Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent statements and itinerary are clearly posing more worrying questions than providing reassuring answers. One week he considers Iran’s role in the region as devious and warns us about Tehran’s policy “to dominate the region”, and the next he takes the short flight to next-door Iran and warmly shakes the hand of the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani. Shortly prior to that, Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia in an attempt to mend his relations with the new king and discuss the coalition efforts against the Al Houthis in Yemen.
However, relations between Turkey and Iran remain stable since the first ‘Treaty of Friendship’ of 1926 despite the countless upheavals and serious differences over almost the whole of the last half century. The two countries maintained close relations that enabled them to historically control their largest minority of about 15 million Kurds in Turkey and almost 7 million in Iran.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s reported idea about Turkey’s place within the western security alliance, Nato, is also causing unprecedented concern to his country’s major partners and donors, particularly the United States and the European Union.
Since it became a member of Nato in 1952, Turkey, the largest member of the alliance in the region, has always solidly played a central role in maintaining the need for western security during and after the “Cold War”. But many European commentators have recently expressed fears about Turkey’s commitment to the western alliance following the president’s remarks about his country’s future role. For the first time ever since Turkey joined Nato, western officials are widely alarmed by Erdogan’s government’s latest indications about its intention to buy a $3.4 billion (Dh12.5 billion) air defence system from China that includes radars and long-range ground-to-air missiles that can shoot down enemy missiles. Naturally the suggested purchase of such a system is strongly opposed by the American and European allies as they consider the proposal as a serious risk to the Nato integrated defence system.
Western alliance politicians and various media outlets have crucially questioned not only President Erdogan’s actions independent of the alliance’s policies whether in Syria or Ukraine, but in some cases in open defiance of Nato’s agenda and priorities. Since his re-election as president last August, Erdogan has shown signs of apparently becoming more authoritarian in a country supposedly to be a partner of an alliance based on “principles of democracy”, as well as unified defence of course.
Erdogan and his controversial policies have oddly enough become a source for lucrative material for comedians and various satire TV programmes in the US, including Last Week Tonight by John Oliver. The newly built presidential palace (above) cost almost $500 million and with over a 1,000 rooms, it is the biggest palace in the world. Oliver cunningly noted in one of the latest episodes of his show that after 500 rooms, “you must be straining to think what to do with the rest”. Often locally accused of corruption and suspicious financial dealings, Erdogan’s reply to his critiques before he moved to his new accommodation last September was: “No one can prevent the completion of this building. If they are powerful enough, let them come and demolish it”!
Long before he became president, Erdogan devoted much time to canvassing European leaders to facilitate Turkey’s membership in the EU, but to no avail. This was the biggest shock and foreign policy failure for Turkey and for Erdogan personally. Turkey suddenly found itself unwanted by its own allies and practically at a crossroad. For more than half a century, Turkey has been at the frontline for Nato against Russia but, when it applied for membership of the European Union (EU), it was rejected. Meanwhile, its trans-Atlantic relations have soured while its regional relations swiftly became unstable. While the EU is heavily engaged now in a major process of sorting its own identity problems, prospects for Turkey, a country of more than 77 million Muslims, to enter the European Union seem remote indeed.
In the last few years, particularly since the ‘Arab Spring’ effect started to be felt in Syria in 2011, Erdogan’s role in this sad country has largely been considered as precarious to say the least. The Turkish intelligence services role in introducing Daesh and Al Nusra to Syria is widely questioned. The collaboration with both these extremist groups is evidently clear. The capture of the small northern Syrian border town of Kassab, mostly populated by Armenian Syrians by Al Nusra gangs early in 2014 would not have been possible without direct help from Turkish collaborators. Also, its hard to ignore the case of 49 staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul who four months later mysteriously reappeared safe and sound in Daesh’s Syrian headquarters of Raqqa before their release in an exchange for Daesh detainees in Turkey.
In the wake of Iran’s framework deal on its nuclear programme, a country of the size of Turkey with its many hidden problems and a substantial minority that is clearly restless requires that President Erdogan adopt a clear-cut policy in the region and declare which direction he intends to take.
This article by Mustapha Karkouti, a former president of the Foreign Press Association in London, originally appeared in Gulf News