Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets a crowd during a mass opening ceremony at Kecioren Kalaba Square in Ankara on February 11, 2019. Photo: Adem Altan / AFP)

Isolated to Syria’s north, Muslim but not Arab, an emerging economy in monetary peril, a strong NATO member with roguish mannerisms, a porous border facilitating the “godmothering” to Salafist and Takfirist groups and equally susceptible to the Kurdish problem, Turkey is in a quagmire.

Much of this quagmire is of Ankara’s own making through its machinations, and ever more boorish neo-Ottoman stratagem, but how deep is the hole Turkey has dug for itself?

There’s no T in BRICS

Turkey hopes to gain from its essentialness as a bearer of transitory gas pipelines and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) rail lines since tiring of the stagnant process of ascension to the European Union.

However, the idea that the Turkish government has of Turkey being an attractive applicant to the BRICS grouping – to become the BRICTS – isn’t convincing. It’s just as unlikely that BRICS will become TRICS, with the casting out of an ultra-right Brazil. Such decisions aren’t made quickly and Turkey may be more transitory than Brazil but Brazil is the nascent springboard into Latin America, for Chinese investment especially. Its right turn can be reversed, by politics or by the honesty of trade and economics.

Sure, Recep Tayyip Erdogan can show interest, drop hints to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and agree to the stipulations of all Chinese investments, but why would the Chinese bail out a Turkey whose gross foreign debt was unveiled as nearing US$500 billion in early 2018 with $179 billion maturing from mid-2018 to July 2019? China has its own overt and covert debt problems.

An autocratic strongman is desirable in the eyes of Russia and China, but sponsorship of and dealings with insurgent proxies in Syria are not. Neither are the Turkic links to “East Turkestan” or China’s Xinjiang province, and Erdogan’s mobilization of Turkic groups in Syria. Groups like the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Salafist jihadist unit filled with Uighurs from Xinjiang who have been cast out of China, have supported Turkish objectives like Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria.

The methodical Chinese leadership is febrile in its efforts to dispel Turkic identity in Xinjiang and disdain Turkey’s connection to these groups and its critique of China’s repressive measures in Xinjiang.

In comparison, Egypt, for example, would be far more pliable than a proud and militarized neo-Ottoman Turkey. In fact, Egypt is far more attractive because of its larger but more impoverished populace (97 million) dependent on fiscal handouts and US military aid, and it holds the Suez Canal.

Beijing may not have an intention to repay its debt so it can match and surpass US aid to Egypt, which is under less threat of geographical fragmentation, unlike Turkey’s Kurdish conundrum, and is also the geographical link between North Africa and the Arab Middle East. Its Arab-African demographic on the pivotal African continent, for China, would ingratiate Chinese BRI plans between the two regions, along with being connected to Sunni Arabia in a deeper way compared with isolated Turkey.

An unattractive image problem is only the start.

From boom to bust

South Africa, Indonesia, India, all seemed to suffer as the Turkish lira declined sharply in 2018, cascading into a deleterious situation because of the interconnectivity of emerging markets. Turkey’s economic woes are undesirable for those markets and even the EU, but Ankara really has economic problems to address.

A while back, when US monetarists were lowering interest rates to or below 0%, Turkish capitalists and investors realized they could borrow foreign monies without cost, and used the borrowed money for any investment. Vast property construction for the wealthy upper classes ensued in housing and land, such as in Istanbul, leading to a short-lived boom in Turkey.

Nobody really cared that it was all dependent on borrowed money and risky investments; it seems that capitalists rarely do. Those risky investments began to prove to be hollow, and coupled with the rising of interest rates by the US Federal Reserve to protect its own inevitably endangered economy due to over-pumping money into the economy (quantitative easing), Turkey began to decline.

The Fed is trying to pull all this printed money back out of the economy (quantitative tapering), causing investors to pull their money out of emerging markets like Turkey, hollowing out the foundations of the Turkish boom

Now, the Fed is trying to pull all this printed money back out of the economy (quantitative tapering), causing investors to pull their money out of emerging markets like Turkey, hollowing out the foundations of the Turkish boom. This is leaving many Turks caught in the middle because those risky investments they made aren’t paying off and increasing debts. Equally, Turks can’t afford the higher interest rates or the payments on their numerous investments.

What’s worse is that the Turkish economy borrowed all this money in US dollars and euros, and as the lira declined Turkish debtors had to give far more lira to repay the loans in the units they borrowed in, leading to restructuring debts in lira; building levies against a tide of debt.

The high current-account deficit, private-sector debt – largely buttressed by this borrowed money – and market-unfriendly policies are only exacerbating the mounting financial woes for Turkey.

What is important is that the recent currency debacle unveiled Turkey’s thin veneer masquerading as a booming economy, revealing fiscal impotency for BRICS membership. Syrian policies, along with isolation into a “Third Axis” with Qatar (but we’ll get to that in a minute) keep the now curtailed media’s attention fixed outside the woes of Turkish citizens’ lighter pockets.

An abysmal mistake

Ankara’s adventurism in Syria has been an abysmal mistake, which has damaged the Turkish economy, speculatively led to a failed coup, whether it was an internal Turkish deep-state conspiracy or an external effort, causing a purge in the civil services, a strangulation of the press, and further polarization between secularists desiring to remove Erdogan and his fundamentalist policies.

It has also catalyzed blowback through what Ankara sees as the No 1 strategic concern for Turkey: its Kurdish problem. However, Turkish involvement in Syria accentuated the threat from Syria’s Kurdish population on Turkey’s southern border, and within Turkey’s south and east. This led to renewed crackdowns and violence on Turkish Kurds and the ending of a peace agreement with Turkey’s Kurdish paramilitaries and resulted in Damascus viewing Turkey as its primary adversary.

While Turkey has hosted a large number of Syrian refugees, Erdogan’s policies led to the ransacking of Syria. Turkey’s porous border supported myriad Takfiri groups or ambiguous groups like so-called “moderate rebels” and the Free Syrian Army that amalgamated into al-Qaeda in Syria (currently Hayat Tahrir al-Sham).

Erdogan’s reported familial profiteering through trade with Daesh (ISIS), the industrial plundering of Syria’s manufacturing technology from hundreds of Aleppo’s factories – machines now used in Turkey to produce clothes – also are why Turkey now faces a vengeful Syrian government.

As President Donald Trump eventually withdraws illegal US troops from Syria’s Kurdish region (the right decision), Erdogan’s commitment to creating a security zone inside Syria would further erode its own stability and provoke Damascus. The Trump administration is trying to placate Turkey and find a compromise that wouldn’t result in Turkish assaults on Syria’s Kurdish YPG and SDF militias; however, the Syrian Kurds are inviting the Syrian Arab Army to re-establish control over their region, solidifying their safety.

If all comes to pass, Erdogan’s government will have to live with the risk of Damascus sponsoring Kurdish paramilitaries’  breaching of the long Turkish border to foment and propel a more intensive Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency than previously experienced, just as Syria has suffered through a porous Turkish border.

The Turks experienced this before with the low-intensity Undeclared War of the 1980s and 1990s. Even when Muslim Brotherhood factions attempted to overthrow Hafez al-Assad through a murderous campaign in Hama, Hafez’s Syrian government brutally crushed the insurgents. These insurgents were seen by Damascus as supported by Turkey, and the Syrians fired back with supporting Kurdish insurgents and communist militias in Turkey.

Thus Ankara is attempting to create an aegis against such an operation by moving Syrian refugees into Syrian Kurdish border areas in the hope of “Arabizing” them with Turkish-friendly Sunni Syrians grateful for refuge in Turkey. Jarabulus, a town sitting squarely in the Jarabulus Corridor that was used to convey logistical supplies into Syria for myriad militias, and al-Bab are already governed through Turkish-appointed officials. In Afrin, Turkish soldiers, and Free Syrian Army units embedded with them, ethnically cleansed the town by ejecting 200,000 Kurds and are “Arabizing” it through illegal population transfers.

Some 260,000 Syrians have been returned to this area since Turkey carried out its Euphrates Shield operation, which drove out whole Kurdish communities. Concurrently, Turkey is carrying out air strikes on northern Iraq to eradicate  PKK bases there. Resettling Sunni Arab Syrian refugees from Turkey back into northern Syria to have a friendly local population on its border is Turkey’s perennial policy to remove cross-border Kurdish cooperation.

Erdogan has also promised Putin that he will solve the Idlib dilemma, which sees a cauldron of between 45,000 and 70,000 militants from an array of factions remaining in that Syrian province. Ankara doesn’t want these Takfiris entering Turkey but doesn’t want their defeat either, especially now that Assad’s government has in effect won the Syrian war because their existence keeps Syria fragmented. These Islamists could also be utilized against the Kurds.

However, Damascus won’t allow such proxies to annex its territory. Since al-Qaeda (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) is in control of Idlib, Turkey faces the prospect of a military engagement against a battered but well-weathered Syrian Arab Army and Russian repercussions.

All of this is a rather large hole Turkey has dug for itself that consumes resources, diverts social spending, and shakes domestic stability.

Creating more enemies 

Aside from financial woes and a quagmire in Syria with Damascus and Russia, Turkey has created yet more enemies.

Deep into the Turkey-Qatar-Saudi Arabia-UAE alignment to overthrow Assad, a split came after the western front of Syria went quiet and the Syrian Arab Army, not harassed by rearguard attacks, expanded east and regained Daesh-controlled territory. The reason for the silencing of Turkish-backed groups in western Syria came as the Turks realized the US was going to support the Kurds.

Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated AKP recalibrated with Qatar and extracted itself from the Saudi-led bloc due to being renegades in policy, Muslim Brotherhood patrons – a point of contention with Riyadh and the Emirates – and also in being blamed for making costly strategic mistakes in their sponsorship of proxies in Syria.

As the Syrian War went sour for all “Assad must go” proponents, the Qataris were embargoed for forgetting to consider the pride of the House of Saud, while the Turkish government suffered an attempted coup, economic downturns, and the undermining of Turkey’s regional credibility.

Then, as Riyadh and its plethora of sand snakes contemplated invading Qatar, Erdogan dispatched aid and more soldiers to the peninsula. It was chiefly a symbolic gesture, but it guaranteed Qatar’s security; the Saudis were loath to risk incurring the ire of an erratic Erdogan. The Americans could have turned a blind eye in the early hours of an invasion, the Turks under an autocratic Erdogan less assuredly. Reciprocally, no matter how symbolic, Qatar’s delivering of $15 billion in financial aid to Turkey, a drop in the multibillion-dollar (not lira) debt bucket, probably maintains this Third Axis.

While disagreements with Saudi Arabia on numerous issues abound, the animus and enmity from Ankara and Doha toward Riyadh is now febrile and deep. The murder of Washington Post journalist  Jamal Khashoggi irked Erdogan, who likely sees it as an insult that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) would sanction such an action in Istanbul. His recollection of Saudi Arabian media prematurely celebrating his downfall during the attempted coup, and only 16 hours later saying they supported Erdogan’s government, was already infuriating.

Reactively, the Turks’ prior knowledge of, inaction during, but posthumous politicizing of Khashoggi’s murder to deride and erode MBS’s image through elucidating an unending drip feed of Khashoggi’s murder through Turkish media and Qatar’s powerhouse outlet Al Jazeera is quite brazen. Erdogan is nurturing another problem for Turkey, a Turkey that MBS may rightly view as fiscally weak.

This outright conflagration with Riyadh, coupled with aggravating the Kurds, invading northern Iraq, decimating Syria, challenging Iranian alliances with Damascus, politicizing Israeli actions, and challenging China over Uighur policies means Turkey likes to pick fights, but Turkey cares not as it sees itself as the leader of Islam, not Saudi Arabia, and thus the sociopolitical power in the Levant.

A multi-ethnic nation with a dominant nationalism suppressing self-determination, Turkey is fiscally assailed, autocratic, wrestling between secularism and Islamist ideals, surrounded by self-made foes and infested with battle-hardened Kurds. Turkey is in a quagmire and shows little sign of solving it with Erdogan’s favored belligerent tactics, which are straining relations in all directions, even in Europe by weaponizing the flow of vast caravans of refugees, extracting a handsome sum of “protection money.”

The more pugnacious Turkey becomes, the more mired in its own quagmire Ankara will find itself, one not easily solved.

––––––

Asia Times has relaunched on www.asiatimes.com . Download our brand new native App for a sweeping selection of geopolitical and business news throughout Asia.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Andrew Brennan

Andrew Brennan is a dual Irish/American citizen who was educated in Ireland. He holds two Master of Arts degrees from the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has experience in radio, research, and domestic television, and also currently contributes to Forbes and Global Times.