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Erdogan’s New Foreign Policy Volte Face

Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 23, 2020

    If politics is the art of the possible, then Recep Tayyeb Erdogan is one of its most outstanding exponents. In September this year, the Turkish president was outraged by the decision of the UAE and Bahrain to normalise relations with Israel. By early December, however, the so-called neo-Ottoman himself sent a Hebrew-speaking ambassador to Israel to break a two-year diplomatic freeze.

    Turkish military interventions in Syria and Iraq, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Khashoggi killing, had cast a long shadow on Saudi-Turkey ties. However, King Salman’s telephone call with Erdogan on November 20, ahead of the G 20 Summit hosted by Riyadh, led to speculation about a thaw in the ties between the two countries. Curiously, Erdogan’s recitation of a politically contentious Azeri poem in Baku, led to a bitter spat with Iran.1

    Erdogan has also reached out to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to greet her ahead of Christmas and pledged to “open a new page in relations with the EU”.2

    He has expressed eagerness to settle drilling issues in the Eastern Mediterranean with the EU, even as he complained to Merkel about Greece’s unwillingness to negotiate.

    The imposition of the $500 million defence sanctions by the ‘friendly’ outgoing Donald Trump administration over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system, meanwhile, has been a major setback. Reports have even speculated about the possibility of the step leading to the country’s expulsion from NATO.3

    Most observers believe that Erdogan’s sudden and multiple foreign policy back flips over the last month or so can be attributed to the victory of Joseph Biden in the recent US presidential elections. It is noteworthy that in a January 2017 interview to New York Times, Biden had called Erdogan “an autocrat” who should “pay a price” for his political excesses.4

    Ironically, Erdogan enjoyed the best time of his political career in the ensuing four years of what John Bolton called a Trump-Erdogan “bromance”. During this time, Erdogan carried out an assertive foreign policy across various theatres — in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. In fact, Biden, during the 2020 campaign trail, included Erdogan as among the “thugs of the world” that Trump embraces .5

    Unlike others in the pack, Erdogan, as noted above, has made major foreign policy changes following Biden’s win in the US elections.

    Erdogan’s domestic challenges

    The Turkish strongman has also undertaken a series of measures domestically to address human rights and economic concerns. A Human Rights Action Plan was launched on December 9 to ostensibly redress international concerns over his regime’s imprisonment of tens of thousands of Turkish civilians, including prominent politicians and civil society members.6

    Rights groups deem the measure an eyewash, as the president refuses to accept calls for the release of even noted politicians like Selahattin Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Kavala.7 It has also been pointed out that the talk of human rights reform is merely a façade, as security agencies recently detained over 500 people for criticizing the government’s mishandling of the COVID pandemic on social media.

    Erdogan complemented the announcement of the human rights action plan with the sacking of his son-in-law, Baerat AlBayrak, from the office of Minister of Treasury and Finance (in the wake of a major financial crisis). With the lira sinking to an unprecedented 8 to the dollar (falling to a third of its value since last year) and with inflation officially shooting up to the 14 percent mark, Moody’s has downgraded Turkey’s debt rating to junk status amidst fears of a balance-of-payments crisis. To arrest the plummet, Erdogan installed a new Central Bank director who quickly raised rates and announced a wave of economic reforms.

    The Turkish president is, therefore, re-engaging with the West — whom he and his supporters have been vilifying for years — in order to salvage a tanking economy and a highly restive, unemployed youth. In fact, the ruling AKP has been facing a large number of defections, and the party lost two of its largest cities in local elections last year, in Istanbul and Ankara. Recent opinion polls show that support for the AKP has fallen below 30 percent for the first time since its formation in 2001.8

    Along with the growing economic problems, respondents cited an unmanageable COVID crisis as one of the main reasons for the grim approval ratings. After having suppressed the number of COVID cases for a long time by announcing only symptomatic cases, the government released the real figures that catapulted Turkey to the status of one of the countries with the largest number of infected citizens, with around 30,000 daily reported cases in early December.9 The Turkish Medical Association believes that the declared numbers are still substantially lower than the actual cases. The government re-imposed curfews and lockdowns until the New Year holidays.

    Irritants in Turkey-Russia ties

    The Turkish leader’s volte face is so stark, it even risks undermining relations with its new ally — Russia. Ankara, for instance, supports Kyiv over the issue of Crimea and has maintained that Russia should return the peninsula to Ukraine.10

    Although Turkey has always sought to counterbalance Russian supremacy in the Black Sea, the recent visit of Ukrainian foreign minister to Ankara, which gave rise to rumours in the media that Turkey was planning to sell 48 of its Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine11, might be a step too far. Having proven their mettle in the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, Turkey’s possible support to Ukraine with such sophisticated drones has the potential to roil Moscow-Ankara relations.

    In recent months, Russia has supported Turkey on many fronts and even brokered an Azerbaijani victory against its own ally Armenia for the sake of its friendship with Turkey. Moscow has also been seen as sacrificing its interests in other theatres in favour of Ankara, such as in Syria and Libya. Without directly confronting Turkey, Russia is currently pleading with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria to cede control of Ain Issa town to Assad forces, in order to avert a Turkish assault on the area.12 However, there is a limit to which Russia could put up with Turkey’s errant ways, especially if tensions break out with Ukraine over Crimea.

    Whither Erdogan’s support for ‘Islamist’ causes?

    For many years, Erdogan had projected an image of being a wily, yet capable leader who could keep his country under an iron grip, while keeping the semblance of a democratic head of state. In the post-Saddam era, the Turkish leader had even emerged as a strongman for the Sunni world — particularly for votaries of Muslim Brotherhood — one who spoke about Islamist issues like Palestine and Kashmir unequivocally on the global stage.

    However, the new image of an Erdogan fawning for support of the West would come as a major letdown even for his most ardent supporters in the wider Muslim world. The charm offensive by a leader who changed Hagia Sophia into a mosque this year may not convince many Western leaders against the Turkish president’s radical ways imminently. Erdogan stands precariously atop the two proverbial stools and some experts have even started counting down his days in politics.

    When Saudi Arabia had poured cold water on Imran Khan’s plans to hold a special session of the OIC on the non-issue of Kashmir, the Pakistan premier had found support from Erdogan and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed in raking up the matter on the international stage.

    With Erdogan now normalising ties with Israel and responding to the Saudi King’s outreach, the chances of him supporting so-called Islamist issues like Kashmir with erstwhile gumption, giving it greater prominence than the Palestinian cause in the Muslim world, appears less likely. Perhaps, Erdogan’s policy stance on Kashmir may go the Malaysian way, which effortlessly changed tack once Mahathir left the political scene.

    Erdogan’s recent foreign policy moves suggest that the world might be a different place once Biden comes to power.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.