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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan points toward the city center on a balcony in Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, points toward the city center as he speaks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during a meeting in Ankara, May 6, 2019 (Presidential Press Service via AP Images).

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

Monday, Sept. 27, 2021

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 destabilize 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 raised tensions with the U.S. Congress—which fiercely defended the Syrian Kurds, America’s principal partner on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State—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, have further raised tensions and alarmed observers. And its 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 now promising to restore a more conventional approach to U.S. foreign policy and alliance management, Erdogan has more recently sought to smooth relations with Turkey’s allies and neighbors. But none of the underlying causes of tension have been resolved so far, meaning that a return to confrontation cannot be ruled out.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war has increased Ankara’s leverage there, but has 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 is supporting the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and Ankara’s European partners, who are seeking to enforce an arms embargo on the country. Most recently, Turkey’s political and military support of Azerbaijan in the latest outbreak of fighting with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region has once again put it at the heart of a conflict with direct implications for Russia’s national security interests.

WPR has covered Turkey in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will Ankara continue to drift into Russia’s orbit, or will tensions in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh derail efforts to improve ties? Will Turkey accept a diplomatic offramp to its differences with Greece and France in the Eastern Mediterranean or continue to seek confrontation? Will President Joe Biden seek to mend U.S.-Turkey ties or rein Erdogan in? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Turkey Scrambles to Salvage Its Influence in a Post-U.S. Afghanistan

Like other foreign powers, Turkey was caught off-guard by the speed of the Taliban’s mid-August blitz across Afghanistan, which torpedoed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans for maintaining a Turkish security presence at the Kabul airport. Still, Ankara is unlikely to give up on its quest to leverage the situation in Afghanistan to its advantage.

[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 30 days for just $1 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

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 they represent a serious challenge.

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 passing political differences with Turkey’s European partners and NATO allies. But the arrival of the Biden administration could provide 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, the political and military movement involved in a decades-long conflict with the Turkish regime. Meanwhile, its efforts to protect client rebel militias in northwest Syria have created tensions with Syrian government forces and their Russian backers. And Ankara’s role in the Libyan civil war, where a recent cease-fire in support of a transitional political settlement seems to be holding, pitted it against Moscow in yet another theater of conflict.

[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 30 days for just $1 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

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