Suna Erdem in London -
It’s possible to imagine that the Turkish president sees himself as a sort of Poldark (without the topless scything, please…). Recep Tayyip Erdogan – raging alone like the dashing Cornish ex-soldier in the popular BBC series. Fighting against what he sees as the unjust order of a world run by arrogant Western powers and their Middle Eastern despot puppets, championing the little man – the Palestinians, the Syrians oppressed by Bashar al Assad, the 52% of Egyptians who voted for deposed leader Mohammed Morsi.
Recently, however, he was compared to a somewhat less heroic figure – Don Quixote. It’s a comparison dreamed up by a caricaturist in Iran, which for years was led by the much-ridiculed Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and for most of the past decade and a half could only dream of the kind of positive international profile that Turkey enjoyed. What a comedown, thought embarrassed Turkish politicians.
So which is he? An inspirational leader fighting against the odds, or a deluded loser making a mess at every turn?
If you believe Turkey’s opposition leaders and his sizeable coterie of foreign detractors, he is definitely the latter. His flagship ‘zero problems’ foreign policy to befriend and attract investment from neighbours towards which the country had previously been hostile was shattered as Syria and Iraq imploded. Turkey’s hopes to lead the post-Arab Spring region faded as new regimes stumbled into trouble, as in Egypt. Ambitions to be a mediator in trouble spots were damaged by its partisan stance on many issues.
The more generous would say that he could hardly be blamed for catastrophes next door. He can, however, be blamed for his undiplomatic behaviour – from his blustering against Israel, to his attack on Iran for allegedly trying to bully its way to regional supremacy by supporting Shiite fighters across the Middle East.
These last comments, days before he was due to travel to Tehran, were what inspired the Iranian cartoons, and the headline: “Ottoman Don Quixote in Tehran”. They were also unusually blunt for a Turkish leader – despite being on opposite sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian struggle, Iran and Turkey have managed to remain on reasonably civilized terms for centuries. Although Iranian politicians called for Erdogan’s trip to be cancelled and the Turks considered a no-show, the summit went ahead. The two countries announced eight agreements to boost trade and economic cooperation, aiming to more than double bilateral trade to around $30bn by the end of next year.
So, as is often with Erdogan’s Turkey, business won the day. Turkey too has suffered from sanctions on Iran and is keen to capitalize on a possible resolution. Turkey used to export around $10bn worth of goods to Iran. On energy, they are interdependent. Turkey consumes about 90% of Iran’s natural gas and has been paying in gold and other precious metals to circumvent sanctions. Turkey’s crude oil refinery, Tupras, stands to benefit from Iranian oil, and Iran’s underdeveloped consumer and industrial sectors provide lucrative opportunities for Turkish companies. The end of sanctions on Iran, then, should be great news for Turkey.
In a business sense, yes. But politically, the outlook could be more mixed. If Turkey’s old imperial rival is re-embraced by the West, this means that Turkey would not have the regional stage to itself. Its political mistakes and emotion-driven outbursts could be more costly.
How to lose friends and alienate allies
Going from King of the Arab Street in the early days, Erdogan has been rapidly losing friends and alienating people. He is on bad terms with the internationally-recognised leaders of Israel, Egypt, Libya and Syria. He has his reasons. He thinks it is about time someone stood up for the Palestinians more openly. As a populist Muslim leader in a country dogged by secularist army coups, he can’t bring himself to accept the military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. He believes that the obscene violence of Islamic State militants should not gloss over President Assad’s own abuses, and wants him removed from power. Turkey’s military was criticized for standing by as IS pounded Kobani across the border in Syria, but in this way Erdogan avoided the vote-losing consequences of having Turkish conscripts die while effectively fighting to help separatist Kurds so mistrusted by Turkey’s nationalistic voters.
Nevertheless, his relationship with the US has been hurt, Turkey’s EU dreams are retreating and the UK, a longstanding ally, is frustrated. Because of his stance on Egypt, his relationship with the wealthy Saudis and other Gulf states is also cool. Turkey’s exports to the Middle East have been declining, only partly due to wars. Egypt has cancelled an agreement that allowed Turkey to deliver exports through the country – alternative routes are more expensive – and Libya’s government has decided to cancel contracts with Turkish businesses there because Turkey supports a rival administration.
Western diplomats say, however, that Turkey has begun to sober up. “They’re not stupid,” notes one. “A cold dose of reality has set in. They do find it uncomfortable and are clearly trying to do something about it.”
Despite the hiccups, Turkey continues to be a presence in councils dealing with problems from Syria to Libya, and international leaders, from the British Prime Minister David Cameron and EU presidents to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are still beating a path to Erdogan’s door. Is maybe too much sometimes read into the president’s melodramatic behaviour?
The Iranian trip could be seen as signalling a return to a more sanguine foreign policy. Having been accused of stoking sectarian fires by supporting sometimes extremist Sunnis in conflict zones, Erdogan used his visit to make a plea for and end to the divisions within Islam.
Maybe, with a regional rival re-emerging, Turkey will take the opportunity to rein in the more grandiose and divisive parts of its foreign policy and focus on more realistic steps – on a policy of pragmatism and rather than quixotic tilting at windmills.
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