With a view to re-election, Turkey’s Erdogan risks the wrath of Western partners

Between the blocking of Swedish and Finnish candidacies for NATO membership and the threat of a new military offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be capitalizing on the world’s attention on Ukraine to strengthen Ankara’s geopolitical position – even at the expense of NATO and the West. the partners. Such moves could target a domestic audience ahead of presidential elections in June 2023, with Erdogan trying to galvanize nationalist sentiment as a deepening economic crisis threatens his popularity at home.

In recent weeks, Erdogan has once again complicated Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies – blocking Swedish and Finnish plans to join the bloc; threatening another military incursion into northern Syria; refusal to join Western sanctions against Russia; and reigniting tensions with Greece’s eternal rival over the Aegean islands.

The Turkish president appears eager to take advantage of Western attention on the war in Ukraine, using belligerent rhetoric to defend Turkey’s interests and imposing his own conditions on top of European and American priorities.

Talks in Brussels on Monday on the latest NATO membership bids led to “clear progress” on some issues, a Finnish presidential aide said. But Turkey has halted work – demanding that Sweden and Finland take action against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) ‘terrorists’ before approving their membership – ahead of the NATO summit the week next in Madrid.

Erdogan is all too aware that joining Sweden and Finland would be a historic expansion for the transatlantic alliance, with both nations abandoning their longstanding Cold War neutrality amid a re-emerging Russian threat.

“Imposing your agenda”

Ankara sees the two countries – and Sweden, in particular – as too close to the PKK, which has waged guerrilla warfare in Turkey since 1984 punctuated by periodic ceasefires. A militant insurgency that dreams of an independent Kurdish state uniting southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and a small part of northeastern Iran, the PKK has been designated a group terrorism by the EU and the United States.

Erdogan says he wants “concrete” and “serious” steps from Sweden and Finland before allowing them to join NATO. Indeed, he wants them to negotiate directly with him to get the green light.

>> As Ukraine crisis rages, Erdogan targets Kurdish northern Syria

The Turkish president also wants Western countries to lift restrictions on arms and technology exports imposed at the end of 2019 after a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria and a key ally of the US-led international coalition fighting the jihadists.

“By raising the prospect of a new offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria and threatening to block Swedish and Finnish NATO candidacies, Erdogan is trying to show that he will not compromise on Turkish nationalist causes – and that it can impose its program and its priorities on the international scene,” said David Rigoulet-Roze, Middle East specialist at the think tank IRIS (French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs). in Paris.

In addition, Erdogan “is trying to compensate for his disastrous management of the Turkish economy, to consolidate his electoral base and to mobilize voters for the next elections which promise to be rather complicated for him”, continued Rigoulet-Roze.

“Like a poker player”

With presidential and parliamentary elections a year away, Erdogan’s geopolitical chess game with the West could well offer him an electoral windfall.

A German Marshall Fund poll released in April showed that 58.3% of Turks see the United States as the “biggest threat” to Turkey’s “national interests”, while 62.4% believe that countries Europeans want “to divide and disintegrate Turkey as they had the Ottoman Empire in the past”. past.” An even larger number, 69.8%, believe that European countries have helped to strengthen separatist organizations like the PKK.

“Erdogan is a real political animal; he acts like a poker player on the world stage,” Rigoulet-Roze said. “But there is often a national agenda lurking behind its games with the West – and its various postures on the world stage are nothing more than a response to national issues and a reflection of its desire to keep its grip. on power.”

>>Turkey defies allies and foes alike in its quest for a ‘greater role on the world stage’

Turkey’s president is more than happy to pursue policies with an eye on the national agenda, even if that means irritating the West – as evidenced in recent years by the decision to drill in disputed parts of the Mediterranean and the controversial purchase of an S-400. Russian missile system.

Erdogan takes such measures on an “ad hoc” basis, Rigoulet-Roze said, instead of working from an overall strategy.

“For the most part, these are acts of provocation – Erdogan knows he cannot cut ties with the West or remake the world as he pleases.”

Indeed, Erdogan is only too aware that the EU is still Turkey’s biggest trading partner (it is part of the customs union) and that the US has become Turkey’s third largest export market. Turkey in 2020.

‘Extremely vulnerable’

More recently, Erdogan refused to join Western sanctions against Russia. Ankara doesn’t want to “upset Russia” because Turkey’s beleaguered economy is “extremely vulnerable” to a loss of Russian wheat and energy supplies, according to Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University in New York. York and the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, during an interview in March.

>> Turkey juggles relations with Russia and Ukraine amid economic crisis

Erdogan has also riled Western leaders in recent weeks by hosting Venezuela’s far-left autocratic President Nicolas Maduro for talks on June 8; neither the EU nor the US recognize Maduro’s regime as legitimate.

Another provocation to the West came in early June, when Turkey’s president announced he would end regular bilateral meetings with the Greek government aimed at boosting cooperation after decades of antagonism between these historic foes. Ankara claims Athens is stationing troops on Aegean islands near the Turkish coast in violation of peace treaties and has threatened to reopen a debate over ownership of the islands.

“On the surface it sometimes looks like Erdogan is the master of this game against the West – but in reality he tests them every time, seeing how far he can go, seeing if he can do some sort of of geopolitical victory on the regional chessboard or an economic victory to try to relieve the financial pressure that Turkey is under,” said Rigoulet-Roze. “Erdogan’s position is not as comfortable as it is. air, because it really risks upsetting all the other members of NATO and making Turkey the black sheep of the alliance.”

Erdogan is again trying to make Turkey a great power – on the global and regional stage.

“Erdogan is very nostalgic for the Ottoman imperial grandeur, which has a deep resonance in the contemporary Turkish psyche – this idea that Turkey must once again be recognized as a great power, even if it cannot have an empire,” he said. declared Rigoulet-Roze. . “Unfortunately for Erdogan, reality constrains these ambitions, as Turkey’s considerable economic difficulties mean it cannot afford to be isolated.”

Over the past two decades, Erdogan’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won and retained power because it “provided the Turks with lasting improvements in living standards”, Rigoulet said. Pink.

But that reputation for economic skill has disappeared, putting Erdogan at odds with the millions of transactional voters he relied on for his support. Hence his diplomatic overtures to the wealthy Gulf petromonarchies he previously despised.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his first official visit to Turkey on Wednesday, with several agreements expected between the two Middle Eastern powers. Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia in late April after three and a half years of rocky relations between Ankara and Riyadh following the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

For all its troubles, Erdogan knows that Turkey’s geographic location — at the crossroads of Europe, the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East — makes it strategically essential to the West. The Cold War is long over, but the factors that prompted NATO to make Turkey the Alliance’s only Middle Eastern member in 1952 have not gone away. As much as Erdogan’s threats against Sweden’s and Finland’s membership bids irritate NATO members, but they know they need to talk to him.

But while much remains the same, the nature of Turkish politics has changed significantly since the Cold War, Rigoulet-Roze observed. At the time, Turkey was “secular, anti-Communist, pro-Western and pro-European; things have become very different since Erdogan and the AKP took power, making Turkey a nation dominated by a non-aligned Islamo-nationalist party”.

“This is certainly not the time to question Turkey’s role and status within NATO; it’s not in anyone’s interest,” he continued. “But having said that, the way other NATO members view Turkey is clearly not what it used to be.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Sharon P. Juarez