BACKGROUND: Under Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has been more invested in affairs of the Middle East than any time after the creation of the republic. But what started out as a “zero-problem” foreign policy with subtle Pan-Islamic tendencies has led to a dizzying series of entanglements. Ahmet Davutoglu’s brainchild was based on the three faulty assumptions: that the Muslim world was fundamentally united, that regional states would reciprocate if Turkey treated them well, and most glaringly, that Turkish leadership would be welcomed across the region. None of those assumptions held water.
Iran held a particular place in Turkey’s opening to the Middle East, mainly because it is the only regional power that Turkish Islamists see as an equal – many even having an emotional attachment to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Thus, Ankara became a defender of Iran’s nuclear program in 2008-11, leading to a serious crisis in relations with the United States. The Arab upheavals, however, upended the balance in Turkish policies. It is now apparent that Erdogan and Davutoglu saw the upheavals as a historic chance to exert Turkish regional leadership in a Middle East that, in their eyes, had broken out from the post-Colonial order imposed by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.
Syria and Egypt would nevertheless complicate matters. Turkish leaders apparently failed to foresee the depth of Iranian commitment to the al-Assad regime, and the Syrian conflict in some ways evolved into a proxy war between Turkey and Iran. Yet Turkish leaders ensured that disagreements over Syria did not lead to total collapse in relations with either Tehran or Moscow. In fact, the oil-for-gold scheme revealed in late 2013 suggested that much like an iceberg, a great deal of Turkish-Iranian relations is under the surface, affecting both Turkey’s economy and the inner finances of the regime. But the conflict in Syria did contribute to an alignment between Turkey and the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in a joint effort to support the opposition to al-Assad. In this fight, any Sunni group fighting the regime was initially seen as worthy of support, at least until the rise of ISIS.
The upheavals in Egypt followed a different logic. If Turkish opposition to the Syrian regime aligned it with the Saudis, its decision to go all-in in supporting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime led to a rapid deterioration of relations, because the Saudis vehemently opposed the Brotherhood’s rise across the region. When Muhammed Morsi’s regime was overthrown in July 2013, Ankara and Riyadh parted ways categorically. Where Turkey harshly condemned the coup and essentially cut ties with Egypt, the Saudis not only supported but bankrolled the government of General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Thus, Turkish intervention in Middle Eastern affairs had led it to be drawn into the sectarian strife between Sunni and Shi’a powers, as well as in the internecine struggles of the Sunni world between traditionalist monarchies and radical Islamism. By late 2013, Turkey’s only regional ally was Qatar. But a year later, under Saudi and Emirati pressure, Qatar fell in line with the other Gulf monarchies, asked senior Brotherhood officials to leave, and later worked to mend its ties with Egypt as well. Turkey welcomed the ousted Brotherhood leaders, but was now thoroughly isolated.
It is thus not surprising that the balances once again changed in early 2015. In early March, President Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia, and held what appeared to be productive meetings with the new King, Salman. Then, in late March, he criticized Iranian regional ambitions in unprecedented terms on two occasions, stating that “it is no longer possible to tolerate” Iran’s ambitions in Yemen and Iraq.
IMPLICATIONS: Erdogan’s foreign policy adjustment comes at a time of considerable flux not only in the region, but in Turkish domestic politics – with signs of a growing rift between the government and the “palace” – a term Turkish media now routinely uses as shorthand for Erdoğan. Erdoğan has a strong record of putting his personal power first and foremost. Given the importance he attaches to the upcoming election, any major foreign policy pronouncement should be seen in the light of Erdogan’s electoral fortunes. In this regard, a stronger sectarian slant in his rhetoric has the twin effect of consolidating his Islamist base, while also appealing to Turkish nationalist voters who are generally hostile to Iran.
That said, Erdogan’s moves appear mainly conditioned by the rapidly changing balances in the region. Indeed, a realignment has been growing among the Sunni powers of the Middle East. Here, several factors appear at play, all of which have worked toward a consolidation of the Sunni powers.
First, to put it simply, the Saudis and their regional allies have sought a way to oppose both Iranian regional ambitions and the rising threat of ISIS. This was the logic behind the efforts to restore unity within the Gulf Cooperation Council, by bringing Qatar in line, and to ensure that the issue of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood does not continue to sow discord. This made Turkey a clear outlier.
Second, the succession in Saudi Arabia has led to a reappraisal of the Saudi policy toward the Brotherhood. King Salman does not appear the share the visceral hostility toward the Ikhwan that his predecessor did. In any case, the Brotherhood has been reduced to size across the region, and is now a secondary or even tertiary concern compared to the Iranian threat and to the risks that ISIS poses in both geopolitical and ideological terms. In fact, if the alternative is ISIS or affiliated groups, the Brotherhood may suddenly appear to some leaders in Riyadh to be a more tolerable outlet for dissent. Given the attachment of the Turkish leaders to the Ikhwan, Saudi leaders certainly understood that adopting a softer position on the Brotherhood would be a sine qua non to pulling Erdoğan closer. Erdogan actually visited Riyadh on the same day as Al-Sisi, but answered the obvious question of whether they intended to meet by asking the reporter “are you kidding?” The prospects for a normalization of Turkish-Egyptian relations, therefore, are slim.
Iran is the third factor. The events in Yemen are crucial to Saudi Arabia’s security – but hardly to Turkey. Erdogan and his entourage appear more alarmed at Iran’s assertive role in Iraq, especially the Iranian boots on the ground in the recent offensives near Tikrit. Indeed, in an interview with France 24, Erdogan referred directly to al-Quds brigade commander Qassem Soleimani, stating that “this person is someone I know very well … he is part of all operations being conducted in Iraq … what do they want to do? To further increase the power of the Shi’a in Iraq”, adding that “they want to fill the places vacated by [ISIS]”.
The fourth factor is the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. If Iran’s higher profile in Iraq played a role, Erdogan’s reaction also appears to be part and parcel of the growing apprehension in the region against the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. For decades, Turkish observers have feared that Washington would like to return to the pre-1979 situation, in which Tehran was America’s main ally in the Middle East. In this perspective, a close U.S.-Iranian relationship would undermine Turkey’s importance both in the region, and in American eyes. It is not coincidental that back in 2010, Erdogan and Davutoglu sought to interpose themselves as mediators between Washington and Tehran – a role for which neither the U.S. nor Iran saw any need. Turkish reactions to the April 2 agreement were telling: the AKP mouthpiece Yeni Şafak blasted the deal as inferior to what Turkey negotiated already in 2010.
In this sense, Erdogan’s behavior indicates that America’s dance with the Ayatollahs is realigning the Middle East in more ways than the Obama administration may have expected. Few at present think Erdogan is willing to seriously act against Iran, and such skepticism is healthy. However, a U.S.-Iranian deal that holds could dilute the U.S.-Turkish alliance further, and lead Ankara to lean toward inclusion in a Sunni bloc. That bloc would be united by apprehension of Iranian ambitions, and fear that American toleration of Iran as a nuclear threshold state is undermining both their security and their ambitions for regional leadership. It is too early to speculate on what this may mean for future Turkish-Saudi cooperation on possible nuclear weapon programs to balance Iran’s growing stature.
CONCLUSIONS: Erdogan’s recent moves have confirmed the fact that in geopolitical terms, Turkey is now primarily a Middle Eastern power, deeply intertwined into the maze of contradictory and rapidly changing relations across the region. On April 6, Erdogan left for a visit to Tehran – but not before holding a previously unscheduled but lengthy meeting in Ankara with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed Bin Nayef Al-Saud. Once in Iran, Erdoğan spoke in more conciliatory terms; but Turkish-Iranian relations remain contradictory, with a growing geopolitical and sectarian rift mitigated by economic interests and internal regime considerations in Ankara. Indeed, Erdogan is acutely aware of Turkey’s economic vulnerability, and seeks to boost economic interaction with both Iran and the Sunni powers.
So far, Erdogan and the AKP have shown more eagerness than skill in their efforts to become a Middle Eastern power. More often than not, they have miscalculated the medium-to-long-term implications of their short-term policy choices. Until last summer, Turkish foreign policy was formulated and implemented by a relatively harmonious duo, that between Erdogan and Davutoğlu. Since Ahmet Davutoğlu’s appointment as Prime Minister, however, the two men have increasingly differed over a series of matters, mainly domestic in nature. (See March 25, 2015 Turkey Analyst) While they may not yet have disagreed openly on foreign policy, it is clear that they no long form a coherent and coordinated team, spending most of their shrinking time together on domestic issues. Thus, just like in domestic affairs, Erdogan is increasingly making decisions single-handedly. That is unlikely to bode well for Turkey’s ability to ride the Middle East rollercoaster without inflicting injuries on itself and others.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons)