President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have increasing difficulties with the West, but his position in the Middle East is not all that easy either.
His regional archenemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, continues to make headway, while his nemesis in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, remains in power. The Qatar crisis caught him unaware and unsettled him. Meanwhile, he is bracing for the reign of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, who is an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Erdogan feels a close affinity to. In addition to this, Hamas, which Erdogan also supports strongly, is ready to concede to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Palestinian Authority, while in the background to all of this Iran continues to consolidate its regional position.
Erdogan’s worst nightmare, however, is the Kurdish question that the Syrian crisis and developments in Iraq have spawned. He is trying to cope with this now by seeking cooperation with leaders he would rather have avoided.
Very little turned out as Erdogan wanted after the now all-but-forgotten Arab Spring. Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s overreaching foreign minister at the time, was convinced that “Turkey would steer winds of change in the Middle East.”
Today, however, Turkey is being “steered” by events in the region that are beyond its control. As it turned out, Erdogan’s Islamist agenda — driven by a desire to be a defender of the downtrodden Islamic masses — suited none of the Middle East’s established powers.
Those who backed Erdogan and expected his support against the established order, on the other hand, have mostly been driven from the scene. Erdogan has to deal now with the region’s traditional leadership, which opposes his brand of political Islam.
It was not long after the Arab Spring first broke before Erdogan was accused of working for Muslim Brotherhood-led governments to come to power across the region through ballot box victories, similar to that of his own Justice and Development Party (AKP). Ankara’s policies in Syria also resulted in Erdogan's being accused of favoring Sunnis over others and engaging in sectarianism.
In the end, Erdogan managed to raise eyebrows both in Saudi Arabia and Iran — the Middle East’s principal rivals — showing that suspicions about him cut across the sectarian divide.
Hasan Koni, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kultur University, believes Turkey’s mistake was that it “mixed up realpolitik and emotions” in the Middle East.
Erdogan managed to raise eyebrows both in Saudi Arabia and Iran ... showing that suspicions about him cut across the sectarian divide.
“OK, Muslims are being persecuted and human rights are being violated [in the Middle East]. But what are the consequences of the policy I have endorsed regarding these problems? What do I get in return?” Koni asked rhetorically in an interview with Hurriyet Daily News published Sept. 18.
With most of his expectations falling by the wayside, Erdogan finds himself now having to engage in diplomatic contortions to regain lost ground in the region. A case in point is his relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
A year ago, he was exchanging barbs with and hurling insults at Abadi after the Iraqi premier demanded that Turkish forces stationed in Bashiqa, near Mosul, be withdrawn, and insisted that Turkey would not be allowed to participate in the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS).
“You must know that we will do what we want,” Erdogan retorted defiantly, adding that Abadi was a nobody compared with him and calling on the Iraqi prime minister to “know his place.”
Turkish troops are still in Bashiqa but have not been allowed to participate in the Mosul operation. Ankara is also not being given the say it wants on how the city’s demography will be configured following its liberation. There is also no change in Baghdad’s position regarding Turkish forces in Iraq.
Erdogan, however, is seeking Abadi’s support now to prevent the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum on Sept. 25. He told reporters on Sept. 17, prior to flying to New York for the UN General Assembly meeting, that he would meet with Abadi in the United States to discuss this matter. “Our goal is the same. Our goal is not dividing Iraq,” he said.
Ironically, Erdogan has a friendly relationship with KRG President Massoud Barzani, even inviting him to AKP congresses in the past and hosting him in Ankara not so long ago with the KRG flag flying at the airport, much to the anger of Turkish nationalists.
Erdogan has to also tread cautiously with Barzani, given the billions of dollars Turkey invested in northern Iraq — especially in the energy sector. Trying to prevent Kurdish political aspirations in Iraq while balancing his ties with Abadi and Barzani without alienating either will remain a major challenge.
Turkey’s ties with Iran are another example. It was only in June that Erdogan, in an attempt to curry favor with Gulf states during a conference in Bahrain, accused Tehran of “Persian expansionism,” saying “this has to be prevented.”
Iran has not changed its regional policies since then, but Erdogan is relying on Tehran now to also help with the Kurdish problem, even though the two countries still have major differences over key issues relating to Iraq and Syria.
Erdogan will travel to Tehran in early October for a meeting of the Turkey-Iran High-Level Strategic Council, when the Kurdish issue is expected to be discussed in his talks with President Hassan Rouhani. At around the same time, Turkey’s chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, will be in Tehran for talks with his Iranian counterpart, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bakiri, who visited Ankara not so long ago.
Another major challenge for Erdogan is in the Gulf region, where he is trying to balance his ties with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in a way that will enable him to maintain his strong support for Doha against Riyadh and its allies — including military support — while at the same time not undermining Turkey’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
He toured the Gulf in July in an effort to defuse the Qatar crisis, and although he was received cordially in Saudi Arabia, there was little to suggest that his efforts made any headway. Ankara has since left mediation in this crisis to Kuwait.
In a further sign that Ankara wants to maintain ties with all the Gulf states, Erdogan hosted Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Ankara last week at around the same time that Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was hosting Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah.
Experts believe, however, that Turkey’s normalizing its ties with regional powers to the extent that it can play an important role in the reshaping of the region will take time due to suspicions about Ankara’s ultimate motives in the Middle East.
Suha Umar, a former Turkish ambassador to Amman who is retired now, said that Turkey had lost much credibility in the region due to serious policy mistakes. He also believes that Ankara does not have the power of military deterrence or the economic clout it once had in the region.
“Turkey today appears to be an unreliable partner in the eyes of many in the Middle East. Every step it takes now should be aimed at overcoming this impression,” Umar told Al-Monitor. “This, however, will take a long time because the key powers in the region with which Turkey should have cooperated all along have been alienated like never before.”
Maintaining that the rational approach Ankara is trying to display now “is correct on paper,” Umar nevertheless argued that Turkey is unlikely to regain its regional influence under the present administration, given the suspicions its vacillations have resulted in.