Analysis |

Erdogan's Ideology Seems Ironclad, but There's One Thing That Can Bend It

The Turkish president treated adversaries to rude, blunt and offensive rhetoric. But as elections approach, he's changing his tune

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Turkish President Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Jeddah, April 2022.
Turkish President Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Jeddah, April 2022.Credit: Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It seems that in his seven years in office, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has not been as busy as he was in the past few weeks, and particularly this last one. He visited the Palestinian Authority and Israel, in order to “turn a new page in the relations between the countries,” as he put it.

At the same time, he was forced to deal with the visits of Finnish and Swedish delegations who had come to Ankara to discuss Turkey’s objections to their joining NATO. Concurrently, he had to devise an itinerary for the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Turkey, hold talks with Washington to advance the sale of F-16 aircraft while fielding American opposition to a Turkish military operation in Syria, and calm down Russia, which is closely monitoring Turkey’s approach to the war in Ukraine.

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The 54 year-old Cavusoglu is normally a mild-mannered man. Unlike his boss, who speaks no foreign languages and habitually screams at his aides and advisors, Cavusoglu is soft-spoken. He speaks Japanese, German, English, Russian and of course Turkish, and according to Western diplomats, he is skilled at forging pleasant relations with his counterparts. He is also adept at navigating the Turkish “hive,” in which the main player is Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and advisor to Erdogan and recently de-facto National Security Advisor as well. And in his spare time, he is a professional vocalist and musician who produces records.

But even a magician like Cavusoglu, who is used to orderly decision-making processes, finds it hard to keep up with the curveballs Erdogan throws his way. “On the face of it, there seems to be a new Turkish strategy that aims to improve relations with all rival countries,” a Turkish think-tank member tells Haaretz. “The plan we have seen in the past year is closer ties with Egypt, renewing ties with the United Arab Emirates, talks with Saudi Arabia ahead of renewing relations, a desire to restore ties with Israel and an effort to balance the need to maintain good relations with Russia and the need to heal the rift with the United States. But all of a sudden the Turkish President unleashes his inner Erdogan and announces that he has written off Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and that he will never meet with him. Where on Earth does that come from?"

True, Erdogan has good reasons to fume at Mitsotakis. Last week, the Greek premiere raised a host of complaints against Turkey at a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, mostly over its drilling for gas in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, in areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus. Mitsotakis went even further when he requested, in a speech to the joint houses of Congress, that the United States not sell 40 F-16 airplanes and 80 kits to upgrade the older models of the same plane to Turkey, because “the last thing that NATO needs at a time when our focus is on helping Ukraine defeat Russia’s aggression is another source of instability on NATO’s southeastern flank.”

But neither can Erdogan portray himself as the victim. Two days after Mitsotakis’ visit, the Turkish foreign minister landed in Washington to advance the aircraft deal. When asked whether Turkey will consent to allowing Sweden and Finland to join NATO, he squirmed without providing his host, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a clear reply. On the one hand, Turkey is in favor of NATO’s “open door” policy, whereby any country meeting the criteria may join the organization, and on the other, “we must take our security interests into account.” He was referring to the asylum both countries provide to members of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the followers of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, who according to Erdogan planned the failed military coup against his regime in July 2016.

Cavusoglu found himself speaking to a supportive administration but a hostile Congress, which still has scores to settle with Turkey for its purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems, its Syria policy, and its threats to expand its conquests in northern Syria to complete a 30 km (19 mile) “security zone” – and now, because of Erdogan’s decision to veto Sweden and Finland’s historic decision to join NATO. We can imagine how Cavusoglu felt, having been appointed to close the aircraft deal and return to Ankara with good tidings, when concurrent to his discussions with his American counterparts, Devlet Bahceli, Erdogan’s coalition partner and head of the far-right MHP party, came out with an arrogant declaration. He said that “We did not exist because of NATO, we would not perish without it." If Turkey’s security concerns are not addressed, he said, leaving NATO is on the table.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visits the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem's Old City, Tuesday.Credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad

True, Bahceli is considered a controversial, at times eccentric figure in Washington. He and Erdogan have a relationship of mutual suspicion. In Erdogan’s first decade in power, Bahceli was one of his fiercest critics. But with Bahceli holding the key to the stability of Erdogan’s reign, the president has no choice but to toe his line, and at times even outdo him in extremist rhetoric so as not to jeopardize his nationalist image. The relationship between the two men is expected to impact the results of the elections scheduled for next year, and according to reports in Turkey, Erdogan is already courting small parties in search of a coalition partner to replace Bahceli and his party. If Turkey is brandishing the threat to leave NATO, many in Washington wonder, why should the United States sell it airplanes? Cavusoglu was forced to perform breathtaking acrobatics to both placate Congress and refrain from offending Erdogan’s partner.

Erdogan’s need to project a tough national image is also what drives his intent to conquer more territory in Syria. While Russia is busy in Ukraine and Washington is keen to maintain NATO unity and even expand it, this is Erdogan's window of opportunity. The White House is warning against expanding the Turkish occupation in territory controlled by the Kurds, who are U.S. allies, and Russia surely won’t be pleased with expanded Turkish control of Syria. But right now, Russia cares more about Ankara staying steadfast against Finland and Sweden's NATO bid, while Washington toils to persuade Erdogan to be more courteous to the Scandinavian applicants.

Not ironclad

The foreign ministers of Finland and Sweden, who arrived in Ankara on Wednesday, met with the advisor Ibrahim Kalin but left empty-handed. Erdogan is in no rush to decide. He finds the wooing from all directions quite pleasant. He has taken a rigid position under which Finland and mainly Sweden (in whose cities fly the flags of Kurdish terror groups, as he put it) are required to take significant practical steps against the “terror organizations” sheltering in their territories before Turkey assents to their joining NATO. It is hard to predict how long the arm wrestling between Erdogan and Biden will last. Each of them holds a battery of sensitive pressure levers, the use of which might backfire badly. Meanwhile, Erdogan reaps the political gains from the display of national pride, unafraid to confront anyone who he thinks offends Turkey’s honor or national interests.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shows the way to Israel's President Isaac Herzog pose in Ankara, Turkey, March 9, 2022.Credit: AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

But, it seems, his grand displays of nationalism are not ironclad. When the need arises, he can be flexible, make concessions, fold, flatter and shove all of those stable, rigid positions that no longer work back into the drawer. Erdogan gained much political capital when news broke of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. For weeks, Turkey disseminated the details of how the Saudi agents operated, directly blaming Crown Prince Mohammed for the murder and for violating Turkey’s sovereignty. The rift it formed between Ankara and Riyadh was complete. The Turkish courts even began to discuss convicting the Saudi agents in absentia.

Four years passed since the murder, and a month and a half ago the casefile was sent to Saudi Arabia, and that, to Turkey, was the end of the affair. On April 28th Erdogan visited Riyadh for the first time, warmly embracing Prince Mohammed. Two months prior, Erdogan visited the United Arab Emirates and received a vital gift, in the form of $10 billion in investments and an agreement for currency exchanges of $5 billion. A few short years ago, Abu Dhabi described Turkey as “the most dangerous country in the region, even more than Iran,” and Turkey viewed it as a foe.

A decade ago, Turkish-Egyptian relations were severed because Erdogan refused to recognize the legitimacy of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who took power by force, deposing elected president and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi. The Turkish media incessantly attacked the “Egyptian dictatorship” and the illegitimate “tyrant” ruling it. The end of last year saw preliminary contacts between Turkey and Egypt; Erdogan agreed to restrict the Muslim Brotherhood's activity, closed their TV station and banned them from political activity on Turkish soil. The rift began to close, and it seems that the two countries will renew relations in coming weeks.

Turkey's relations with Israel, which spoiled in 2009 and reaching a nadir with the Mavi Marmara affair and the Gaza flotilla in 2010, is beginning to heal at Turkey's initiative. While no date has set for raising the level of diplomatic representation and restoring ambassadors to both countries, Turkey is already doing its part by having “asked” a few Hamas operatives to leave the country and made it clear to the organization that representatives of the military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, will no longer be welcome in Turkey.

Toward each of these countries and leaders, Erdogan once presented a consistent national ideology relying on rude, blunt and offensive rhetoric that seemingly doomed their relations forever. And then came the deep economic crisis, and with it public opinion polls indicating a dramatic drop in support for Erdogan. Erdogan needs dollars, real investments to create jobs, and a better regional positioning in light of pressure from the European Union, Russia and the United States – and due to the upcoming elections. The proud national stance and rejection of foreign interference in Turkey’s internal affairs were pushed aside to enable the entry of the new capital, which may fortify the president’s foundations.

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