Turkey Pulse

When it comes to foreign policy, will Erdogan resort to 'wily Oriental means'?

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Article Summary
The best-case scenario for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the worst-case scenario for Turkey, could be the failure of possible coalition talks after the snap elections.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s shadow continues to loom large over Turkey’s foreign policy, restricting the ability of the government to provide the flexibility needed to meet the challenges of major international developments of vital concern to Ankara.

The question now is whether the results of the general elections on Nov. 1 will lift this shadow or entrench it even more. There are those who believe these elections could be the beginning of the end for the Erdogan era as we know it, but this remains an open question.

Erdogan’s uncompromising positions — based on his Islamist outlook — with regard to major international crises on or near Turkey’s borders have resulted in alienation for Ankara, depriving it of its ability to fully exercise the potential it has as a major regional player.

A case in point is his often repeated remark that “the world is larger than five,” which is a swipe at the pre-eminent position of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Erdogan actually believed during the heady days, when his international reputation among the “downtrodden” members of the General Assembly was high, that he could spearhead a reform process to change this situation.

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Such quixotic remarks — which still go down well with his Islamist supporters — contributed significantly to the international isolation Ankara finds itself in today, and for which his chief foreign policy advisor and spokesman Ibrahim Kalin coined the term “precious loneliness.”

Kalin’s logic, which has been much derided, reflects Erdogan’s thinking, clearly suggesting that Turkey will stick to its guns no matter what because it is in the right while everyone else is in the wrong.

Erdogan continues to utter such statements today even if much of what he says appears to be bombastic rhetoric that Turkey has little chance of carrying through. His address on Oct. 24 during the ceremony marking the opening of the academic year at Hasan Kalyoncu University in the southeastern city of Gaziantep provided the latest example of this, when he referred to Turkey’s demand for a safe zone in northern Syria, and its insistence on the train-and-equip program for forces that are anti Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Turkey’s call from the start for a region freed from terrorism and a no-fly-zone, as well as the need for the train-and-equip program, is understood much better today. But their problem is different. Their problem is to divide Turkey,” Erdogan said.

Turkey’s call for a safe zone in northern Syria is no closer to being realized today than it ever was. Meanwhile, the United States has ended its train-and-equip program following a number of fiascos that saw the forces trained and equipped, and routed as soon as they entered Syria.

Erdogan’s allegation about plans to divide Turkey, on the other hand, is a clear reference to the advances secured by Syrian Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State (IS) along the Turkish-Syrian border. Ankara fears this will encourage separatism among its restive Kurds.

The fact that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds is getting air support from the US-led anti-IS coalition also explains who Erdogan believes is ultimately behind the plans to “divide Turkey.” Ankara considers the PYD a terrorist organization because of its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but has failed to get any of its NATO allies to agree to this.

Erdogan went on to say that these plans against Turkey would fail and everyone would come around in the end to adopting Ankara’s positions with regard to the Syrian crisis. “Otherwise, we will have to take our own measures,” he said without elaborating on what this means. He also accused “countries that appear to be friends of Turkey” of not only refusing to accept that the PYD is a terrorist organization, but also providing it with arms.

“I tell you openly we will never sacrifice Northern Syria to their plans. … It is not possible for us to accept such a threat to Turkey,” Erdogan added, again without elaborating on what Ankara intended to do to prevent this.

A seasoned military analyst cited by Al-Monitor recently pointed to the fact that the United States and Russia are supporting the PYD and underlined the fact that Ankara is in no position to alter the course of events in northern Syria at this stage because of the strategic mistakes it made at the beginning of the Syrian crisis.

Erdogan, who until not so long ago leaned on his good ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, did not mince his words over the warm reception Assad received recently in Moscow.

“Take the latest meeting in Russia. Can you imagine that a man who has the blood of 370,000 people on his hands was met with a red carpet? Can there be a place for this in diplomacy between states? Unfortunately, mankind has also seen this,” Erdogan bemoaned rhetorically.

Erdogan’s remarks are all too familiar, but they come at a sensitive moment in the search for a solution to the Syrian crisis, which Ankara is also trying to be a part of. It is clear, however, that there will be a limited role for Turkey if its general policy is ultimately guided by Erdogan’s abrasive and unproductive tone.

Surveys show that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) — which Erdogan once led and whose support he still relies on — will fail to come to power on its own Nov. 1, even if it comes out as the first party. This leaves a coalition government as the only option. Given the positions of parties that the AKP will have to negotiate with when it comes to Syria, many believe Erdogan’s ability to impose his will on such a government will be diminished.

Nur Batur, who lectures at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University and who is a veteran diplomatic analyst, says a “grand coalition” between the AKP and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), for example, will raise Erdogan’s shadow and lead to a much more flexible approach on foreign policy issues by Ankara.

“Even today we see Ankara is softening its tone on Syria despite Erdogan’s insistence on maintaining his strong line in this regard. It has, for example, effectively given the green light for Assad to be part of the transition period, in line with the agreement between the US and Russia,” Batur told Al-Monitor.

She added, however, that Ankara will most likely maintain Erdogan’s position, even under a coalition government, with regard to northern Syria, because this is a matter of vital security interest for Turkey.

“Ankara succeeded to a point in preventing the creation of a Kurdish corridor in northern Syria by opening up its Incirlik Air Base to the US-led coalition. A new government will also continue to bargain with Washington over this issue. Erdogan today is only playing the bad cop in this regard,” Batur said.

Retired Ambassador Unal Cevikoz, a member of the Board of Trustees at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, where he also lectures, concurs with the view that a failure by the AKP to form a government on its own will help lift Erdogan’s shadow over foreign policy.

Assuming like most people that the initial coalition negotiation will be between the AKP and CHP, he nevertheless expects the question of who gets the foreign ministry to be bitterly fought over, thus reflecting the differing priorities of the two parties on essential foreign policy issues, even if Erdogan’s influence is reduced.

“If, however, the AKP wins the elections and forms a government on its own, even if it does so with a slim majority, this will enable Erdogan to maintain his influence and insist on his uncompromising positions on issues like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Assad or relations with Israel,” Cevikoz told Al-Monitor.

He also expects Erdogan in that case to resort to “wily Oriental means” and use issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis to his advantage in his relations with the west, the way he did during his recent visit to Brussels where he was received warmly because of Europe’s need for Turkish cooperation over the refugee crisis.

Cynics argue that the best-case scenario for Erdogan, and the worst-case scenario for Turkey, will be the failure of coalition talks, leaving him as the only source of real authority in the country until new elections somewhere down the line can be held to resolve the mess. This, however, could ensure more “precious loneliness,” if Erdogan does not see the writing on the wall and change his stance accordingly.

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Found in: us involvement in the middle east, turkey-syrian border, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, isis, akp

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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