The Sheraton Hotel in the Qatari capital of Doha was lit up in the colors of the Turkish flag Sunday. Qatar’s ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was one of the first to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his electoral victory and that of his party.
Erdogan and the emir are close friends. Turkey was the first country to offer assistance to Qatar a year ago when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates imposed a brutal economic boycott on it. Turkey lambasted the boycott, rushed goods to Qatar and beefed up its military presence in the emirate to warn the other Gulf states not to attack it. Ankara also pressured Washington to mediate between Qatar and the Gulf states.
The economic benefits of Turkey’s ties with Qatar aren’t substantial for a country whose gross domestic product is almost $900 billion. But its close relationship with Doha, an Iranian ally, is an important element of Erdogan’s effort to boost Turkey’s status as an influential power in the Middle East.
Turkey’s strategy of seeking to shape, or at least be party to shaping, a new Mideast order wasn’t born with Erdogan’s election as president. Its ties with Qatar are part of a network of relationships Ankara has been working on for almost eight years since the Syrian civil war began.
Before the war, Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy was supposed to turn it into a bridge between East and West, between Europe, America and the Middle East, and thereby into a country capable of leading moves in the region. But the war taught it the limitations of this strategy.
Erdogan’s severance of his personal ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his new policy of trying to oust the Assad regime due to its massacre of its own people symbolized the revolution in Erdogan’s approach. It also put Turkey in opposition to Iran.
Yet the expected rift between Turkey and Iran was avoided, mainly due to shared economic interests. Iran, at that time still under harsh international sanctions, needed an ally like Turkey, which skirted the sanctions by buying oil from Iran and paying it in gold via the UAE. Both countries also had a long-standing interest in blocking Kurdish aspirations for independence and agreed on the need to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.
Nevertheless, Erdogan’s ties with Tehran created a dilemma for him. In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman formed a “Sunni coalition” against Iran and embarked on a war in Yemen, led by his son Mohammed. Salman then recruited Turkey into the coalition, giving it, for the first time, the status of a partner in the Arab Middle East, which had traditionally seen Turkey as alien at best and hostile at worst. The common denominator between the secular Turkish republic and the Wahhabi kingdom was loathing for Assad and a desire to oust him.
Saudi and Egyptian enmity
But Turkey never agreed to serve as a brake on Iran, it didn’t join the war in Yemen, and Salman soon realized that their partnership empowered Turkey without making any real contribution to advancing his own interests. The Saudi media began “reconsidering” the alliance with Turkey and describing Erdogan as an authoritarian ruler. Recently, a UAE ambassador even declared Turkey a threat to the region and said the Americans didn’t understand the gravity of this threat.
Arab hostility to Turkey was led by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. Shortly after taking over the presidency in July 2013, Sissi not only began persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood, but also imposed an economic boycott on Turkey, which refused to accept his rule as legitimate. Erdogan said Sissi had taken power in a military coup and demanded the restoration of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Sissi canceled Egypt’s trade agreements with Turkey, urged Egyptians not to travel to Turkey or fly with Turkish airlines, and blew up Turkey’s hopes of using Egypt as a commercial bridge to Africa.
Not much was left of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy created and led by a political science professor, Ahmet Davutoglu, who served as Erdogan’s foreign minister and then, after Erdogan became president in 2014, as his prime minister. Turkey’s rift with Syria and Egypt, its chilly relations with the Gulf states and its hostile relations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which stemmed from its support for Hamas, all distanced Erdogan’s dream of becoming a pivotal country, if they didn’t utterly destroy it.
It’s simplistic to say Erdogan aspired to reestablish the Ottoman Empire and make himself sultan. Still, Turkey’s poor relationships with other countries in the region, its declining influence on regional conflicts, its alliance with Iran, Qatar and Russia – which at least for now are considered the nemeses of the Arab Middle East – and its takeover of land in northern Syria in its battle against the Kurds have all made Arab states increase their efforts to thwart Ankara. Thus no new Ottoman Empire will ever be born of Erdogan’s dream; his “sultanate” will end at Turkey’s borders.
But it’s not only Mideast leaders who loathe Erdogan. He has also been engaged in a bitter feud with the United States that has descended into mutual threats. In fact, “duel” would be a better word than “relationship” to describe the ties.
Turkey’s list of grievances starts with the refusal of both the Obama and Trump administrations to extradite preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of plotting the failed coup against him in July 2016. Next, Erdogan assailed the American legal system and the U.S. administration over a court ruling convicting the vice president of Turkey’s state bank of circumventing sanctions on Iran. And finally, Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there drove Erdogan wild.
Russian missiles for Turkey
But the heart of Erdogan’s spat with Washington is the assistance America gave the Syrian Kurds in the war against the Islamic State. Erdogan sees this close relationship as a plot to abet Kurdish terror against Turkey.
He could make a similar accusation against Russia, which also sees the Kurds as essential allies in any diplomatic process to end the Syrian civil war. But having been burned by the economic boycott Russia imposed on Ankara after Turkey downed a Russian plane near the Turkish-Syrian border three years ago, Erdogan has been very careful not to antagonize Moscow. To reconcile with Russia, he had to withdraw his adamant opposition to Assad remaining in power and join the coalition Moscow formed with Tehran to launch a diplomatic process in Syria.
Washington, which didn’t get too upset over Erdogan’s suppression of intellectuals and political rivals or his massive violations of human rights, was furious when Turkey signed an agreement to buy Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system. A battle is now being waged on Capitol Hill to prevent Turkey from buying the F-35 fighter jet in order to punish Ankara for the S-400 purchase, which Turkey’s American opponents say will undermine NATO’s defense coordination.
The one ray of light in Turkey’s relations with Washington in recent weeks was a deal over control of the Syrian city and province of Manbij, which had previously been controlled by the Kurds. Under this agreement, Turkish and American forces will conduct joint patrols of the city and the province once the Kurds, whose presence was the reason Turkey threatened to capture the city, have withdrawn.
The city and province of Afrin, however, are still under Turkish control, and Turkey even opened a branch of Harran University there, staffed by Turkish and Syrian faculty. The Kurds had to accept the American dictate, but they found a way to even the balance. With Russia’s support, they began direct negotiations with the Assad regime over their future in Syria. One likely result is that the Kurdish minority, acting in cooperation with the Syrian government, will deprive Turkey of its pretext for being in Syria.
Turkey’s intervention in Syria has also enraged Iran, which rejected Ankara’s request for cooperation in its war against the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. “Military action against the territory of another state is illegal,” Iran said in a statement, hinting broadly that it also considers Turkey’s military presence in Syria unacceptable.
Thus Erdogan’s electoral victory won’t help him conduct a foreign policy that could extricate him safely from the thicket of regional interests that has entangled him. For now, Turkey’s international relevance rests on its role in the Syrian war and on the European Union’s dependence on an agreement with Ankara that largely blocked the flow of Syrian refugees to its member states.
Yet even Europe is sick of Turkey. “Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union,” EU foreign ministers said in a statement after a recent meeting in Brussels. “Turkey’s accession negotiations have therefore effectively come to a standstill,” and “no further work ... is foreseen.”
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