It is difficult if not impossible to have inside access to the internal dealings of the self-styled “palace” for us, the self-assigned pundits. There are two unfiltered sources of reliable first-hand information though. One, is on-the-spot declarations made and answers provided to journalists’ questions by President Erdoğan every Friday following prayers. The other, is the relatively relaxed chats accorded again by Erdoğan to embedded hand-picked reporters on his flights home on the presidential plane whenever he is flying back home from one of his foreign visits.
This time around, when Erdoğan flew to New York to attend to yearly United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting we had the good fortune to have both. The President received reporters at the Turkevi Center of which the building was just completed and pondered aloud upon world matters and Turkey’s foreign policy challenges quite candidly.
And, once back in the country right following that visit, he also took questions and made comments at a mosque’s courtyard on Friday. Putting the two together and throwing some juicy details in the mix provide a trove of information and enables a sort of an X-ray picture of the state of play.
The high point of this visit was the opening of the new 36 storey “Türkevi Center” tower right across the UN headquarters in Manhattan. Erdoğan took special pride in it as he hosted all but one of his fourteen meetings with other heads of delegations in the building and reasserted so. Among those were the UK, Albanian, Croatian, Slovenian, Polish, Guinea-Bissau and etc. meaning beyond Boris Johnson there was not much meat there for propaganda. Rather unfortunately, the minority independent media in Turkey chose to concentrate on how BJ walked to the building with merely two security guards in tow while Erdoğan had chosen to travel with two or three plane loads of a delegation and his magnificent armada of bullet-proof Mercs transported for the occasion.
Erdoğan’s book “A Fairer World is Possible” (one-line executive summary for the weary reader: “The world is bigger than five”, meaning a BMSC reform –with Erdoğan as the standard bearer- is inevitable) was lavishly promoted with gigantic posters on trucks and billboards. He lengthily paused on the issue by affirming that Turkey will try and “corner” the permanent five as the non-permanent ten members were also assumed to be on its side. He especially singled out “Africa” as one big block and defiantly asked “Africa, for how long are you going to go on like this?” and accused that the non-permanent ten were mere instruments at the hands of the P5. Whether Erdoğan’s broadside had found any echo among any quarters is anybody’s guess.
The low-point though was the non-existence of a one-on-one meeting with U.S. President Biden. Erdoğan lamented that “he worked with Bush, with Obama, with Trump” but never such a treatment was reserved to him by any US president. Tellingly, a delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Ambassador Sedat Önal was dispatched to DC prior to UNGA but only a ministerial between Çavuşoğlu and Blinken was made possible.
While complaining about Biden’s perceived snub, Erdoğan emphasized Turkey’s NATO membership. Yet, he also criticized the U.S. in particular for kind of escaping from Afghanistan after twenty years while leaving the tab at the table for others to pick it up. Never mind that Turkey too was part of the NATO operation for an uninterrupted twenty years since its’ inception.
This time around, the presidential propaganda outlet (which calls itself the Communications Directorate) had left nothing to chance by limiting the meetings with the think-tanks to FPA and the national SETA-DC.
Erdoğan also chose to receive Mustafa Destici, the leader of an ultra-nationalist micro-party BBP in Turkey in NY as well as the head of the FIFA, Gianni Infantino. On the other hand, Erdoğan brushed questions (as during his CBS interview) that the “S-400 issue is a done deal” -not to be revisited whatsoever. He also complained about US’ arming and equipping terrorists (i.e. SDF in North East Syria along Turkey’s border). Intriguingly, he also claimed that the US was not so much “related” to Syria anymore. On the contrary, he underlined that he had much higher expectations from a friendly Russia in Syria.
In fact, Erdoğan will be travelling to Sochi to meet his Russian counterpart on Wednesday. He vaguely accepted the threat emanating “by the regime” in Syria from “the South” which would mean Idleb. Assad indeed transfers his forces from the East to the surroundings of Idleb and keeps bombing the area, including targets near to Turkey’s monitoring posts. Russia insists that Turkey is late, very late in implementing his part of the deal to de-marble the armed resistance and punish those who do not wish to do so. Also at the same time, there is increased diplomatic and military traffic between the US and Russia, on trying to find common ground in bringing back the SDF (or the Kurds in general) under the (new) Syrian state’s umbrella. Turkey is struggling to overcome difficulties in hosting almost 5 million Syrian refugees already with elections pending in near future.
All in all, the times of driving a wedge between Russia and the U.S. seem to be over. In domestic politics, Erdoğan is now for the first time in his history leading an uphill battle against a somewhat united (or at least coordinated) opposition. Even offering propaganda victories to the public from the foreign affairs front stays limited to having built a relatively speaking midget tower at the heart of the skyscrapers jungle of Manhattan. The pomp with which the taxpayers’ money is thrown into the furnace by spades raise more than a few eyebrows at home while people feel the daily sting of the extra stress the pandemic puts on the already impoverished economy. In both domestic and foreign policy fronts the yawning gap between the reality and the rhetoric grows wider by the day.