President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in trouble in all fronts. He is loosing ground in domestic politics, his party is divided. He has problems with the governing alliance's smaller partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He faces challenges in the fight against COVID-19. Inflation and unemployment rates are very high. There is a growing dissatisfaction among his loyal constituency (the small shopowners), he is loosing voters and popularity. And he faces a bottleneck in foreign policy.
Moreover, he does not have many tools left to prevent this fall from grace and is desperately holding on to the Biden administration as a last resort. Four years ago, with less trouble at home and in the region, he tried the same strategy with the Trump administration and he succeeded in forging personal ties with Trump. A government that aspired to be regional hegemony only couple of years ago, now is looking for ways to become a “useful ally” of the United States.
After nineteen years in power, the Eroğan government is showing the signs of its natural weaknesses. The recent video revelations by the mafia boss Sedat Peker, which were viewed by millions, revealed some of the vulnerabilities of the seemingly strong Erdoğan government.
First, it showed the undergoing tension between the AKP and its partner the MHP. Secondly, it also showed the fragility of his party. The videos show that there is an underneath power struggle among some of the rival groups within his power structure. It is shocking for the Turkish public how deep these groups have been intertwined with the underground world. It seems that each group holds some knowledge of its rivals that any revelation could be destructive for all them. For now, they sent covert messages that blackmail their rivals. Thirdly, the AKP’s previous secret dealing with Sedat Peker who openly contributed to the election campaigns on behalf of the AKP and claims that he secretly funded some of the activities of the AKP and bribed his deputies. This scandal does not necessarily lead to the resignation of the AKP government but it has definitely weakened the government under dire economic conditions.
Currently, Turkey is going through the most fragile period in its history. Its economy is highly depended on the Western system. It should be stated that during the nineteen years, the AKP government has deepened Turkey dependency on the capitalist system which in fact made Erdoğan a valuable ally. Even after a change of power, it would not be possible to shift a new economic model from a consumer-based economy, which relies on the inflow of foreign investment, to an economy based on production. Turkey has lost the opportunity to specialize in certain high-tech domains over the two decades, and it is becoming too late to catch up with the global competition. Now, the unstable Turkish Lira entirely depend on the political statements of the U.S. officials on Turkey or monetary decisions of the U.S. Federal Reserve. It is much more vulnerable than it was during the Turkey’s operation in Syria which Presiden Trump forced to halt in a letter in which he said “I will destroy your economy!
Under these conditions and weaknesses the Erdoğan government is poised to make every possible compromise to gain U.S. support and already made some concessions in the Eastern Mediterranean to avoid EU sanctions. Turkey withdrew its claims in this region, and silently shifted its position not to negotiate issues related to the Mediterranean since Ankada does not traditionally consider Greece as an East Med country.
The government initiated the discussion of Montreux Convention (1936) to facilitate U.S. warships to pass through the Bosphorus, and agreed to be a key pillar of the U.S. strategy by normalizing its relations with Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, and Georgia, Ukraine and Poland in the Eastern Europe. Turkey would strategically link these two critical land swaths which would strength NATO’s posture against Russia, and help block Chines infiltration in the Middle East. As for the most critical issue in bilateral issue, the S-400s, the Erdoğan government is looking for ways to turn it into a leverage, a part of its transactional deal but the U.S. governments have been adamantly clear on this issue. Turkey will inevitably back off and the two sides are discussing the ways to get rid of this missile system.
Biden himself has openly stated his displeasure about Erdoğan, calling him an autocrat at a meeting with the New York Times editorial board during his election campaign. There has never been a presidential candidate who expressed his dissatisfaction with a Turkish leader before he came to power.
The point with the Biden administration is that it has not changed its position after he became president. Biden called Erdoğan after three months to inform him that he would use the “G” word, that he would called the 1915 events as "genocide". It is evident that the Biden administration is very well aware of the weaknesses of the Erdoğan government. And they knew that it would not be easy for Erdoğan to push back even after they went ahead and recognized the Armenian Genocide, the very red line Turkey has been trying to prevent for decades.
This also showed that Biden will not back down from his position in dealing with Erdoğan on the contrary to former U.S. presidents who usually have softened their tone towards Ankara while adjusting to the realities on the ground. It has also become clear that the Biden administration will depend on neither a firm transactionalism nor on a personal relationship between the two leaders. It is worth noting that Turkey experts in D.C. point at the frustration in the U.S. diplomatic circles caused by former President Trump, whom they think was manipulated by Erdoğan and thus led to more problems for Washington in the Middle East.
Erdoğan’s efforts to tilt towards the U.S., will have its consequences with Russia. First, Erdoğan will loose the Russian card in its dealings with the U.S. Second, far from using Russia as a balancing force against the US, he is now trying to balance Russian influence in the Eastern Europe and the Middle East. And third he is trying to make a damage control and concerned further Russian reaction. Erdoğan should have learned that it is not the same thing to shift alliances at home when it comes to deal with the global powers. In this vain, Turkey watered down a NATO decision to criticize Belorussia for forcing to landing a flight in order to apprehend a dissent journalist. Erdoğan is now moving from a policy of “precious loneliness” to a proving that he is a precious ally of the U.S. in the region which he regards as a key policy for his political survival.
Turkey has a tradition of cooperation with the U.S. in regional politics. However, after coming to power the AKP government first its identity, “conservative Democrat” and moderate Islamist, then its over ambitious regional aspirations transformed the logic of cooperation in a post-Cold War era. After two decades, the Erdoğan government has rediscovered Turkey’s geographical location under newly emerged geopolitical landspace, and offered Turkey’s valuable position to the US regional strategy. In this new strategic bargaining, Turkey seems to concede to the demands of the U.S., and play a staunch ally to ensure U.S. support. This is a miserable position for a government that boasted that it dominates the regional developments, that it defines the course of events in the region.
Erdoğan is no longer an indispensable leader of the West, especially for the U.S. His political style has long been deciphered and he is regarded as an unreliable leader. His most notable trait is his ability to withdraw and make compromises when he is cornered, a quality all of his counterparts know very well. Despite his readiness to cooperate and to become a useful ally, Erdoğan may not guarantee the type of relations he wishes to establish with the Biden administration. Nor such possible deal will guarantee his and his party’s political future. After all, the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is more experienced in shifting allies/partners historically and globally compared to Erdoğan.
The Erdoğan government is ready to agree, withdraw and compromise with the US on all issues except human rights. It has not shown any sign of taking positive steps in this regard. He is saving the human rights issue as a last bargaining chip against the U.S. Unlike the cooperation in the Black Sea region and negotiating on the S-400 missiles, he knows that steps on human rights and democratization will directly affect his own political future domestically. He is aware that any relaxation will revive social mobilization which he suppresses through police force and judiciary.
Even if Erdoğan could “reset” relations with the Biden administration and manage to open a new page, it will be a much more asymmetrical relationship than before. Erdoğan is ready to concede in many areas so long as it helps him to stay in power. He is trying to return to a “Cold War" type of relationship in which the U.S. turned a blind eye to a flawed democratic system in return for strategic cooperation. Erdoğan is now betting on this model, which is basically a combination of cooperation abroad and authoritarianism at home. This possible deal would give him time until the elections to fix some of problems in the economy and his shaky alliance with the nationalists. However, for Turkey, this is a lose-lose situation.