Many observers believed Erdogan wouldn’t be able to maintain his authoritarian political machine as well as maintain this economic growth, but the foreign policy of Turkey has countered these projections, leading Ankara to expand opportunities by partnering with everyone from Iran to the U.K.
ANKARA, TURKEY — Over the last decade or so, the West has been cheering for a rising Turkey as a nation that could set a positive example for other Western allies in the region. However, as Turkey has gained this new level of success under President Recep Erdogan, its plans have changed and Ankara has begun to establish its own path for the future, independent from other nations or blocs.
Just as recently as the period of the “Arab Spring,” the discussion being had in the West had a character much different from what we see today. Most prevalent in the narrative of the period around 2011 was how Turkey, following decades of de facto military rule, was finally becoming a model for other ‘democratic movements’ underway in the Middle East.
Under the new civilian leadership of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), pundits and scholars in the West began touting Turkey as a model that combined the AKP’s political Islam, Turkey’s historical secularism, and Western-style neoliberal economic policy.
However, problems soon arose when it became apparent that Erdogan fully intended to do whatever it took to consolidate his power, which would include projecting strength both internally and externally. While the U.S. can overlook internal flaws of its allies (especially in the Middle East), but this external projection of power soon began to break ranks with several stated NATO and U.S. policies around the Middle East, causing an escalation of tensions that have led to where we are today. This change first became apparent where many of the lines that currently fracture the Middle East were drawn: Syria.
The Syrian War and Erdogan’s opportunism
When the NATO intervention in Syria first began in 2011, Turkey was on the same page, publicly, as its coalition allies. Turkey — like the U.S. and other coalition nations, including the monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula — began the war by supporting proxies ranging from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to the Islamic State (Daesh). Turkey served as both a political outpost for “Syrian governments in exile” and as a highway for foreign fighters looking to enter Syria.
This all happened with the implied consent of the U.S., which, under former President Barack Obama, publicly supported the ‘exiled’ Syrian governments and Free Syrian Army and privately consented to and facilitated states — such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — providing support to Daesh. It was during this period, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, that the U.S. was “watching” and “saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened…[and] might then negotiate.”
Under these conditions, Turkey was in lock-step with the NATO policy and was allowing foreign fighters from around the world to cross into Syria as long as their guns would be turned on Damascus.
Beyond that, NATO states ignored even more brazen Turkish actions, such as directly aiding Daesh by purchasing oil stolen from Iraqi and Syrian oil fields through companies connected to Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, which was proven through documents given to Wikileaks. Albayrak attempted to deny these connections to Powertrans, the gas company working with Daesh, even telling his lawyer he “never had ties with this company!” despite his emails showing involvement in affairs ranging from discussing bonuses and proposing candidates for top jobs at Powertrans.
There was such a high level of complicity from allied countries that Erdogan even managed to get an apology from the CIA concerning his connections to Daesh oil.
Things began to turn as the Syrian war evolved — once Russian forces entered the conflict in support of the government of Bashar al Assad in September of 2015, and the Western-backed proxies began to fight more with each other than with the Syrian Arab Army. With this new set of circumstances in Syria, the U.S. abandoned any realistic hope of taking out Assad and soon had to deal with avoiding conflict with Russia while now fighting a Daesh that had gotten out of control and consumed many of the other “Syrian rebels.”
Following the entrance of Russia into the Syrian war, there was a real concern within NATO that mistakes could occur and lead to a dangerous conflict with Russia. This fear was quickly realized in November of 2015 when a Russian jet allegedly crossed into Turkish airspace and was shot down.
Under the revered Article 5 of the NATO charter, this incident should have been enough to warrant a direct confrontation with Russia, yet all that came out of the emergency meeting convened was merely a statement by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Following the emergency session, Stoltenberg said only that NATO stood “in solidarity with Turkey and support[ed] the territorial integrity of our NATO ally,” and never proposed or carried out any further actions.
Fortunately for Erdogan, his uncanny ability to somehow blindly maneuver through complex political situations ended up working in his favor and eventually leading to a renewal of relations with Russia. This frightened establishment institutions in the U.S. — including major think tanks like the neoliberal Brookings Institution — as they began to watch their grip on Turkey slip.
Soon, Ankara had lost interest in joining the European Union and began floating the idea of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an economic bloc led by Russia and China. More recently, there has also been outrage in Washington over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 Missile Defense Systems, which are incompatible with the systems run by NATO.
Despite this seeming shift toward the Eurasian power bloc, Erdogan has retained an independent foreign policy, of which Syria is the prime example. Even though Turkey is one of three major partners in Syrian peace talks with Russia and Iran, Erdogan still can’t seem to decide from day to day whether he is willing to work with the Syrian government or whether Assad is a “terrorist.”
Russia is currently trying to smooth out tensions between Turkey and Syria, but this may prove hard on both sides of the border since, for his part, Assad has called Erdogan a “political beggar,” who only wants in on negotiations because “his support for terrorists was exposed,” making peace talks Ankara’s only remaining method for manipulation. While it’s unclear what the final agreement on Syria will be, this does highlight the fact that Turkish policy indeed stands alone and this style of Turkish policy is also now causing headaches for the West in other countries.
Turkish expansionism and power projection
With Turkish influence in Syria on the wane, Erdogan soon began to seek other opportunities to bolster his reputation and project an image of his nation as a leader in the Islamic world.
The next most promising chance to present itself was when Saudi Arabia, after a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump at the end of May 2017, blockaded neighboring Qatar in the first week of June, an ally in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Erdogan quickly responded to Riyadh’s closure of all land and air pathways into Qatar (and Doha’s concern of an impending intervention) by sending military personnel to Qatar, who are still being built up today.
The U.S. has made continuous efforts to smooth relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia but, with Qatar refusing to capitulate to Saudi demands, Doha has sought out new partners. Besides Turkey, Iran was another nation which re-established its ties with Qatar and also began working in concert with Ankara, eventually leading to historic new trade deals among the three nations.
This all shows a clear attempt by Turkey, often alongside Iran, to work to establish an alternate power base in the Middle East, in opposition to the Saudi-Israeli alliance that has previously dominated the region. Behind all this, however, are the internal benefits gained by Erdogan as he has drastically increased Turkish exports, fostering the continued economic growth, which is second only to China in the G20 at a rate of around five percent, that underwrites his legitimacy.
Many observers believed Erdogan wouldn’t be able to maintain his authoritarian political machine as well as maintain this economic growth, but the foreign policy of Turkey has countered these projections, leading Ankara to expand opportunities by partnering with everyone from Iran to the United Kingdom.
This is often the standard explanation for many of Erdogan’s internal and external policies. Foreign policy and trade have become crucial ways for the AKP to claim legitimacy, despite nearly losing a constitutional referendum last year showing that they may have lost support from almost 50 percent of voters. It’s these factors that likely play a major role in Erdogan’s new vision for Turkey, where not only does the AKP lead Muslims in Turkey, but also sets an example for the wider Muslim world.
Jerusalem: Erdogan’s golden opportunity
Nowhere was this new image as “Muslim leader” more on display than in the days following Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli occupation. For Erdogan, this presumably looked even more ripe for exploitation than had the GCC feud. And, with almost total silence from the Gulf kingdoms, he was right.
Turkey, as a NATO member, has always maintained ties with Israel (including major gas pipeline talks just in the past few months), but this has never stopped Erdogan from seizing any chance to project his strength by yelling at the Israeli government. This pattern goes all the way back to 2009, when Erdogan stormed out of a meeting at Davos after an argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres over the 2008 war in Gaza. Despite continuing to maintain ties with Israel after this meeting, Erdogan was greeted by thousands of supporters upon his arrival back in Turkey, applauding the move and holding banners that read “Turkey is proud of you.”
With the Davos incident as an example, it’s easy to see why Erdogan would immediately jump on an even bigger chance to criticize Israel, saying before the decision was even announced that any change on Jerusalem would be a “red line.”
Erdogan carried this show on for days, calling out both Trump’s decision and the Israeli response, which he rightfully described as “terrorism” at a meeting of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Erdogan, who is currently president of the OIC, led the delegations from each nation to unanimously vote to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. While his speech at the meeting was powerful, it did little to actually aid Palestine. It was, however, great PR for Erdogan. Much as the 2009 Davos meeting, Selim Koru, an Ankara-based think-tank analyst with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), saw this as yet another move by Erdogan to shore up his base at home.
According to Koru, Erdogan’s speech bridges gaps in Turkish political society — with the Islamist right “seeing it along Islamist lines, meaning a struggle between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world,” and the left seeing “an imperial violation of the rights of a historically disenfranchised people, with whom they identify on that basis.”
These factors should all make it clear that there is a major difference between what is presented by Erdogan and what the actual calculations are. It should come as no surprise that a man who says the majority of his comments are only “political rhetoric for domestic consumption” is only concerned with maintaining his own power.
Beyond that, Erdogan also carries out policies that will personally enrich him or his family, as shown above with his son-in-law’s willingness to purchase Daesh oil. This has also occurred more recently in a case where Erdogan is thought to be directly connected to a gold trader who violated sanctions on Iran (and is now a witness for the U.S. government).
Above all, Erdogan’s policy should be viewed through a unique lens. When asking what possible motives are behind both Turkish foreign and domestic policy, it is important to ask: “How does Erdogan benefit?” This question often helps explain the motives of this NATO member-state, as its actions seem more and more confusing and convoluted to the casual observer.
Jim Carey is an editor at Geopolitics Alert. He covers the Middle East and Eurasian affairs.