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With an eye on re-election, Turkey’s Erdogan risks the ire of Western partners

Between stalling Sweden and Finland’s bids for NATO membership and threatening a fresh military offensive against Kurds in northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be capitalising on the world’s focus on Ukraine to strengthen Ankara’s geopolitical standing – even at the expense of NATO and Western partners. Such moves may be targeting a domestic audience ahead of June 2023 presidential elections, with Erdogan trying to galvanise nationalist sentiment as a worsening economic crisis threatens his popularity at home. 

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

The Turkish president seems keen to take advantage of the West’s focus on the Ukraine war, using bellicose rhetoric in defence of Turkey’s interests and imposing his own conditions on top of European and US priorities. 

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

Erdogan is all too aware that Swedish and Finnish accession would be a landmark expansion for the transatlantic alliance, with both nations jettisoning their longstanding Cold War neutrality amid a re-emergent Russian threat. 

‘Imposing his agenda’ 

Ankara sees both countries – and Sweden, especially – as too close to the PKK, which has been waging a guerrilla war 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 slice of northeastern Iran, the PKK has been designated a terrorist group by both the EU and the United States. 

Erdogan says he wants “concrete” and “serious” steps from Sweden and Finland before he allows them into NATO. In effect, he wants them to bargain with him directly to get the green light.

>> As Ukraine crisis rages, Erdogan trains his sights on Kurdish northern Syria

The Turkish president also wants Western countries to lift the restrictions on arms and technology exports imposed in late 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 battling the jihadists. 

“By raising the prospect of a new offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria and threatening to block Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO applications, Erdogan is trying to show that he won’t compromise on Turkish nationalist causes – and that he can impose his agenda and priorities in the international arena,” said David Rigoulet-Roze, a Middle East specialist at the IRIS (French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs) think-tank in Paris.

Moreover, Erdogan is “trying to compensate for his disastrous management of the Turkish economy, to shore up his electoral base and mobilise voters ahead of the forthcoming elections, which look rather complicated for him”, Rigoulet-Roze continued. 

‘Like a poker player’ 

With both presidential and parliamentary elections coming up in a year’s time, Erdogan’s geopolitical chess game with the West could well offer him an electoral boon. 

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

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

>> Turkey challenges allies and enemies alike in quest for ‘larger role on world stage’

The Turkish president is more than happy to pursue policies with an eye on the domestic agenda even if it means irritating the West – as witnessed in recent years by the decision to drill in disputed parts of the Mediterranean and the controversial purchase of an S-400 missile system from Russia. 

Erdogan makes such moves on an “ad-hoc” basis, Rigoulet-Roze said, instead of working from an overarching strategy.

“For the most part, they’re provocative acts – Erdogan knows he can’t burn bridges with the West or remake the world on his terms.” 

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

‘Extremely vulnerable’ 

More recently, Erdogan has refused to join Western sanctions on Russia. Ankara does not want to “antagonise Russia” because the beleaguered Turkish 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 and the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, speaking in a March interview.

>> Turkey juggles relationships with Russia, Ukraine amid economic crisis

Erdogan also riled Western leaders over the past few weeks by hosting Venezuela’s autocratic far-left President Nicolas Maduro for talks on June 8; neither the EU nor the United States recognises Maduro’s regime as legitimate. 

A further provocation to the West came in early June, when the Turkish president announced he would end regular bilateral meetings with the Greek government aimed at building co-operation after decades of antagonism between these historic enemies. Ankara claims that Athens is stationing troops on Aegean islands near the Turkish shore in violation of peace treaties and has threatened to reopen a debate on 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’s testing them each time, seeing how far he can go, seeing if he can make some sort of geopolitical win on the regional chessboard or an economic win to try and relieve the financial pressure Turkey is under,” Rigoulet-Roze said. “Erdogan’s position isn’t as comfortable as it looks, because he risks really antagonising all the other NATO members and making Turkey the black sheep of the alliance.” 

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

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

Over the previous two decades, Erdogan’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won and kept power because it “assured Turks of sustained improvements in living standards”, Rigoulet-Roze said. 

But that reputation for economic competence is gone, putting Erdogan at odds with millions of transactional voters he has relied on for support. Hence his diplomatic overtures to the wealthy Gulf petro-monarchies he previously scorned. 

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 went to Saudi Arabia at the end of April after three and a half years of vexed relations between Ankara and Riyadh following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

For all his troubles, Erdogan knows that Turkey’s geographic location – at the crossroads of Europe, the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East – makes it essential to the West from a strategic perspective. The Cold War is long gone, but the factors that motivated NATO to make Turkey the only Middle Eastern member of the Alliance in 1952 have not gone away. As much as Erdogan’s threats to the Swedish and Finnish accession bids rile NATO members, they know they need to engage with him. 

But while much remains the same, the nature of Turkish politics has changed a great deal since the Cold War, Rigoulet-Roze observed. Back then, Turkey was “secular, anti-communist, pro-Western and pro-European; things have become very different since Erdogan and the AKP took power, making Turkey into a nation dominated by an Islamo-nationalist party that is, at the very least, non-aligned”. 

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

This article was translated from the original in French.

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