Erdoğan's difficult balancing act

The wide U-turn Erdoğan is undertaking in foreign policy is neither a balancing act, nor hedging his bets. It more and more looks like a headlong dash into the unknown.

A smaller, smarter and more accountable state apparatus. That was part of the deal when Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power nineteen years ago in 2002. Whereas today, if we attempt to directly translate a Turkish saying, “horse’s tracks seem to have been overlapped with dog’s tracks”. Journalism does not help. It happens to be a collateral damage. No opinion, including the public opinion itself and this piece too, is no longer based on facts. Protective high walls surround the presidential palace and flow of information is tightly controlled by a few.     

Furthermore, the promise of running the country the way a CEO manages a multinational holding company turned out to be void too. Instead, a small shop owner mentality settled in. By default, greed and short-sightedness determine the foreign policy. What is called pragmatism is in fact opportunism. What is called rationalism is mere survival instinct. In these circumstances, diplomacy is considered a public relations exercise. The acquisition of S-400 missile defence systems worth 2.5. billion USD from Russia remains unexplained till today.

There is more to come, more tension to be built though. Turkey’s Bayraktar armed drones proved their capabilities in Karabakh. Bayraktar company belongs to President Erdoğan’s son-in-law. Yet, if one follows the dominant rhetoric then Bayraktar falls under the category of national and homegrown military industry. According to some, as in the U.S., in Turkey as well one needs from now on to factor in the politico-military complex to understand and explain foreign policy decisions.

Recently, Ankara held his ground on refusing to accept Crimea’s annexation to Russia. To up the ante, Erdoğan offered to sell those same Bayraktar armed drones to Ukraine. That provoked first spokeswoman Zakharova and then none other than Minister Lavrov himself to starkly warn Turkey to re-consider its position. Drawing a comparison with the Crimean Tatars, Zakharova went even further to remind Ankara of the fragile situation of its own Kurdish population. Let’s just take note of the fact that PKK had always its office operational in Moscow. At the same time, the Turkish Armed Forces’ across the border military operation in the mountainous border region with Iraq is ongoing and expanding.

Next, Turkey offered the same Bayraktar armed drones to Poland. No need for suggested or real foreign policy expertise there to predict that that move would not go down well again with Moscow. Then again, all the fervent and rampant anti-american rhetoric from left to right in the country notwithstanding, Turkey never before committed itself so firmly to NATO operations in the Baltic and the Black Sea theaters. To guess that recent attacks from Idleb towards Russia backed regime held adjacent territories in Syria would have something to do with this larger picture should not be seen as hyperbole.

It takes two to tango and that tango will not start unless Turkey lets go off of its S-400s. To wit, respected Turkey expert Henri Barkey suggests Turkish military bases in Qatar as a new alternative. Anyhow, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken opted not to include Ankara in its large middle eastern tour. Instead his deputy Sherman and Libya Special Representative Norland touched base. Ms. Sherman’s talks with the de-facto national security advisor to the president Kalın were aimed at preparing the initial face-to-face meeting between Erdoğan and Biden in Brussels in the margins of the NATO summit on June 14.  

To refresh our memories U.S. President Biden called his counterpart Erdoğan on April 23 to let him know that U.S. would officially recognize the Armenian Genocide the next day. In the immediate aftermath and judging by Erdoğan’s usual standards, his reaction to the said announcement was meek. Yet, within the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Erdoğan did not shy away from directly accusing Biden of having “blood on his hands.” That was on the 17th of May. Whereas, on May 26, the same Erdoğan described his upcoming meeting with Biden as a “fresh start”. That statement was following his videoconference with the CEOs of twenty heavy weight American companies.  

In the background, what I call the “odd road companion”, the underworld boss Sedat Peker continues his weekly broadcasts from his refuge in Dubai. Peker’s revelations brings millions of curious citizens to their computer screens in each instalment. Once again, the dark and bloody of connections of the state security apparatus, narco-trafickers, gangs, politicians, business people are unashamedly exposed in front of the public. As Columbia professor Buscaglia explains it took 10 to 12 years for Putin’s Russia to reign in the underworld. The outcome is not democracy though.  

To my mind, the wide U-turn Erdoğan is undertaking in foreign policy is neither a balancing act, nor hedging his bets. It more and more looks like a headlong dash into the unknown. Instead, to proceed by all means available would be a sounder choice in my humble opinion. Those means are in broad daylight. They are the international agreements that Turkey is a party to. They are the alliances, as in first and foremost NATO, that Turkey is a member of. And they are the international organisations like the CoE and the OSCE of which Turkey is among the founders.

Nevertheless, even though Turkey’s place on the map and hence its geopolitical importance remains naturally the same, on the national identity side the jury is still out. Unless Turkey reaches an irrevocable consensus on that front I doubt it can ever adopt an effective and rational foreign policy. I readily admit that mine is mere armchair quarterbacking. I have no off the record sources in higher places at all. Still, if the dictum “once a diplomat always a diplomat” is true then my counsel would be to err on the caution’s side.

May 17, 2021 An odd road companion