CAIRO – 28 May 2018: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan represents a frightful, but awfully real changing tide in the global political system. With an authority and powers now arguably exceeding those of Ataturk, the father of the Turkish nation, Erdoğan’s strong-man leadership sees him placed in a special ‘VIP’ box, occupied by the most powerful countries and individuals in the world. This group includes other authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s new leader for life Xi Jinping. While being sharply critical of the authoritarian and oppressive policies enacted in Russia and China for example, many western leaders continue to court Erdoğan, who continues to maintain western support while pushing the boundaries of morality both domestically and around the Middle East.
In an uncertain world, changing at a rapid rate, a strong leadership provides an image of stability and power, appealing to many who are growing fearful. But this supposed stability does not come without a cost; a cost paid first by those living under the authoritarian ruler, second by those on the periphery, and thirdly, in the case of Turkey, by their allies.
On April 20 of this year, the Turkish Parliament ratified a further three months state of emergency. Following the attempt coup on July 15, 2016, the country has been under a constant state of emergency, and the population has had to bear the brunt of the special powers it facilitates. The state of emergency was declared to “be able to remove swiftly all the elements of the terrorist organisation involved in the coup attempt,” however in reality we have seen the powers being used far beyond this.
Observer group noted that over 150,000 individuals have been dismissed from their positions, almost 140,000 detained and 80,000 arrested. In addition, almost 4,500 judges and prosecutors have lost their jobs, 189 media outlets have been shut down, and 319 journalists arrested. Known as “the purge”, this unprecedented crackdown has faced sharp criticism from around the world. Whether public displays of criticism are genuine or not, it is important to note that, while abuses are highlighted, bi-lateral relations remain the same. For leaders like Erdoğan, they often feel no need to change domestic policies in order to heed to the demands of western allies, since these demands are only backed-up by hot air, and not hard power.
Not only do Erdoğan’s domestic policies stand in stark contrast to the ideals propounded by leaders in the West, but his foreign policy is often opposing to that of Turkey’s NATO allies. Turkey’s foreign policy under Erdoğan has led Ankara astray from its western allies and has done little to build bridges with its easterly neighbors. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey’s foreign ambitions have taken precedence over forging new prosperous strategic relationships, and Ankara is instead looking inward for support and legitimacy. As of late, Erdoğan has been unable to rally support from the West or the East for his aggressive foreign policy playbook which puts a plethora of regional stakeholders at odds with one another.
While Turkey has grown used to sourcing legitimacy and political pressure from its western allies, in the eyes of Erdoğan the EU, the United States and NATO, are losing their influence and prosperity, and Turkey’s EU membership process is dragging. Turkey joined NATO in 1952; however the influence that NATO and its members exerted over the Middle East is waning. The United States is finding the Middle East less receptive to its maneuvering, and it is less able to act with the freedom it once enjoyed. Military bases and aircraft carriers are only half the story.
But why has Erdoğan embarked on a path which favors an independent and brazen foreign policy, with little pragmatic concern for regional alliances? Much like “Resurgent Russia”, there is a desire in Turkey to reclaim its position as a major regional state. Turkey has been deeply investing in forging ties with the West for many decades, and has been under intense scrutiny from its allies in the West to follow the status quo. Erdoğan dreams of Turkey returning to the leading global position it held during the Ottoman Empire era, meaning expansionism is a fundamental aim. However, this comes at the cost of neighboring national sovereignty; national security is the justification, and Syria is the starting point. Erdoğan has led the country to believe it has a duty to expand. However, expansion requires a strong military force, and will put Turkey against powerful competitors with actionable alliances.
The balance of power in the Middle East is on the brink of shifting. The U.S. is mostly on the sidelines, while Russian interference in Syria has assured its continued influence in the region and Iran is making headway in entrenching a crescent of influence stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
Neither Russia nor Iran has been able to compensate Turkey for its weakening relationship with the U.S., and neither seems willing to support Turkish interests. In fact, they have stood directly against each other on the battlefield. However, in the same breath, the West is unable to allow Turkey to slip away. In the most recent attempt to woo Erdoğan, British Prime Minister Theresa May rolled out the red carpet in open arms.
May noted: “It is also important that in the defence of democracy… Turkey does not lose sight of the values it is seeking to defend.” While it was reported that May warned Erdoğan not to go too far in crushing dissent, many activists have accused May of turning a blind eye to terrorism. It is likely that the prospect of a trade-deal with Turkey in a post-Brexit environment is far too appealing; every country has their reasons.