erdoğan has expressed full support for the Azerbaijani position, eschewing the role of mediator or honest broker between the warring parties. While the United States calls for the Minsk group to mediate, China offers its good offices, Russia calls for calm and an end to fighting, and Iran offers to broker talks, Turkey stands out as having placed itself fully on the side of one party to the conflict. Erdoğan has no interest in a resolution of the conflict that does not enhance his prestige in Azerbaijan and political influence in the Caucasus region.
And he may get his wish. China is too far away to play much of a role, and it has few diplomats trained to be honest brokers instead of discerning and advocating forcefully for China’s interest. Iran, with a population that is one-quarter ethnic Azeris and relatively few ethnic Armenians, would likely be seen as tilting towards Baku over Yerevan. The Minsk group would need substantial political capital invested by the U.S. to be effective as a mediator, and with the U.S. election in full-swing, there is little expectation the White House will back the Minsk group, or intervene itself, to bring a halt to the fighting. And while the UN will pass resolutions calling for cease fires, action to stop the fighting is unlikely.
Which leaves Russia on the side of Armenia, and Turkey on the side of Azerbaijan. It is unlikely the two greater powers will allow their clients to go so far as to pull their big brothers into the conflict, but the risk is there.
The greater danger is that, Aliyev, backed by Erdoğan, wrapping his actions in calls for justice, will not seek a compromise and extend the fighting over time and terrain. Unlike specific identified territorial or other material goals, throwing the mantel of justice on war efforts leaves little room for horse-trading and compromise to settle a dispute in which each party gets less than what they desire, yet accepts that because they know the other party got the same. To satisfy the demands of “justice” or “honor” or similar concepts increases the likelihood that the conflict will only be resolved at great cost, for how can one relent when injustice is still occurring? And since each side will insist its cause is just, where is the room for sensible, realistic compromise?
President Erdoğan likely views a protracted conflict as contrary to his interests. A short demonstration of support for Aliyev and Azerbaijan via the provision of arms, air support, military intelligence, and the transportation of irregular fighters (but not regular Turkish soldiers) will serve to cement his image as the defender of all Turkic peoples against the anti-Turkish Westerners. Linked to this will be the subtle message, and not so subtle suggestions from his acolytes, that Erdoğan defends the Muslim Azeris against the Christian Armenians, a Sultan wielding the sword to defend the faithful.
He’ll have to be careful. Putin may not so willingly cooperate with Turkey over the division of influence in Russia’s “near abroad” as it has done in Syria and to a lesser degree in Libya.
In the U.S. Congress, Erdoğan’s full-throated support for Azerbaijan will not go down well with many members, particularly those with strong ties to the well-organized and well-to-do Armenian-American communities. Erdoğan’s standing with the Democrat-dominated U.S. House of Representatives could not get much lower, so the voices of the Armenian-American lobby will find receptive ears.
Likewise with the White House, which has shown increasing impatience, or at least a less supportive attitude, towards Erdoğan. Yet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not likely to push the U.S. forward as a mediator between the two Caucasus rivals, instead advocating a greater role for the Minsk group, in part to buy time until after the Nov. 3 election.
In sum, President Erdoğan is likely to realize his goal of increasing his and Turkey’s prestige among the Azeris and most other Turkic peoples of the region, as well as further convincing himself that he is the pre-eminent protector and defender of Turkic/Muslim peoples wherever they live. Like imperial leaders of all times, his reliance on client states and subordinate allies is no surprise and spares him the risk of losing votes if Turkish soldiers were to be killed fighting for others and not the motherland. His actions regarding Nagorno-Karabakh are another step in the process of undoing Ataturk’s secular and Western orientation of Turkey.