by Gerhard Arnold, Publisher and Middle East correspondent to this magazine, Würzburg
Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war on 24 February 2022, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an astonishing presence on the international and regional political stage. If one wants to adequately understand the Turkish leader’s increase in foreign policy prestige as a result of the war in Ukraine, one must carefully consider the regional political environment in the Middle East, his relationship with NATO and western European countries, and his policy initiatives prior to the war.
Erdoğan – the troublemaker
Since the failed coup by small parts of the Turkish military in the night of 15 to 16 July 2016, Turkey’s relationship with Europe and the United States (US) has continued to deteriorate. Head of state Erdoğan unsuccessfully demanded that the US extradite former comrade-in-arms Gülen, allegedly a driver of the coup, and increasingly expanded his country into a totalitarian police state, dismantling democracy, freedom of expression, etc. In June 2019, Erdoğan made it public that he had purchased advanced S-400 air defence missiles from Russia, further angering the US.
Relations with the Arab world also deteriorated as a result of Turkey’s ongoing islamisation and Erdoğan’s readily apparent efforts to build a neo-Ottoman hegemonic policy. Against the interests of the conservative Gulf states, he supported the Arab revolts in 2011, but also the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organisation in the eyes of Gulf neighbours. His military intervention in Libya in January 2020 in favour of the official government led to direct confrontation with key Arab states. By 2020, Turkey’s reputation was at an all-time low in western Europe, the US, and key Arab states.
Turkey’s political reorientation
It was not the Russia-Ukraine war, but developments the year before that led to a political reorientation of Erdoğan’s foreign policy toward the Arab world. The main reason was the growing economic and financial problems at home, combined with very high inflation. This limited his domestic scope for further aggressive hegemonic policies.
The change of president in the US from Trump to Joe Biden in January 2021 led to a strategic reorientation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, a consequence of the announced American disengagement in the Middle East.
In search of new strategic partners, they were open to Turkey’s advances, but expected it to end ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey, for its part, was primarily interested in new sources of money, in large financial investments to boost its own economy. The UAE offered itself.
Bilateral visits by government delegations, state visits and personal meetings at the presidential level in 2021 and 2022 slowly thawed the icy relations with Egypt, the UAE and even Saudi Arabia. Normalisation was also achieved with Israel.
These developments have noticeably weakened, though not overcome, Turkey’s years of political confrontation with key Arab countries. The numerous and bloody conflict dynamics in the Middle Eastern crisis region and North Africa have not been changed by Turkey’s new regional policy.
The Ukraine war – a gain in prestige for Erdoğan
The war in Ukraine, which began with a Russian attack, affected relations with Arab states, as well as with other NATO countries.
Several Arab countries were affected by the consequences of the war very quickly and, in some cases, severely, because the previously secure supply of Ukrainian grain was interrupted. It primarily affected Egypt, but also Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, as well as many African and Asian countries.
Erdoğan, supported by the UN Secretary General, managed to find an export agreement for grain products in negotiations with Russia and Ukraine in July 2022. Slowly but steadily, shipments increased again. Turkey’s geographic location at the southern exit of the Black Sea gave it control of the sea route through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, which increased its international political weight in the war. Erdoğan also succeeded in extending the duration of the grains agreement beyond 19 November 2022, another diplomatic success of importance for Arab states.
For several years, Turkey has maintained close political and military relations with Ukraine, whereas political relations with Russia were very complicated on both sides, but respect for mutual interests allowed agreements and avoided confrontation. Economic cooperation is considerable, particularly through Russian tourists in Turkey and the large deliveries of Russian gas and oil. Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Turkish leader positioned himself as a political mediator between Ukraine and Russia. After two unsuccessful rounds of high-level talks in Istanbul and Ankara in March 2022, Erdoğan was involved in a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in September 2022.
New policies and old obsessions
The internationally acclaimed Turkish initiatives, which led above all to the resumption of important grain exports, strengthened Erdoğan’s reputation at home and abroad. His policy to establish Turkey as a major neo-Ottoman regional power in its own right, no longer unilaterally fixated on the west or the United States was beginning to be successful. NATO also viewed Turkish mediation with some respect. Surprisingly, Erdoğan also sought to bear political mediation between the two states, in contrast to his previous unilateral political and military support for Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia.
In the shadow of international attention to the Ukraine war, Erdoğan has been able to pursue an old political obsession, the fight against Kurds in northern Syria and northern Iraq, driven by his fear that they will seek their own Kurdish state. The series of Turkish attacks on Syrian and Iraqi territory since 2016, in violation of international law, continued on 20 November 2022. Erdoğan ordered twelve airstrikes on Kurdish positions in north-eastern Syria, and in the weeks before that, almost daily sorties with combat drones. Erdoğan’s ongoing conflict with the Kurds put additional strain on relations with NATO in 2022. hen Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership on 18 May 2022, in light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, striving for quick admission, Turkey blocked the procedure, accusing Sweden in particular of not taking decisive action against Kurdish terrorists, but instead granting asylum to quite a few of them. But the Turkish demand to extradite them is hardly acceptable to Sweden from the point of view of the rule of law.
Pushing forward into the power vacuum
Erdoğan has been walking a risky tightrope between his loyalty to the alliance as a NATO member and his political relations with Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine war. His political mediation activities between Ukraine and Russia, especially the export agreement for grain from Ukraine, have significantly increased his international prestige. He has also been able to broaden his foreign policy scope in the Arab world, a process that began even before the Russia-Ukraine war. Head of state Erdoğan will take advantage of the already discernible Russian loss of power in the former states of the Soviet Union and in the Caucasus to push forward into the power vacuum there and further advance Turkey’s hegemonic policy. Erdoğan’s new policies also serve to bolster his domestic standing with voters in the run-up to Turkey’s next presidential and parliamentary elections on 18 June 2023. But this calculation may not work out. The two massive earthquakes in south-eastern Turkey on 6 February 2023 have caused grief and despair among the population, but have also led to increasing criticism of the president’s disaster management.