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Foreign Policy

When it comes to Erdoğan, there’s no easy solution

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As of last week, Turkey has officially lifted its threatened veto on Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership — a remarkable achievement by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and one that was anything but assured.

Ahead of the alliance’s Madrid summit, the three countries agreed on a set of steps aimed at reassuring Ankara about the Nordic countries’ stance toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as well as lifting restrictions on arms sales to Turkey. On top, United States President Joe Biden green-lit the sale of F16 fighter jets to Ankara — although this will still need to pass the test of Congress. And in return, Ankara backed NATO’s invitation to Helsinki and Stockholm.

This is likely just a taste of what’s to come in the West’s ongoing dance with Turkey. In fact, up until the Turkish presidential election next year, in which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will seek reelection on the centenary of the Republic, the West should brace itself for what is likely to be another bumpy ride with Ankara. 

Relations between Turkey and the West move in ebbs and flows. And in fairness, since the mid-2000s, ties have worsened, but the rate of deterioration has varied. The current dynamic now resembles that of two years ago, when tensions flared in the Eastern Mediterranean, with Greece and Turkey inching dangerously close to the precipice of war. 

The bad news is that back then, like now, Erdoğan leveraged his country’s international status, escalating his foreign policy to extract domestic political gains. The good news is that in 2020, the escalation did not tip over — and hopefully it won’t this time either. While Ankara’s relations with the West may be fraught, and Erdoğan himself would probably like to jump ship, Turkey remains in the Western fold.  

Back in 2020, Turkey’s military intervention in Libya had prevented Tripoli from falling to Khalifa Haftar. Creating a balance of forces between rival factions and their respective regional backers, this led to a ceasefire later that summer, and though it did not cement peace — as events today amply demonstrate — it did temporarily halt violence and prevent Libya from fragmenting. It also consolidated Turkey’s role in the country, and amplified Ankara’s influence in the region.  

Erdoğan then leveraged that role to reverse the geopolitical dynamic that had been entrenching in the Eastern Mediterranean over the previous years. Triggered by gas discoveries and revolving around old rivalries, the region had seen a nascent axis between Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, France, Israel and the United Arab Emirates pitted against Turkey. 

Turkey used its strengthened status in Libya to escalate tensions in the East Med, and this served the purpose of garnering domestic support for Erdoğan. In fact, when it comes to foreign policy, especially in the Mediterranean, Turks are relatively united in the belief that they have been wronged by the West — and especially by the EU, since Cyprus’ membership in 2004.  

After Biden’s election, Erdoğan took a step back, reactivating bilateral talks with Greece and moving to mend ties with Egypt, UAE, Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia. And though relations with the EU and the U.S. didn’t dramatically improve, talks of sanctions did fade.  

But now, the war in Ukraine has once again enhanced Turkish power, and an opportunistic Erdoğan seems keen to grab what he can. 

In the early phases of the war, Turkey positioned itself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, and then it capitalized on the NATO membership applications of Sweden and Finland to extract benefits. Now, it can seek advantages from Russia’s Black Sea blockade too: Given its role in the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is the go-to-place for any agreement — whether negotiated with Russia through the U.N. or unilaterally pursued by a coalition of the willing — to get grain out of Ukraine. It also plays a key role in the East Med gas conundrum, the strategic relevance of which hasincreased as Europe weans itself off Russian gas.

So, with elections scheduled for June 2023 and an economy in trouble, Erdoğan is once again banking on nationalism — stoked by such foreign policy maneuvers and confrontations — to come to his rescue. With inflation soaring at near 79 percent, the lira continuously sliding, and Erdoğan unwilling to halt his refusal to increase interest rates, Turkey’s economy is in tatters — and its prospects are unlikely to improve in the coming year.      

Sweden’s PM Magdalena Andersson shakes hands with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan | Henrik Montgomery/AFP via Getty Images

The agreement reached on Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership applications notwithstanding, we should expect Erdoğan to continue to be highly opportunistic and ready to escalate disputes over Syria, the East Med, or Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and the EU more broadly. Indeed, no sooner was the ink dry on the memorandum of understanding between Sweden and Finland than Erdoğan upped the ante, demanding the extradition of 73 PKK members. 

There’s no easy solution for Western leaders when it comes to Erdoğan. 

Leaving the door wide open for him by sidelining the rule of law would embolden the Turkish leader, while slamming it in his face would only enable him to stoke nationalism even more. And neither choice would help Turkish democrats.   

The fact that Turkey has stepped back from its veto on Finland and Sweden is still good news, signaling that when push comes to shove, Ankara remains anchored to the West. However, as the country gears up for a critical election, both Europe and the U.S. will have to strike a delicate balancing act this time, one of nuance and strategic patience. 

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