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Why Erdogan's Turkey will not be able to rebuild its relations with its Western allies

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, French President Emmanuel Macron, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Joe Biden talk during an extraordinary NATO Summit at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 24 March 2022.
©EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ  |   Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, French President Emmanuel Macron, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Joe Biden talk during an extraordinary NATO Summit at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 24 March 2022.

Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine disrupts the already difficult process of economic recovery after the COVID pandemic. Turkey’s situation is particularly dire. This country has to deal with an economic crisis of its own which, doubled by the pandemic, has for many years impacted the domestic and foreign policies of the regime in Ankara, which has been in power since 2002. At domestic level, the degradation of the judiciary and of democratic rights particularly stands out. Things got worse when the country switched to presidential authoritarianism, a regime approved by a slim majority in the 2017 referendum. For many years, decision-making in Turkey obsessively reflects a triumphalist nationalism with ethnic and religious underpinnings, which is transparent in domestic policies that use any means available to promote the dominant identity – the Sunni Hanafi. The government’s choice of ideology fuels both tensions at home, as well as those with Turkey’s partners, further deepening the crisis this country is confronted with.

More and more international observers wonder if Turkish leaders, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in particular, are truly capable of implementing a change. There are some signs indicating this might be possible, although the more knowledgeable pundits remain sceptic, claiming that a return to the reformist agenda of the early years of the government’s mandate (2002-2009) is impossible. Sinking ever deeper into conservative and totalitarian nationalism, the current regime in Ankara is now trapped in a predicament of its own making. And there’s no way of backing out without sustaining a steep loss of popularity with approximately half a year left before the next parliamentary and presidential elections.

An aggressive conservative regime – a brief overview

After winning the 2011 parliamentary election, the Erdoğan-AKP regime started to shift its external policy to reflect the domestic transition towards authoritarianism. The reforms stipulated by the European integration process were visibly slowing down. The September 2010 referendum had already validated the constitutional elements that would build up into the government’s full control of the judiciary, a process that would peak with the introduction of a full-scale presidential control over all state institutions, including the justice system, based on the 2017 referendum. Citizen rights, including the rights of national minorities, were also losing ground. The government’s policies fostered the economic interests of the president’s inner circle, particularly in the field of constructions and the weapons industry, losing sight of agriculture and other essential branches of the manufacturing industry. The Gezi Park protests of May-August 2013 were staged against the backdrop of an accelerated “cementification” of urban landscapes, particularly in Istanbul, to the detriment of sustainable and citizen-friendly urban growth. In this context, the Erdoğan-AKP regime multiplied its programs and increased the budgets designed to provide young Turks with a conservative nationalist  religious education.

At home, the Gazi flotilla raid of May 31, 2010 marked the beginning of a crisis in the country’s relations with Israel and Turkey’s aggressive politics in the region. The aggressions stepped up in the context of the civil war in Syria, started in March 2011, which provided Ankara with the opportunity of taking a stand not just against the regime in Damascus, but also against the Kurds in northern Syria (Rojava).

2013 was very unfortunate for the Erdoğan-AKP regime. The year saw not just the protests of Gezi Park and the corruption scandal in December, but also the demise of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who had long been supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, a long-standing Sunni anti-Western organization. The Turkish leadership’s connection with the Brotherhood, but also with Hamas, bred hostility not just in relations with Israel, but also with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, as well as with major Western countries.

Turkey’s backsliding into authoritarianism has also led to an unprecedented deterioration of relations with the European Union. The European Union Council meeting of June 26, 2018 unequivocally concluded that Turkey has moved further away from EU values, and that the prospects of opening up new accession chapters and modernizing the Customs Union between the two sides have effectively come to a standstill. Relations with the United States have also hit a record low, due to the Brunson incident and especially after Ankara purchased and tested Russian-made S400 anti-air systems, despite warnings coming from Washington. Turkey is paying Russia billions of dollars for building the atomic power plant at Akkuyu. Further dissent is added by differences between the USA and Turkey over the Kurdish-led People’s Defense Units in northern Syria, the conflict in Libya, Ankara’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey’s hostility towards Cyprus and Greece with respect to the energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as by the unprecedented degradation of the human rights context and the independence of the judiciary at domestic level.

Anakara’s disagreements with most of its neighbors and traditional allies are reflected in official discourse, beyond diplomatic channels. The primary targets of president Erdoğan and the Turkish elite were, among others, officials from France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, the United Arab Emirates, or representatives of NATO, the EU, the UN or the Council of Europe. Even relations with India have worsened amidst Turkey’s growing military and economic cooperation with Pakistan. Aggressive statements targeting India, coming from both Ankara and Islamabad, were primarily fixated in recent years on the brotherly relations between the two countries with a majority Sunni population. These religious underpinnings have become a recurrent element of the overarching crisis Turkey has been confronted with in the last decade.

Turkey is seeking to restore relations with its traditional Western and Eastern partners, although not at the expense of conservative nationalism and authoritarianism

Never in the almost 100 years of its existence has the Republic of Turkey made so many enemies like in the last twelve years. Pressed by the swift degradation of the country’s economy and finances, which were accelerated by the government’s faulty policymaking, president Erdoğan seems to have understood that salvation largely depends on resuming cordial relations with its neighbors, and particularly with Western partners as well. The country relies heavily on imports of capital and technology from the West, as well as on exports to the European single market, to which it remains strongly connected.

Even prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ankara was making plans to relaunch relations with key actors in the region. Common interests have indeed led Turkey to resume top-level contacts with the UAE and Israel. Steps are being taken towards restoring relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Armenia and Greece. All these partners have named very strict terms for bringing relations with Turkey back on track. Therefore, Turkey must withdraw its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and renounce its aggressive policy towards Greece and Cyprus, and by extension towards their projects of exploring and exploiting the natural gas deposits in their own exclusive economic areas in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, these policies are the backbone of conservative nationalism, a profound aggressive and anti-Western ideology that has been virtually the defining feature of the regime in Ankara in the last 12 years.

There are no clear and conclusive signs so far indicating that Erdoğan’s regime is at least willing to try and meet the terms imposed so far by partners it seeks to repair relations with. Therefore, Turkey is still hesitating to expel major members of Hamas for fear this might taint the image of the regime as an advocate of the Palestinian cause. Such a move would seriously affect its traditional voter baseline, which is strongly conservative and anti-Western. The regime has recently suspended the trial of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in October 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and ordered the transfer of the court case to Saudi Arabia. President’s Erdoğan’s harsh statement at the time will remain ingrained in the collective mindset, as well as in the memory of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Another bone of contention for Riyadh, as well as for the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and other Arab and Western countries and regimes, is the fact that Ankara still refuses to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Besides, it turns down requests to extradite Muslim Brothers submitted by countries such as Egypt. In Libya and Tunisia, Ankara continues to support factions affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, even at the risk of being accused of undermining the sovereignty of these states.

Prospects for change are nowhere in sight at home as well. The latest annual reports of the European Commission and the USA regarding the democratic evolution in Turkey highlight the continuous deterioration of the judiciary as well as of the rights of citizens and national minorities, invoking an increasing number of examples in this respect. Ankara’s official answer was typically to reject the findings of the said reports, accusing their submitters of making unfounded and unfortunate allegations. Such an attitude clearly shows there is no hope for the current regime to restore the good relations Turkey had with the West in the early 2000s.

At the same time, Erdoğan’s is pursuing unhindered the ideological tenets of conservative and religious nationalism at home as well. Amidst an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, which was exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, the government only increases the net budgets of the Directorate for Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) and of all institutions subordinated to or controlled by it. Although the Constitutional Court ruled that the introduction of mandatory religious classes represents a violation of freedom of faith, it is still very difficult, if not altogether impossible, for parents to withdraw their children from pursuing religious classes in many schools. All the while, the government continues to create new religious academies and schools.

A notable event in this context, which did not receive proper coverage in international media, took place on April 15, 2022 in Istanbul. In front of a crowd consisting of high-ranking members of the government and the AKP party, president Erdoğan officially marked the reopening of the Ayasofya Madrasa, a high-education facility of Sunni studies at the Hagia Sophia. Rehabilitation works had started as early as 2017, the funding being provided by the government, whereas the Hagia Sophia had been reconverted from a museum into a mosque in 2020. The official and full name of the institution is now the Hagia Sophia Fatih Madrassa, named after Sultan Mehmet II Fatih (the Conqueror), who became ruler of Constantinople in 1453. In his inauguration address, Erdoğan pointed out that rebuilding the madrasa corrects the decision to demolish the edifice taken in the first years of the Republic by “those who wanted to erase the country’s rich history”. The president therefore once again underscored the connection between his regime to the Ottoman era, whose glory he seeks to restore in the current national and international context. Erdoğan’s speech also shows that the protests of Athens and other Western chancelleries remained without echo in 2020, when the Hagia Sophia Cathedral was reconverted into a mosque. To the current regime in Ankara, religion indeed appears to matter more than economic recovery or the normalization of the country’s external relations.

Despite the new government rhetoric, Turkey’s reorientation remains unlikely in the near future

What Turkey’s current leaders apparently fail to grasp is that their policies are not helping, but on the contrary, are accelerating the decline of this country. It’s possible that hardline supporters of the Erdoğan-AKP regime, which account for a third of the country’s eligible voters, will continue to endorse the Turkish president in next year’s election as well, all the more so if the government keeps its social programs afloat. The administration’s foreign policy ventures remain the biggest problem nonetheless, eating up huge resources that are squandered in directions that remain obscure.

For instance, the funds earmarked to military operations in northern Iraq, where the Turkish army is becoming an occupation force, are doubled by budgets allotted to similar operations in Syria. However, Syria is not Iraq. The authorities in Damascus, just like those in Baghdad, never agreed to a Turkish military presence on their sovereign territory, and the involvement of Iran, Israel, as well as some Arab nations in Syria is fairly more substantial compared to Iraq. Ankara’s official objective, namely to eradicate the Kurdish threat in the northern territories of its two southern neighbors, has never been attained. Nor can it ever be, since this would virtually require the physical eradication of Kurdish forces. The resources Turkey has disbursed for this effort are therefore squandered at a time when the country’s economy is barely able to sustain its own population and prices are rising to prohibitive levels.

Nor does Turkey’s involvement in the Armenian-Azeri conflict – which was successful, but entailed a significant financial cost – seem to yield any notable benefits. For the time being, there are no real chances of creating a direct corridor between the Turkish territory and Azerbaijan, which would be vital to secure Turkey’s much sough-after influence in Central Asia. Improving relations with Armenia, a country of geostrategic importance in the region, doesn’t seem to be going very well either. The two states have not yet resumed diplomatic relations at the level of ambassadors, whereas Yerevan had recently expressed irritation with Anakara’s coordination with Azerbaijan, a point it raises in every meeting of the two country’s special representatives. On every occasion he gets, president Erdoğan too speaks about the brotherly relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, referencing Islam, although the Azeri are Shiites.

Religion remains the centerpiece of Turkey’s policy towards other important southern actors, although it only fuels tensions, instead of mitigating them. Therefore, relations with Israel and Egypt are yet to be restored at ambassador level, for the time being both states contending themselves in quietly observing Ankara’s steps to normalize relations. In the absence of clear-cut and positive actions regarding Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, both Israel and Egypt remain prudent and committed to their agreements with Greece and Cyprus over the exploitation of natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. The same prudence is transparent in the way Saudi Arabia and Jordan, in addition to Egypt, are carefully monitoring Turkey’s actions in northern and eastern Africa, also in connection with its relation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Considering the complexity of factors, normalizing relations between Ankara and Damascus remains a distant objective.

So, are we truly to take at face value some of Turkey’s gestures, whereby it tries to at least leave the impression it would be willing to relinquish the aggressive stance of the last decade? All the aforementioned details suggest rather the opposite. Upholding a conservative strand of nationalism with ethnic and religious undertones, the current regime in Ankara would find it very hard, if not outright impossible, to steer in a different direction. After losing a large part of its approval rating due to policies that have generated an economic and financial crisis, the Turkish government cannot risk also losing the masses of conservative supporters approximately a year ahead of the parliamentary and especially the presidential elections.

As a result, president Erdoğan is expected to keep the country steadfast in its current track, at least until the elections, postponing any irreversible decisions regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and continuing the military campaigns against the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. After all, these are the most important elections of his career, which could provide him with the ultimate power until he is well into his seventies and the current crisis is nothing but a bad memory. Worst-case scenario, his neo-Ottoman regime could show increasing signs of “sickness”, much like the Ottoman Empire, Erdoğan’s ultimate model. Or maybe the Turkish president is not at all worried but this kind of scenario, considering he is well in control of all the institutions, budgets and armed forces of the Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Tags: Turkey , Ukraine , Russia , Saudi Arabia , United Arab Emirates , EU , NATO , Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
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  • Turkey’s situation is particularly dire. This country has to deal with an economic crisis of its own which, doubled by the pandemic, has for many years impacted the domestic and foreign policies of the regime in Ankara, which has been in power since 2002. At domestic level, the degradation of the judiciary and of democratic rights particularly stands out. Things got worse when the country switched to presidential authoritarianism, a regime approved by a slim majority in the 2017 referendum. For many years, decision-making in Turkey obsessively reflects a triumphalist nationalism with ethnic and religious underpinnings, which is transparent in domestic policies that use any means available to promote the dominant identity – the Sunni Hanafi.
  • After winning the 2011 parliamentary election, the Erdoğan-AKP regime started to shift its external policy to reflect the domestic transition towards authoritarianism. The reforms stipulated by the European integration process were visibly slowing down. The September 2010 referendum had already validated the constitutional elements that would build up into the government’s full control of the judiciary, a process that would peak with the introduction of a full-scale presidential control over all state institutions, including the justice system, based on the 2017 referendum. Citizen rights, including the rights of national minorities, were also losing ground. The government’s policies fostered the economic interests of the president’s inner circle, particularly in the field of constructions and the weapons industry, losing sight of agriculture and other essential branches of the manufacturing industry.
  • Never in the almost 100 years of its existence has the Republic of Turkey made so many enemies like in the last twelve years. Pressed by the swift degradation of the country’s economy and finances, which were accelerated by the government’s faulty policymaking, president Erdoğan seems to have understood that salvation largely depends on resuming cordial relations with its neighbors, and particularly with Western partners as well. The country relies heavily on imports of capital and technology from the West, as well as on exports to the European single market, to which it remains strongly connected.
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