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The insistence of Turkish president Erdogan on reconciling with his past Arab adversaries draws suspicion to the genuineness of his objective.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is seeking to win a new presidential term to remain in power by relying on a new regional approach to improve Ankara’s relations with yesterday’s Arab adversaries.
Erdogan has been ruling Turkey unchallenged with his Justice and Development Party since 2003. However, his throne is beginning to shake under the pressure of internal and external challenges that force him to abandon his role as the region’s sheriff and give up the classic Ottoman legacy.
As the presidential and legislative elections for June 2023 approach, Erdogan hopes to win a final term, with a pledge to hand over the banner to the “youth” afterwards.
In contrast, some think Erdogan is heading towards an electoral defeat, provided the elections are fair. Naturally, the matter depends on whether or not the opposition follows a reasonable strategy to win the elections.
The elections, which could be held before their designated date, represent a turning point for Turkey since they coincide with the centenary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk‘s founding of the Republic.
According to some who knew him, Erdogan stopped listening to anyone – with the exception of a few within his entourage – around ten years ago. The Turkish president started disregarding all opinions and criticism ever since.
Trouble with the Opposition
The latest survey shows that Mansur Yavaş, Ankara’s mayor, and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), will be ahead of Erdogan provided that a second electoral round is held.
Erdogan might lose the elections to the candidate of the six-party opposition coalition. There is an assumption that cooperation of such a coalition has a fair chance of defeating Erdogan and his ruling bloc.
The questionable condition of Erdogan’s health has fueled strong rumours about the man in power for nearly two decades. It has also led to prosecutions against those spreading such information.
According to the Turkish Ministry of Justice, in 2020 alone, 31,297 investigations into insulting Erdogan were launched. Between 2014 and 2020, the number of such inquiries topped 160,000.
Erdogan said that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has won the election 15 times before, is at the cusp of winning the scheduled presidential elections. In a congratulatory message to his party members at the 21st anniversary of the party’s founding, he said, “We carried out a century-worth democratic and developmental campaign in just 20 years.”
Concurrently, Erdogan continues his populist discourse, utilising the war on terror for his interests by arousing public concern. In this regard, he had announced that his government would make every inch of Turkish soil safe through its anti-terrorism operations, starting from beyond the borders.
With the Turkish elections approaching, Erdogan has joined international normalisation processes riddled with risks, hoping that the Turkish voters would accept the immigration solutions and economic relations.
But Erdogan, who only pursues his interests and is willing to abandon his closest allies for the slightest political gains, is altering his previous international approach to ensure victory in the coming elections.
It seems that “the line between domestic politics and foreign policy has become so thin that it is almost indistinguishable. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meshing of the local and international spheres has become the cornerstone of his re-election campaign.”
Erdogan’s talk about the probability of reconsidering relations with Egypt and Syria after the coming elections proves this statement. To justify his new approach, Erdogan said, “There is no permanent conflict or frustration in politics.”
Under the notion that improving Turkey’s chaotic foreign policy would benefit its ailing economy, Ankara has sought normalisation with yesterday’s adversaries. Accordingly, countries such as the UAE, KSA and Israel have moved from Turkey’s list of enemies to its list of friends.
Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab world was unquestionable for years. However, Egypt has been looking at Erdogan with suspicion, as only 15 per cent of Egyptians approve of his policies.
Rapprochement with Egypt
The insistence of Turkish president Erdogan on reconciling with his past Arab adversaries draws suspicion to the genuineness of his objective. The question remains: Is the reconciliation bona fide or merely a fleeting stance that does not mean he changed his policies at all?
Egyptian president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi shook hands with Erdogan recently at Qatar‘s World Cup opening ceremony. Despite al-Sisi’s assertion that this handshake would usher in the development of bilateral relations, Erdogan’s regional policies have not changed.
Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood does not seem to be the deciding factor. The contradictions between the Egyptian and Turkish policies concerning the Mediterranean, especially Libya, are believed to provoke more complex conflicts than meet the eye.
Though Erdogan revealed that Ankara’s only request from Egypt is to change its attitude towards Turkey regarding the Mediterranean, Cairo wants Ankara to keep its hands off the Arab region, specifically Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Because there is an Arab understanding of Erdogan’s urgent need to win the upcoming elections, Syria is lying in wait, hoping to enforce major concessions regarding the Syrian situation. Damascus believes Erdogan, through tampering with its internal affairs, is responsible for the war on Syria.
Some believe that the Turkish intervention in Syrian internal affairs resulted from a faulty calculation. As Erdogan is confronting a major dilemma while the elections approach, he was forced to make a “U-turn” in Syria.
Erdogan realises that the Syrian matter is critical and necessary to win votes and neutralise the opposition’s attempt to exploit the issue. Erdogan previously stated it was impossible to work with al-Assad and considered him a terrorist. It now looks like Turkey is on a new path, trying to protect its national interests by abandoning its anti-Assad stance.
The Turkish opposition blames the country’s deteriorating economic conditions on the about four million Syrian refugees. However, their forced or voluntary departure will expose the Turkish economy to a violent shock.
Two years ago, Erdogan asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to step aside in Syria. Recently, however, he has started knocking on Moscow’s doors, seeking its support to meet al-Assad.
On the other hand, Syria is resisting all Russian efforts to mediate a summit with Erdogan. According to Damascus, such a summit would equal a free victory for Erdogan. In this context, the Syrian government rejects all forms of rapprochement before the elections.
Erdogan forgot his pledge that Turkey would never hurt its “Iraqi brothers.” However, since the beginning of 2022, Turkish forces have killed about 4,000 Iraqis – who Turkey described as terrorists – inside Turkey, northern Iraq and Syria.
Having consolidated its influence at the expense of contradicting US-European policies regarding many of the region’s crises, Turkey has mastered utilising the nationalist discourse in relation to regional tensions.
On this basis, it is not inconceivable that Erdogan will continue to exploit the escalating tensions around his country to stir up nationalism among Turks and win more votes in the upcoming elections. This includes exploiting the tension with Greece over the Aegean islands and a potential military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
What worries the Turkish opposition is Erdogan’s control of the state apparatus. Naturally, the Turkish president has the ability to create crises in various political matters, such as the escalating dispute over Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. Some believe that Erdogan’s uncompromising stance towards their accession is meant to obtain concessions for his election campaign.
Some believe that Erdogan’s opponents are confronting him on an unfair playing field since 90 per cent of the Turkish media is now controlled by pro-Erdogan businesses.
An example of the divergent visions of Erdogan and his opponents regarding regional escalation is the meeting held by the Libyan Future Movement with some Turkish MPs in Benghazi. The Turkish parliamentary delegation included MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the third-largest parliamentary bloc in Turkey. The meeting harshly criticised Erdogan for concluding controversial agreements with the former Government of National Accord and the current Government of National Unity in Tripoli.
The Turkish president is trying a different approach regarding the widespread controversy over the problematic economic conditions and the crises he has caused through his foreign policy stances and interventions, hoping it will once again secure his position in power.
Turkey’s constant oscillation between Russia and the West will only deepen its woes in its foreign and security policy. Perhaps the West should prepare for a scenario where Erdogan and his policies are nonexistent.
Turkish politics, which relied on temporary and frequently changing positioning strategies, began to change. However, this change is only within Erdogan’s vision to use the Turkish military presence in the region under various pretexts. It is worth mentioning that the Turkish forces are stationed in areas of Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Libya.
As Turkey is trying to move toward the region’s countries, Turkish intelligence has to find a safe path to rid itself of the burden it accumulated through supporting Islamists and jihadists. The Turkish opposition advised al-Assad against meeting Erdogan to prevent him from exploiting any such meeting to achieve political returns.
It may be argued that the four Turkish military operations carried out in northern Syria indicate that the Turkish government is seeking to influence Turkey’s domestic policies. Indeed, such influence would help Erdogan and his party maintain power.
Exploiting Regional Tensions
If the troubles of the Syrian-Turkish border region had previously diverted attention from the uprising against al-Assad’s rule, they allowed Turkey to play a greater role in the region and further realise its ambitions.
Because Turkey does not have a clear exit plan for Syria, it is still brandishing a military operation there. The threat followed dialogues with Russia concerning the use of the airspace over northern Syria in a possible cross-border operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
This military operation could be used to mobilise Turkish nationalist voters to elect Erdogan while Turkey is in economic turmoil. Notably, previous incursions into Syria boosted Erdogan’s position in the polls during the last ballot.