Many see Turkey as an increasingly interventionist force in its surrounding regions, but also as a mediating force. From its military interventions into Syria and Libya to its backing of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ankara has worked to establish its own assertive foreign policy using new military capabilities over the years. It has been far from a neutral player.
Critics of the country or its government claim that such moves are proof of the emergence of neo-Ottoman imperialism, while supporters agree with pleasure, and see it as a cause for justice in the region. The question that both sides anticipate, though, is whether the interventionist policy would ever reach into Europe – its western front – in the near future.
That opportunity has seemed to present itself over the past few months in the ever-troubled Balkan region, where long-standing ethnic and nationalist tensions between Bosniaks and Serbs have again flared up in recent months.
Nationalist lawmakers in Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia, voted in November to begin withdrawing from Bosnia’s central armed forces, tax system and judiciary. Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, then voiced his support for the measure, threatening to break away the Serbian part of the tripartite federation and revive conflict in the region, which barely thirty years ago saw atrocities and the genocide of Bosnian Muslims.
Dodik, who has long been a critic of the tripartite system and the 1995 Dayton peace accords which ended the conflict, was even sanctioned by the United States in early January for “destabilising and corrupt activities and attempts to dismantle” the status quo.
Further than simply threatening to break away from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dodik also warned that, if sanctions and other actions are imposed by Western nations, then Russia and Serbia would come to the aid of Republika Srpska.
Add that to the open singing of Serbian anti-Bosniak songs earlier this month – and many who lived through the previous conflict feel that the tone and mood is exactly similar to that on the verge on the outbreak of war in 1992.
Since then, however, things have been looking more stable. That is largely down to the involvement of the Turkish government, which hosted the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, this month, in an effort to calm the tensions. Vucic has emphasised that no ethnic group in the Balkans wants another conflict and that “we must work together to protect the peace”, while Dodik praised the Turkish mediation and said “the fate of Bosnia-Herzegovina depends on the dialogue of local politicians with the support of Erdogan, Vucic and [Croatian President] Milanovic”.
The tensions in the Balkans are far from over, of course, and the clunky, corrupt and largely dysfunctional system of tripartite governance in Bosnia-Herzegovina seems to largely serve as an interim political process that has stalled over almost three decades. Many predict its setup will likely inevitably and, eventually, lead to a renewed conflict in the not-so-distant future.
If – or when – those tensions do escalate to the extent that they did in 1992, then there is genuine and legitimate curiosity as to what role Turkey would play in such a situation. The Turkey we see today is not the same Turkey the previous generation saw in the early to mid-90s, when the government was fiercely secular and the country was relatively geopolitically weaker than it is now.
The enforced secular attitude meant that Turkey, and much of its political class, did not openly share that religious affinity with the Bosnian Muslims as much of the Turkish population did.
That is not to say that there was no sympathy or support for Bosnia from Ankara. There was certainly vocal support from both presidents during the course of the conflict – Turgut Ozal urged the US and the international community to intervene in Bosnia and helped lobby the United Nations to stop the Serbian aggression. He even threatened to halt the use of the Incirlik Airbase by the US-led Gulf War coalition, unless action was taken in Bosnia.
His successor, then-Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, also called for international intervention into the Balkans, believing “What was done to end the occupation of Kuwait should be done in Bosnia-Herzegovina today” and volunteering Turkish troops and aircraft for such action.
Despite all that, Ankara still lacked that religious element and affinity that may have led to more action. As a result, Bosnian delegations were forced to venture further east to other countries – more open about their Islamic identities and desire to protect co-religionists – such as Iran and Pakistan, which supplied weapons to the Bosnians through Croatia. Turkey later joined in that effort, but only after the US finally got involved and gave the green light.
That sheds light on the other reason why Turkey did not militarily intervene back then: it lacked the geopolitical clout and influence needed to take a calculated risk in transgressing the complacent policies set by the US, UN and NATO.
According to an article by the New York Times in 1992, a Turkish official admitted that his government repeatedly told the Bosnian delegations “’We have to play by the rules’… And they say, ‘But there are no rules out there.’ And they have tears in their eyes because it’s their families that are dying.”
The fact is that, even if Ankara truly wanted to militarily assist or intervene in Bosnia, it had to “play by the rules” set by the US and the NATO alliance that it is a part of. That may have been largely a self-imposed illusion, though, seeing as the forces of other NATO member states reportedly assisted the Serb forces in their genocidal efforts: Greek volunteers fought alongside the Serbs, while Athens supplied them with arms shipments, and the French General who commanded UN forces in Bosnia did not heed the Dutch forces’ call for heavy airstrikes as the Serbs surrounded Srebrenica before the infamous massacre.
In all those respects, Turkey is a drastically different entity today. Without stooping to the common branding of Erdogan’s government as “Islamist” – a grossly inaccurate term – it is more overtly proud of its Islamic identity and history, and it has thrown off some of the shackles of strict and rigid secularism.
The increase in its ties with and presence in Bosnia is subsequently heralded as the result of Turkish soft power through the propagation of their common religious identity, seen in the AKP government’s building or renovation of mosques in the country.
In terms of strength and regional hegemony, too, Turkey has advanced significantly. Its military ventures into Syria and Libya, and its backing of rebel groups or government forces, shows that it has transcended the need to wait for the US or NATO’s permission to enact its own foreign policy initiatives.
Erdogan, being the pragmatist that he is, still tries to court their approval when he can, but there is no doubt that Turkey has partially succeeded in making Washington more of a partner than the paternalistic figure that it was.
If a fresh conflict broke out in the Balkans, specifically between Bosnians and Serbians, then Turkey may well militarily intervene this time. Ankara already has military bases in Bosnia and is more established there than it ever was in Syria and Libya, so a reinforcement of that military presence and the establishment of supply lines is not difficult to imagine.
Whether that intervention would directly support the Bosniaks or simply maintain a mediatory role between the opposing sides is not yet certain. Either way, a main obstacle that may stand in Turkey’s way is Russia, which has long stood by the Serbs and which Dodik claims would still protect their interests.
But even that itself is uncertain, as many also thought Moscow would support Armenian forces and prevent Azerbaijan from recapturing the Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020, which turned out not to be true. If Russia does step into the Balkans conflict in support of the Serbs, Turkey would likely resort to cooperating with Russia in keeping the peace, as the two are already doing in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
While the situation in Bosnia seems to be calming down and stabilising with Turkish mediation, the dynamics suitable for another ethnic conflict in Bosnia are still present. If that takes place, then, this time round, Turkey may military intervene to prevent a second Bosnian genocide, and now it is wholly able to do so.
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