Is the ‘2.5 War Strategy’ making a comeback?
While all eyes are on Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s Afrin, the temperature is rising in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. On Feb. 10, the Turkish navy blocked a drilling ship, contracted by the Italian Energy Company ENI, searching for gas off the coast of Greek Cyprus. Just three days later, Turkish and Greek Coast Guard vessels bore down on each other by the Kardak (Imia) islets. The two countries came to the brink of war in this area 22 years ago.
“We can fight in both Afrin and the Aegean,” said Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, reminding us of veteran diplomat Şükrü Elekdağ’s “2.5 War Strategy” proposed in 1994. Back then, Elekdağ stressed the multi-directional threats facing Turkey and advised the government to develop a defense strategy, capable of waging war on 2.5 fronts: In the west against Greece, in the south against Syria and at home against the PKK.
Of course, when one considers today’s international political environment, power balances, alliance ties, as well as the socio-political transformation Turkey has been going through, both the world and the actors have changed. Nevertheless, it is still possible to draw parallels with the 1990s when assessing Turkey’s approach to current challenges.
Today Turkey is once again pursuing a security-oriented foreign policy, giving weight to hard power in solving political conflicts. Similar to the 1990s, building Turkey’s autonomy and self-sufficiency in defense and security matters have gained utmost importance, especially at a time when Ankara has seriously questioned NATO’s commitment to its defense against regional threats.
For Turkey, countering the PKK threat is as important now as in the 1990s. What has changed, however, is the perception that the U.S. and Europe are openly supporting the group to undermine Turkey. The West’s ambiguous response to the July 2016 coup attempt and the NATO ties of some of the putschists have eroded Turkey’s trust in alliance ties so irrevocably that Ankara perceives the real threat to emanate not from the south but from the West.
Therefore, in order to prevent the formation of a Kurdish corridor along its borders, Ankara has chosen to align with Russia and Iran because those countries have proven more flexible regarding Turkey’s plans to alleviate its Kurdish concerns compared to the U.S., even though they, in stark contrast to Turkey, back Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Another different factor is Ankara’s ties with Israel. The deepening of military ties between Turkey and Israel in the mid-1990s, especially when Ankara faced procurement problems with Washington and Berlin just like today, provided Ankara with a deterrent power and a strategic edge over its rivals and also contributed to mending its ties with Washington.
Today, however, a cold wind is blowing between Turkey and Israel, due to the latter’s support for Arbil’s independence drive.
Israel has so far been neutral about the Syrian Kurds. Since the start of the Syrian war, it has viewed Iran as its primary threat. After Israel downed an Iranian drone that entered its airspace last week, it staged an operation in Syria, only to see one of its F-16s shot down by Damascus. The incident brought Israel and Iran face to face, increasing the risk that the conflict in the region could spread to new fronts.
In fact, until recently, Ankara had also expressed worries about “Persian expansionism,” referring to the growing power of Iran, its neighbor and rival. However, a “Kurdish corridor” reaching to the Mediterranean remains a greater threat in the eyes of Ankara than an “Iranian corridor.”
As the room to maneuver in Syria grows smaller, the competition is heating up. A U.S. bent on countering Iran and a Russia intent on maintaining al-Assad in power are likely to clash at some point unless Russia convinces Damascus to rein in Iran’s power - a task that we have every reason to doubt given Russia’s willingness and capacity.
If that happens, one wonders where Turkey would stand, especially when Iran and al-Assad, like the U.S., support the Kurds in Afrin and Russia works to provide constitutional guarantees to the Syrian Kurds regarding autonomy...