Faced with the EU’s growing frustration and Biden’s more hostile administration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has softened his tone, renewed his promises for greater cooperation and has ceased all exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, Erdogan’s superficial attempts to appease the West in order to avoid further sanctions will not result in a permanent change in his aggressive foreign policy. His recent involvements in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Libya and Yemen represent a deep desire to disrupt the current world order and revive the glory of the Ottoman Empire.
Despite the deadline to withdraw all forces in Libya, Turkey’s troops remain present on the battleground along with mercenaries affiliated to SADAT Defense, an Islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan that seeks to “help the Islamic World take the place where it merits among Superpowers”. SADAT Defense was founded in 2012 by Adnan Tanriverdi, a former special forces commander, along with 22 former members of the Turkish military, all of whom were forced out of the military in the 1990’s due to their radical ideologies. SADAT has since played a crucial role in bolstering Turkey’s foreign policy and helping Erdogan consolidate power after the failed coup of 2016.
Their presence in Syria has allowed them to continuously provide aid to Islamist militias present in the north, such as Sultan Murad Division, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Watani, in order to expand Turkey’s influence in Syria and fight against Kurdish forces. They have also recruited and trained jihadi fighters from these militia groups in order to deploy them as mercenaries in various parts of the world. Over 5000 of these Syrian mercenaries have already been deployed to Libya and a number of them have also been spotted in Nagorno-Karabakh dressed as Azeri fighters. They act as a proxy for Erdogan.
Turkey’s involvement in Libya establishes a foothold in the continent and acts as a counter- balance to other regional powers involved in the conflict. Furthermore, control over a resource- rich country like Libya could also generate highly lucrative business contracts and could provide leverage to Ankara to renegotiate a new maritime deal in the East Med. Thus, Erdogan’s intervention in Libya gives him the opportunity to present himself as the protector of Turkey’s interests. In the midst of a severe economic crisis, increased dictatorial tendencies and overall declining popularity, his interventionist attitude reinforces a nationalistic rhetoric that has proven to be popular back home, even amongst his staunchest critics.
Over the past year, Ankara has also strengthened its ties with the Islah Party (Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), which has resulted in many prominent members, including its founder Shaikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, to move to Turkey. Al-Zindani, a US-designated terrorist, remains a highly influential figure within the party and amongst many radical militias in Yemen, some of which are closely linked to al-Qaeda. He has worked closely with SADAT, even helping them recruit and train jihadists, and has helped Turkey solidify their presence in Yemen in an attempt to sabotage the implementation of the Riyadh agreement.
Ankara’s growing influence in the war-torn Gulf nation is an act of provocation to other Arab nations – mainly Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt – who fear the rise of the Qatar-Turkey axis and the Muslim Brotherhood. From an ideological standpoint, Erdogan holds a radical interpretation of Islam that corresponds to the Muslim Brotherhood’s. This ideological affinity has pushed Erdogan to strengthen ties with Qatar and to support the group in various other countries, most notably in Egypt under Mohamed Morsi and in Sudan under Omar al-Bashir.
Ultimately, Erdogan envisions a new world order in which he sees himself as the leader of the Muslim World. He uses his affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood to strengthen this portrayal and to expand his sphere of influence. His self-aggrandising dream pushes him to meddle in any conflict that can help him achieve this image. Despite his tone of reconciliation, Erdogan remains a populist with a radical ideology, who views conflicts as opportunities and continuously prepares for the wars to come. The lack of consequences from the international community towards his ostentatious foreign policy and his increasingly confrontational attitude encourage him to be even more daring.