Turkey Pulse

Erdogan scores points in his foreign policy gamble

Article Summary
Turkish President Erdogan scores major diplomatic points from the Khashoggi case to the quadrilateral summit in Istanbul.

For most of his critics, including some foreign statesmen and politicians of the Western world, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is essentially a troublemaker. Yet he tries to portray a completely opposite image.

During his speech at the UN General Assembly last month, he said Turkey was playing a key international role in helping to resolve several international conflicts. “Although Turkey is no military or economic superpower, it has emerged as a global leader by becoming part of the solution in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere,” he said. Indeed — at least in appearance — his argument holds much more water than it is portrayed as holding by his critics in the international arena.

On the way back home from New York — where he had a short audience with his American counterpart Donald Trump — Erdogan paid a visit to Berlin, where he was accorded a red-carpet welcome with full protocol, and a state banquet. Germany became the third major Western country he paid an official visit to this year. Also, he was the first foreign head of state greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace. That was in the first week of January. Five months later, he was received in the United Kingdom at Buckingham Palace. In Germany, he was greeted by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Schloss Belvedere in Berlin, the capital of the most influential European country he was at odds with only a year ago. The Kremlin also has been a regular visiting spot for Erdogan, where he has been welcomed by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Today, one can say Erdogan is anything but an isolated international player. Sources who did not want to be identified say both Macron and Steinmeier had extremely negative opinions about the Turkish president. However, this did not change the fact that, for a variety of reasons, they needed to engage with Erdogan.

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Not only did they feel obliged to issue invitations to Erdogan — who had insisted that he be received with a red-carpet welcome — they also consented to follow his lead in initiatives pertinent to Syria conflict. He also insisted on hosting a quadrilateral Syria meeting in Turkey, with the participation of Russian, French and German leaders in Istanbul on Oct. 27. Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel complied.

What a photo-op and PR for Erdogan! Macron and Merkel in Istanbul with Putin and the host, Erdogan.

The Istanbul event has served as a verification of his statement that while Turkey is no military or economic superpower, it has emerged as a global leader by becoming part of the solution in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. At a minimum, he can use it for domestic consumption as local elections scheduled for March 31 approach.

Yet those heavily involved with Syria but absent in Istanbul (or uninvited) are also noteworthy: the United States and Iran. While the United States is the most crucial partner in Geneva talks and Iran is a part of the Astana process, a highest-level meeting involving Syria took place in Istanbul in their absence. The EU was not invited, either. The UK, with which Erdogan has a good transactional relationship, also was not asked to participate. Prime Minister Theresa May is too busy with the bruises inflicted by Brexit, which has helped make Britain an increasingly irrelevant player in the matters of the Middle East.

Apparently Erdogan thinks that with French and German leaders on board, the EU will be sufficiently represented at the meeting.

But can the Istanbul meeting be a third mechanism for Syria as an alternative to the Astana or Geneva processes? Probably not, because it does not represent anything other than Erdogan’s foreign policy gamble for regional leadership.

In that sense, dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has also become some sort of a God-given gift to Erdogan. Erdogan is playing his cards effectively, from the very first day. He fed the foreign press and officials with specific evidence on the Khashoggi murder case, without employing any hostile language or act against Saudi Arabia. He kept the heat up on the Saudis until they had to admit that the journalist had been killed. Although they first claimed that the death occurred in a brawl, they later conceded that it was premeditated murder — a point Erdogan was persistent on from the very beginning.

The Erdogan administration also forced Trump to change his language vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. Erdogan, skillfully playing his cards on the affair, has portrayed himself as the indispensable player of the Middle East, the president of a regional power, who rises higher than both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The concern of many is whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — said to be the main culprit behind Khashoggi’s murder — can survive against Erdogan’s chess moves. For Erdogan, however, whether Mohammed survives in his post is of secondary importance. In the international and regional arena, the prince already is tarnished irretrievably enough; the Turkish president’s main concern is his own survival in the face of a looming calamitous economic crisis in Turkey.

Thus, both Erdogan’s way of handling the Khashoggi affair and the quadrilateral Istanbul meeting are part of his foreign policy gamble in the eye of Muslim — or at least Turkish — public opinion; so far, it appears it has made his chances of continuing to emerge as a winner higher.

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Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS) and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). On Twitter: @cengizcandar

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