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Erdogan lost in foreign policy maze of his own making

As talk of early elections grows louder, Erdogan needs to steer Turkey out of its international isolation to bolster his weakened position at home.
Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Turkey is facing political uncertainty with rising domestic tensions and a spiraling economy. Presidential elections are due to be held by June 2023, but it seems increasingly likely they will take place earlier.

Support for President Recep Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is waning, according to multiple opinion polls. The situation leaves Ankara facing difficult choices in its international affairs.

As a populist politician Erdogan has tried to satisfy his Islamist and nationalist support base with an angry finger-wagging approach to foreign policy. However, this short-sighted tactic has left Ankara increasingly isolated internationally. Turkey has more rivals and detractors in the world than friends and partners today, facing US and European sanctions and being internationally greylisted for “terrorist financing, money laundering and institutional corruption.” 

Meanwhile, significant anti-Turkish coalitions have formed of states that were once allies of Turkey. 

The situation in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey and Greece are vying for energy resources, is a case in point. Athens has managed to garner international support against Turkey, not just from Europe and the United States but also from regional players such as Egypt and Israel. Referring to recent military agreements between Washington and Athens, Erdogan complained bitterly last week that “Greece has become a US military base.”

Ironically, Turkey is host to significant US bases. Many analysts attributed Erdogan’s annoyance to Ankara’s traditional allies and partners shifting their attention elsewhere.

Retired ambassador Omer Onhon believes Ankara only has itself to blame.

“Greece, with whom we have tense relations, has signed energy and cooperation agreements with Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” Onhon said in an interview with Karar daily. “It has signed military agreements with France and the US while eight countries held joint exercises in the eastern Mediterranean recently.”

“The lowest common denominator in all this is Turkey," he went on. "This is mostly the result of Turkey’s unifying powers, in the negative sense of the word,” Onhon said.

Erdogan’s staunchest supporters are also increasingly aware that international isolation comes at a cost for the country, mainly for its economy, that affects ordinary citizens.

Erdogan’s angry threat to expel the ambassadors of 10 Western countries, including the United States, is a recent case in point. He was furious with the ambassadors for jointly petitioning for the release of human rights activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala. Kavala has been languishing in prison for over four years even though the European Court of Human Rights ruled that he had been unjustly tried and has called for his immediate release. The affair is seen one of Erdogan’s greatest diplomatic missteps.

Erdogan’s hopes of replacing Turkey’s traditional allies with new ones, most notably Russia, also failed to pan out. Turkey’s involvement in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Syria and Libya complicate relations with Russia because Ankara and Moscow are on opposite sides in disputes involving these countries. For instance, Moscow has castigated Ankara for supporting Ukraine in its dispute with Russia. Nor is it a secret that Russia wants Turkish forces out of Syria and Libya and for Ankara to stop interfering in the Caucasus.

Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in September had none of the warmth the two leaders were keen to project not so long ago. The sides put a positive spin on the talks but little of substance was produced other than promises yet to be fulfilled. 

Ankara and Moscow are trying to contain their differences for the sake of their substantial economic cooperation. However, this cooperation — which includes Turkey’s controversial purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems — has not produced the kind of relationship Erdogan hoped for.

European fears of illegal immigration is what mostly keeps Turkey’s diplomatic ties with key European countries such as Germany alive today. Being purely transactional, though, this relationship contributes nothing to Ankara’s EU membership bid, which has all but died under Erdogan’s rule. Key EU members continue to see Erdogan’s Turkey as a liability for Europe.

Meanwhile, Erdogan's recent meeting in Rome with US President Joe Biden did little to improve highly tense Turkish-American ties. Despite the diplomatic niceties and friendly gestures exchanged, Ankara and Washington are at odds over most of the topics mentioned in the US readout of the talks. There were also discrepancies between the readout and Erdogan’s remarks to reporters after his meeting with Biden.

Erdogan said, for example, that the situation in the eastern Mediterranean did not come up, while the US readout listed it among the topics discussed.

Retired ambassador Hasan Gogus points out that there is no love lost between the two leaders, who have exchanged harsh words in the past. Gogus wrote in his column for the news portal T24, “The chemistry between President Erdogan and President Biden has simply not matched. The fact that they know each other from former times does not mean they feel any affection for each other.” Gogus added that since Biden’s election the two leaders have met only twice on the margins of international events.

Okan Muderrisoglu, a political columnist and strong supporter of Erdogan, argued that Turkish-American ties today are guided by “necessity” rather than by “satisfaction.” Muderrisoglu argued in his column for Sabah, “Despite differences the fact that the sides need each other has not changed.” He admitted, though, that “expecting existing differences to be overcome in the foreseeable future is over optimistic.” 

Ankara’s drive to normalize ties with the Arab world, especially with Egypt, is also moving slowly despite diplomatic contacts.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed will reportedly come to Turkey next week for the first time in 10 years for an ice-breaking visit. The UAE has been an outspoken critic of Erdogan and its rulers have been the subject of unrestrained vilification by the pro-government media in Turkey.

Analysts say that Erdogan’s need to mend fences with the Arab world is another example of his failed foreign policy. 

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not rebuffed Turkey, but rapprochement efforts are moving slowly, partly due to suspicious Arab regimes playing hard to get because they know it is Ankara that needs ties to improve. Erdogan also faces a quandary at home. Normalizing ties with Arab regimes that he demonized in the past is unlikely to please his Islamist support base.

Erdogan’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood and actions in Syria and Libya remain a major sticking point in Ankara’s dealings with the Arab world. There are signs that Erdogan is seeking a fresh military operation against the Kurdish People's Protection Units in northern Syria to agitate nationalist sentiments at home. Arab countries oppose such an operation, as do the permanent members of the Security Council.

Erdogan is known to disregard such opposition, but his dilemma is that such an operation will only deepen Turkey’s international isolation.

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