Can Turkey’s Erdogan Rebuild the Bridges He Has Burned?

Can Turkey’s Erdogan Rebuild the Bridges He Has Burned?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a media conference after an extraordinary NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, March 24, 2022 (AP photo by Markus Schreiber).

Since his sweeping overhaul of Turkey’s political system in 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cemented his near-total control over the country. Despite the worst electoral setback of Erdogan’s career in the Istanbul mayoral election in June 2019, as well as a tail-spinning economy exacerbated by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, he continues to maintain his grip on power, even if he must undermine Turkey’s democracy to do so.

At the same time, Erdogan has pursued an adventurous and bellicose foreign policy across the Mediterranean region, putting Ankara increasingly at odds with its NATO allies. After Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air-defense system in July 2019, Washington suspended Turkish involvement in the F-35 next-generation fighter plane program. In October 2019, the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria targeting Syrian Kurdish militias—the U.S. military’s principal partner on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State—raised tensions with the U.S. foreign policy establishment, even if former U.S. President Donald Trump seemed oblivious to their plight and subsequently received Erdogan at the White House. Turkey’s repeated incursions into waters in the Eastern Mediterranean claimed by Cyprus, as well as its standoffs with Greek and French naval vessels in the region, further raised tensions and alarmed observers. And Ankara’s support for political Islamists since the Arab uprisings as well as its role in the Middle East’s various armed conflicts have put it at odds with the Gulf states and Egypt.

With U.S. President Joe Biden having restored a more conventional approach to U.S. foreign policy and alliance management, and amid a shift in the Middle East toward diplomatic engagement, Erdogan has more recently sought to smooth relations with Turkey’s allies and neighbors. The Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed to add urgency to that effort, but that hasn’t stopped Erdogan from playing a game of brinksmanship to gain concessions from Sweden in return for unblocking its membership applications to NATO. And none of the underlying causes of tension between Turkey and the U.S. and Europe have been resolved so far, meaning that a return to confrontation cannot be ruled out.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war increased Ankara’s leverage there, but at times pitted Erdogan against Russian President Vladimir Putin in the military and diplomatic competition to shape the end game of that conflict. Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan civil war on behalf of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord similarly put Turkey at odds with both Russia, which supports the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and Ankara’s European partners, which had sought to enforce an arms embargo on the country. Most recently, Turkey’s political and military support for Azerbaijan in its 2020 war with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region once again put it at the heart of a conflict with direct implications for Russia’s national security interests. Nevertheless, Erdogan has managed to maintain open channels of communication with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he has tried to leverage into a mediating role in the war in Ukraine, at times with some success, as with the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

More recently, the tragic earthquake that struck southern Turkey, in addition to its human and material costs, has dealt a heavy blow to Erdogan’s political brand. For the past 20 years, Erdogan has portrayed himself as the can-do, business-friendly leader responsible for Turkey’s economic growth and building boom. But corruption in the enforcement of seismic building codes as well as the poor showing by Turkey’s disaster-response agency exacerbated the damage caused by the quake. With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May, the question now is whether Turkey’s political opposition can take advantage of Erdogan’s vulnerability—and whether Erdogan will relinquish power in the event he loses the election.

WPR has covered Turkey in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will Ankara continue to drift out of the West’s orbit, or will the war in Ukraine drive efforts to improve ties with traditional partners? Will Turkey accept a diplomatic offramp to its differences with Greece and France in the Eastern Mediterranean or continue to seek confrontation? Will the upcoming elections spell the end of Erdogan’s rule—or the end of Turkey’s democracy? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Don’t Count Erdogan Out in Turkey’s Elections Just Yet

Turkey’s general elections, scheduled for May 14, were expected to be fateful events for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AKP party. But despite speculation that the earthquakes that devastated southern Turkey on Feb. 6 would dent Erdogan’s chances in the polls, recent developments appear to be going in his favor.

Domestic Politics and Erdogan’s Autocratic Tendencies

Though the 2017 vote to reform the constitution and concentrate extensive authority in the presidency solidified Erdogan’s hold on power, he had already leveraged a failed coup attempt in 2016 to crack down on journalists, opposition leaders, academics, judges and members of the security forces. To build popular support, Erdogan has fanned Muslim nationalism and drawn criticism for undermining Turkey’s secularism. Cracks in his electoral coalition are beginning to show, but it’s too soon to know whether or not that will represent a serious challenge in the upcoming elections.

Foreign Policy and Ties With the U.S. & Europe

Ankara’s ties with the U.S. and the EU remain volatile, seemingly at the mercy of Erdogan’s political needs of the moment. Relations have frayed in recent years over Ankara’s purchase of the advanced Russian missile system and incursions in the Mediterranean, as well as also over political differences with Turkey’s European partners and NATO allies. But the arrival of the Biden administration provided an opportunity to reset ties with Washington, even as the EU’s reliance on Turkish cooperation to block Syrian immigrants and refugees from reaching Europe gives Erdogan a trump card over Brussels.

Turkey’s Role in Syria and Libya

Turkey positioned itself as a primary backer of opposition forces in the Syrian war, but it also used the conflict to launch attacks on Syrian Kurds. Ankara says they are allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the political and military movement involved in a decades-long conflict with the Turkish regime. Meanwhile, Ankara’s efforts to protect client rebel militias in northwest Syria have created tensions with Syrian government forces and their Russian backers. And its role in the Libyan civil war, where a cease-fire in support of a transitional political settlement has for now brought the fighting to a halt, pitted it against Moscow in yet another theater of conflict.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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