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Will Turkey join the Axis of Resistance?

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on August 21, 2020 [Tur Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency]
President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on August 21, 2020 [Tur Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency]

The past few years have demonstrated to the Axis of Resistance – the motley alliance of "anti-imperialist" imperialists – that its efforts in the Middle East have not gone unrewarded. Russia and Iran's military intervention into Syria has allowed Bashar Al-Assad to survive years of onslaught by opposition groups and then recapture territory far beyond the regime strongholds in the south and the Alawite heartlands in the west.

Iran, through its scattering of Shia militias across Iraq and the Levant, has made any future ground invasion by the United States or its allies virtually impossible to consider without having to plough through those militias first. Moreover, those Iranian proxies have dug ever deeper into Lebanon and Iraq, making them more or less vassal states of Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) respectively, which essentially have a monopoly on violence far beyond the capabilities of the Lebanese and Iraqi armed forces.

Furthermore, those players in the axis have kept themselves afloat despite the hard-hitting economic sanctions imposed by the US and others in the international community. This has ensured their mutual survival through shady business networks around the world consisting of front companies utilising offshore tax havens and their involvement in the international black market and narcotics trafficking, all of which help to circumvent sanctions.

Above all, they enjoy more support than ever from a particular class of academics, intellectuals, chemical weapons experts and, strangely, news organisations and pundits. The latter profit from an anti-Israeli narrative while at the same time denying and overlooking the war crimes of other genocidal actors and military occupations.

It has been a good few years for this Axis of Resistance, as it has attracted new allies and affiliates including Egypt, Greece and the renegade Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. There have also been talks recently of Turkey joining, mainly propagated by Israeli news outlets and other anti-Turkey figures who have attempted to pin the country and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan onto the actions and policies of the axis.

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Comparisons are not entirely without merit, with Turkey's foreign policy shift in recent years cited as the main factor which apparently shows its closeness to the axis powers. Take, for example, Turkey's relations with Russia over the past five years, with the purchase of the S-400 missile defence system and their joint conciliatory attitude on a solution for Syria.

Throw Iran into the mix, and the link becomes even suggestive, with Tehran being central to the talks for such a solution alongside Moscow and Ankara. More recently, both Turkey and Iran have agreed to cooperate politically as well as militarily in targeting elements of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group in northern Iraq.

US vs Iran, who's going to win the war of influence - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

US vs Iran, who's going to win the war of influence – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Such foreign policy initiatives have seen Turkey swing towards the East, leading many in the West to believe that it has fallen into the embrace of Russian hegemony, away from the influence of the US and European nations that Ankara has for so long been trying to please. This has angered the Americans, who were particularly frustrated over the issue of the S-400 defence system, seeing the apparent fallout of a long-time NATO ally in the region.

Add to that the independent foreign policy that Turkey has been following over the past few years, especially in Syria and Libya, as well as its defence of maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Western nations including the US and – more theatrically – France have opposed whatever Turkey does without their permission.

President Erdogan's criticism of the horrors of the French occupation of Algeria and other colonies gives the Turkish leadership a significant anti-imperial gloss. All of these factors present the image of the country as one more player in the Axis of Resistance against the West.

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In truth, however, Turkey seems to be attempting to balance itself between East and West, utilising friendships and alliances and countering their policies with its own whenever it suits Ankara. More than anything, it is attempting to stand apart and forge its own path rather than place itself unconditionally with one entity.

While talking with Iran and Russia on a political solution for Syria, it also supports the Syrian opposition and backs some of these elements against Russian and Iran-backed forces because it is in Turkish interests to do so. Turkey might have bought Russia's S-400 defence system, but it has maintained ties with the US, where Erdogan has reportedly built a strangely amicable relationship with President Donald Trump.

When it comes to alliances, Turkey isn't one-dimensional in aligning itself with the likes of Iran and Russia; it has also been building alliances with other players such as Qatar and Azerbaijan.

Turkey aims to rid itself of the shackles imposed by energy imports thanks to the natural gas found in the Black Sea - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Turkey aims to rid itself of the shackles imposed by energy imports thanks to the natural gas found in the Black Sea – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Central to Turkey's aim to not be bound to one hegemon is it effort to rid itself of the shackles that make it dependent on those powers, namely its historic dependence on Russia for significant gas supplies and its dependence on the US for arms and defence deals. Its recent discovery of an estimated 320 billion cubic metres of natural gas in the Black Sea has given it the potential to reduce that dependence on Russia, something it already started to do by diversifying the sources of its gas imports earlier this year.

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks on the discovery of a major natural gas reserve off Black Sea coast during a press conference at the Dolmabahce Palace Presidential Work Office in Istanbul, Turkey on August 21, 2020 [TCCB/Murat Çetinmühürdar/Anadolu Agency]

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks on the discovery of a major natural gas reserve off Black Sea coast during a press conference at the Dolmabahce Palace Presidential Work Office in Istanbul, Turkey on August 21, 2020 [TCCB/Murat Çetinmühürdar/Anadolu Agency]

Similarly, the rise of its domestic arms industry has caused less dependence on the US for defence, something that Washington failed to realise when it cut Turkey from its joint F-35 fighter programme last year.

Whether it will succeed in freeing itself entirely from such hegemonic influence is yet to be seen, but all the campaigns that Turkey has embarked on – from Libya and Syria to its standoff against the Greeks and French – show that its foreign policy goals are becoming ever more independent and based upon its own national interests.

As a Sunni Muslim-majority nation with significant geopolitical leverage, Turkey would certainly be a prized addition to the Axis of Resistance. However, it is unlikely to join and sacrifice its own sovereignty for the sake of claiming to be "anti-imperialist". Not under Erdogan, anyway.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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