Erdoğan's chaos and instability a threat to the world

In the few months that have passed since my last article in Ahval outlining the threat Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan poses for regional and global stability, Ankara has made unprecedented moves to further destabilise the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Caucasus.

While Erdoğan's regime is by no means the only destabilising element in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, it has become abundantly clear that the Turkish president is pursuing a course that inevitably leads to regional wars, and has no qualms about manipulating NATO into making irrevocable choices via dangerous brinkmanship.

The latest clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border are further evidence that the Erdoğan regime offers nothing but further chaos in the name of "protecting Turkey's interests". As long as he is able to sell the idea that was he is doing is in the best interest of Turkey to his domestic audience, Erdoğan will maintain the ability to utilise the country's resources toward more opportunistic adventures abroad.

Many outlets and commentators have focused on the history of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, dating back decades to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But there were relatively few voices that pointed at the curious timing of the latest clashes. To understand the dynamics immediately behind the dangerous situation in the Caucasus, one has to identify several actors along with their motivations.

Azerbaijan's domestic concerns

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev might have domestic concerns in pushing for an escalation with Armenia, but his administration has nothing to gain from a prolonged, full spectrum conflict with Armenia, which would be devastating for both countries.

The key to understanding his actions lies in the fact that Aliyev would not act without having Erdoğan's full support in such a conflict. If he thinks he can "get away" with such a confrontation with broad Turkish support, it is possible that especially a limited conflict with tangible gains would look attractive.

Baku's military spending

Aliyev's perspective could also be influenced by the fact that for many years now, the oil-rich economy of Azerbaijan has enabled unprecedented military spending that has altered the region's military balance, to the tune of $14.8 billion per year as of 2019. In comparison, Armenia's entire GDP last year was $12.4 billion.

No state invests such multiples of their adversaries just for show or deterrence. They invest such extravagant amounts because they intend to or plan to use the capabilities, decisively.

Of course, military conflicts are not won simply by having more or better quality military hardware; other factors, from training to morale, doctrine to leadership, as well as the actions of outside actors, can have a decisive influence in the outcome.

Armenia's lack of options

Armenia does not have a lot of choices and this has been the case for quite some time. Armenia is a small, landlocked country with few natural resources, and its only major supporter is Russia. In return, Armenia is the strategic stronghold of Russia in the Caucasus, a region where it has no intention of losing influence. Choices and options come from one's strengths, adversaries' weaknesses, and contextual opportunities. Armenia has not been in a position of advantage in these fields for a long time.

Even if this immediate crisis is managed and the conflict is avoided for the time being, nothing changes the mid-to-long term strategic outlook. In other words, unless the current balance of power or motivations of the main actors change, we will see these sorts of conflicts and worse in the future.

Turkey's increasingly aggressive foreign policy                                                                            

Erdoğan's regime is locked in an un-winnable series of confrontations against multiple self-made adversaries, in a wide-ranging geography, spanning from Libya to Syria. In various theatres of conflict, it is facing Russia, France, Israel, Egypt, Greece, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and smaller actors, while its only consistent supporter is the Gulf nation of Qatar, which keeps injecting funds into Turkey's ailing economy via multiple methods.

Thanks to the perplexing allowances made by the U.S. administration and the endemic disunity, lack of direction and decisiveness of the European Union, Erdoğan's regime has been able to survive and thrive in conditions that would have destroyed it a hundred times over in any historical circumstance.

Under these circumstances, Erdoğan continues to double down on his bets, hoping to drag larger entities into conflict. The Turkish leader’s actions in Libya are a perfect example of how Turkey's current regime has become NATO's Achilles' heel, threatening to either destroy the world's strongest military alliance or to draw it into a series of conflicts with no end in sight.

Being so deeply invested in spreading conflict and feeling the instability caused by the imminent collapse of the Turkish economy, Erdoğan’s willingness to send Russia a message in what Moscow considers its "backyard" is a natural extension of its existing policies.

Russia's interests

Despite all the diplomatic manoeuvres to avoid a direct confrontation, Russia increasingly finds itself facing Turkey in every theatre on its southern flank. While opportunistic moves in Libya are intended to expand its influence and capability in the Mediterranean, its current positioning in Syria does not allow for much room.

Russia simply cannot afford to "lose" in Syria. And it certainly cannot allow its influence in the Caucasus to be undermined by a Turkish-Azeri complot against Armenia.

We know from recent history that Russian President Vladimir Putin can act decisively, and militarily, when certain geo-strategic lines in the sand pertaining to Russian security are crossed. The Caucasus is not less valuable than Crimea and Ukraine, it is a vital region for the long-term priorities of Russian foreign policy.

The passivity of the United States

Finally, the position of the United States during the present administration has been uneven and ambivalent vis-à-vis its presence and long-term interests in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The fragmented responses to developing situations in Syria and Libya do not inspire allies with confidence, and allow for room to manoeuvre for desperate authoritarian regimes like that of Erdoğan’s to sow discord and long-term imbalance.

The transactional approach of the administration on complex and comprehensive matters of foreign policy has resulted in the greatest geopolitical power on the planet to take a back step in one of the most strategically vital regions of the world.

This does not mean that the United States has lost its ability to return decisively in any of these arenas, but the continuation of the current incoherent approach would only foster more daring gambits by regional actors.

Implications

So what can we expect in the Caucasus in the short term? It is very unlikely - but not entirely impossible - that the current clashes will be allowed to escalate into a full-blown war. No major actor supports this course of events, even if Erdoğan's voter base, riled up by reheated visions of conquest and having recently and absurdly "re-conquered" the Hagia Sophia, has long harboured visions of invading and ethnically cleansing Armenia. Multiple statements by pro-Erdoğan groups, and maps showing Armenia as a part of a neo-Ottoman imperial Turkey are an attestation to this group.

Given the capabilities and motivations of actors outlined in this article, decisive action by Washington is imperative to curb not only the imperial ambitions of the Erdoğan regime, but to prevent further degradation of the situation in a vast area, that will otherwise lead to a series of regional wars without victors.

For the future of NATO, regional stability, and ultimately in order to prevent catastrophic chain reactions on a global scale, Erdoğan must be made to understand that he will no longer be allowed to spread chaos and destruction with impunity.

Perhaps more importantly, the Turkish people need to be made aware of the situation, and allowed to make a choice for their future, between a forward-looking, prosperous, Western, modern Turkey, and a fundamentalist, intolerant, economically-collapsed, marginal society, embroiled in endless regional wars. If the latter vision overcomes the former, woe unto the world.

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