I don’t know whether Turkish President Recep Tayyiip Erdogan has been reading Toby Young’s “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”, but he could certainly write his own version. For the leader of a country that has hosted more than 2.5mn refugees from Syria – the biggest refugee population in the world – and was hit by three suicide bombs since the summer, it must be perplexing to be presented in the international media as one of the bad guys. But that’s exactly what is happening.
Turkey has been facing criticism for closing its border earlier in February and keeping new refugees in camps on the Syrian side – despite being told to keep refugees and stowaway jihadis away from Europe. Its promises to the EU over housing refugees are being treated as sham, and the EU is apparently still dragging its feet over the €3bn it promised to help Turkey host the refugees – despite the fact that Turkey says it has already spent three times that on the problem. And, in the wake of a bomb in Ankara on February 17 that killed 20 military personnel and eight civilians, international sympathy was tempered by cynicism over Ankara’s suspiciously fast announcement that the killer conveniently belonged to the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish group currently fighting Islamic State with Washington’s blessing, but condemned as “terrorists” by Turkey.
The US and Europe have hardly covered themselves in glory in their reaction to the Syria crisis, dithering for years while Syrians died, refugees fled and IS gathered strength, only to watch as Russia stepped into the vacuum on the side of Bashar al Assad. So it is sad and ironic that it is Turkey’s policies that appear the most incompetent and that Ankara has managed to cast itself as the most cantankerous and unreasonable of a cast of characters that includes Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kurdish militants and Assad. The world map is littered with countries Turkey has upset. Even Ecuador, half a world away, is miffed after President Erdogan’s security men beat up local protesters during his presidential visit to that country.
Much of this is due to Erdogan’s unique way with bluster and insult, and a propensity for being offended that would put to shame a surly British university student busy “no-platforming” dissenting voices and seeking “safe places”.
When he rages on the international stage, his every utterance seems to create distaste. Because he can’t seem to get his point across through diplomacy, nor empathise with others, he creates unnecessary struggles – why challenge the US to “choose” whether Turks or the Kurdish PYD are their allies? Given its own reluctance to put boots on the ground, whose boots can Washington make use of if not the PYD’s militia arm, the YPG? So Turkey gets the brush off.
As with the US, so with Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has met Turkish officials so often that German newspapers jealously say she sees Turks more than she does her own ministers. That Merkel, who was instrumental in pouring cold water on Turkey’s EU ambitions a decade ago, comes cap in hand to Turkey, begging it to keep refugees in, is extraordinary. “She dislikes him yet she needs him,” as Der Spiegel put it. Yet Erdogan, instead of capitalising on the visit, was more concerned with grandstanding. When it emerged that Erdogan threatened to send refugees to Europe on buses to see how they liked it, he said he was “proud”.
When Ankara raged against Russia’s incursion into its airspace on the Syrian border, it was backed up by Nato allies. But when Turkey went as far as shooting down one of those aircraft, muted support turned to astounded trepidation. The move has so far proved an own goal, as Turkey lost valuable Russian business and tourists, to the extent that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has just announced a support package for the tourism industry. Now Turkish military planes are paralysed near the border for fear of Russian retaliation. Russia is at the negotiating table with the US and its operations in Syria continue despite the Turks. Indeed, Russian troops backed by Assad are advancing on IS-held Raqqa alongside US-backed Kurdish troops.
Underlying the bluster, though, are two obsessions that Erdogan is unable to leave be.
One: the Kurds. Erdogan cannot bear the reality that the Syrian war has boosted the profile of Kurds on both sides of the border, nor that Syrian Kurds will remain Washington’s strongest allies. This will deprive him of any diplomatic clout that might have helped Turkey shape post-war Syria, in the same way that Turkey’s refusal to cooperate with US troops during the 2003 Iraq war kept it at arm’s length from the peace.
Second: there is his insistence that the real villain in Syria is Assad and his removal is paramount, never mind the added complication of IS. Assad’s villainy is not in dispute, but if Erdogan won’t adjust a foreign policy goal that circumstances mean nobody else shares any more, he will remain out of step with his allies.
Thanks to Erdogan’s obstinacy Turkey is backing into a corner in a way that has raised fears that he will send troops into Syria, perhaps supported by Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s military doesn’t want this, and nor do its diplomats think it likely. But if it were to happen, Erdogan would only be burnishing his pariah status.
It is highly likely that the overblown rhetoric displayed by Erdogan – and his compliant premier Davutoglu – is designed mostly for domestic consumption. The main aim is to stage and win a referendum that would allow him to bolster his presidential powers and increase his own political life.
It is possible that the allies Turkey regularly berates know this and take little notice, while cooperating in the background. However, it all adds up to take Turkey to a place where even its legitimate concerns will not be taken seriously. A diplomacy that leads to a country’s far too numerous red lines being regularly crossed, that fails to get across its viewpoint even to its friends, is a failure.
Erdogan is reaching a point where he faces a choice. Either he continues to play a game of chicken with big powers and risk disastrous consequences, or he decides to re-engage with Turkey’s allies on the refugees, Syria and the Kurds. After all, Turkey’s cordial relationship with Iraqi Kurdish leaders mean this shouldn’t be impossible.
There is a lot wrong with how the current government is running Turkey, but they did not cause the big problems that beset the world today – the Syria crisis, the refugees, IS. There is no reason why Turkey should be the villain in this piece. But for the narrative to change, it’s high time President Erdogan stopped behaving like a bear with a sore head and learned how to win friends and influence people instead.