By Dorian Jones
February 01, 2021 04:48 PM
ISTANBUL – Turkey and Azerbaijan are continuing to deepen ties by starting a major joint military exercise Monday. The display of force comes as some analysts suggest Ankara could be on the verge of a foreign policy pivot away from the Middle East to Central Asia.
The 12-day military exercise involves tank divisions, airborne units, and “special forces.” Turkish-made weaponry is also set to play a prominent role.
Turkish-made drones were pivotal in Azerbaijan’s defeat in October of Armenian separatist forces, in a battle over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s victory is seen as a strategic triumph for Turkey. “Turkey has invested very heavily in the Azeri military,” said international relations professor Serhat Guvenc of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. The countries have close ethnic ties and define their relationship as “one nation, two states.”
The speed and decisiveness of Azerbaijan’s military success boosted Turkish influence in the Caucasus, further consolidating close ties between Ankara and Baku.
“Turkey is expanding its influence in Caucasia; it will do more so in the future,” said Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute.
Bagci suggests Ankara is poised for a shift in foreign policy, saying, “Turkey does not play the card of Islam and Middle East orientation anymore, but now rather more nationalistic, and of Turkish nationalism.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has traditionally positioned himself as the defender of global Muslim rights, in particular the Palestinians. Ankara is also a strong backer of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, and Hamas, which is designated by the United States and European Union as a terrorist organization.
Much to Israel’s anger and Washington’s dismay, Hamas routinely held meetings in Turkey, and Ankara hosted its leaders. Such moves traditionally played well among Erdogan’s religious voting base.
But analysts say Ankara is concerned about the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords that saw the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalize ties with Israel last year, with Sudan close behind.
With reports of other Arab countries, including Turkey’s close ally Qatar, ready to join the Abraham Accords, Bagci says there is awareness in Ankara that Turkey is facing growing isolation in the Middle East.
“The Islamic card and talk of Muslim unity for Erdogan doesn’t function anymore, after the Abraham Accords,” said Bagci. “Everybody in Turkey realizes the Arabs fight amongst each other, but they also make peace amongst each another. The Arabs are not the Turks. It’s so simple. The Turkish public is more conscious of this, and the Israelis are the winners.”
But other analysts remain cautious of a Turkish shift away from the Middle East and toward the courting of ethnic Turkic Central Asian states. “It’s too early to say, but there are some indications,” said Guvenc.
Guvenc points out right-wing political parties in Turkey have broadly followed a philosophy of nationalism and Islam, created by the country’s military rulers of the early 1980s under the banner “Turkish Islamic synthesis.”
“I would say the emphasis on the Turko component of this synthesis would make sense for this government,” said Guvenc.
Erdogan’s parliamentary coalition partner, the nationalist MHP, is seen as backing a shift in policy. “With MHP, his coalition partner, Erdogan will play more on Turkish nationalism than the Islamic card,” said Bagci.
But any reorientation toward the Caucasus and beyond to Central Asia countries like Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan isn’t without risk.
“This will not go down well with Russia, definitely, which considers this region as its sphere of influence,” said Guvenc. “In central Asia, Turkey has already lost the battle and struggle for influence with Russia, and the Chinese are also rising its influence.”
Russia thwarted previous efforts by Turkey to project influence across Central Asia. But Zaur Gasimov, an expert on Russia and Central Asia at Germany’s Bonn University, suggests Ankara has a stronger hand.
“Compared with the 1990s and 2000s, Turkey nowadays has much more leverage to influence Central Asian republics using its economy and migration policy just like Russia,” he said.
Turkey hosts many migrant workers from across the Central Asian states, helping to develop and strengthen economic and cultural ties.
A growing Turkish presence in Central Asia could be welcomed in the region to mitigate Russia’s powerful influence.
“For Kazakhstan, the deepening of cooperation with Turkey, for example, could be needed to obtain a sort of balance in its relations with Moscow,” said Gasimov.
Gasimov says Kazakh unease over Moscow has been heightened since Russia’s annexation in 2014 of Ukraine’s Crimea, a region populated by ethnic Russians.
“Kazakhstani elites are concerned about Russian policy towards Ukraine and feel insecure about the northern provinces populated by ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan. Several high-rank Russian politicians claimed Kazakh territory in the recent past,” he added.