1 February 2022
Turkey faces a general election in May that holds the potential to end Erdoğan’s two-decade grip on the country. This is of major significance to Turkey’s often-neglectful NATO allies given the importance the country will undoubtedly play in the region over the course of this century. The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections arguably pose the greatest political challenge Erdoğan has faced, which is saying something after a failed coup attempt. Erdoğan’s religiously based AK Party pushed Turkey away from its traditionally secular roots while power has become centralised within the office of the President. Erdoğan effectively rules directly over Turkey’s economic, defence, and foreign policies largely unchecked. His platform of religious values and strongly assertive military-based foreign policy aimed at reasserting Turkey’s place on the global stage have been extremely popular at home.
Fear amongst Turkey’s traditionally secularist body politic of Erdoğan’s Islamist agenda was initially offset in the early days of his rise to power by the economic and political stability it brought with it. Erdoğan even succeeded, in 2005, in opening talks aimed at advancing Turkey’s European Union ambitions. In spite of these early gains and the popularity they brought, the economic advantage of Erdoğan’s first decade in power has long dissipated. Turkey’s economy has faced a steady decline, with the events of the last few years only accelerating this trend, driving it to the point of crisis, and with it, Erdoğan’s political standing.
Erdoğan’s greatest strength with the economy turned to weakness and his political position has become incredibly tenuous. His stewardship of the economy based on a determination to lower interest rates has sent the Lira crashing with inflation peaking at the unfathomable level of 85% in October and still resting at 64% with fuel, food, and living costs running utterly out of control. Plagued by rampant inflation and a crashing currency the coming election, arguably the most significant the modern state of Turkey has yet witnessed is set to be a judgment of Erdoğan’s heavily-managed economy. It is very likely that even if Erdoğan wins he might still lose as the fallout will likely prove disastrous for foreign investment, which could very well finish off the economy and lead to open revolt.
This is of course if Erdoğan wins. Although he remains a considerable political force, the economic calamity unfolding in Turkey has left Erdoğan trailing in the polls against potential opponents. This, however, does not spell Erdoğan’s end with these opponents representing a coalition of no less than six parties (including the secularist (CHP) Republican People’s Party) who have yet to choose a candidate. Notably, this coalition has held out the promise of reversing many of Erdoğan’s policies, particularly economic ones, which includes restoring the independence of the central bank. Additionally, they have pledged to dismantle the centralised power of the Presidency created by Erdoğan and re-establish the previous parliamentary system through the introduction of a new constitution enshrining the rule of law. This all signals a growing discontent with, if not Erdoğan, certainly his policies and authoritarian tendencies.
Ruling virtually unquestioned and unchecked from the vast presidential palace there is little sign of any voice inside Erdoğan’s government capable of reining in his worst tendencies, which seem to be increasingly erratic. His ‘Erdonomic’ monetary theory, predicated on fighting inflation by making money cheaper, flies in the face of reason, as do his conspiracist claims of being beset on all sides by revolutionary subversives both foreign and domestic while eliminating any potential opponent through increasingly exerting an almost authoritarian control over most elements of the state. Erdoğan’s party, having faced defeat three years ago in the mayoral elections of Turkey’s three largest cities of Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir has left the President defensive and determined to tilt the already-slanted field more in his favour.
With this the case, and Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies being what they are, the potential fallout from this election could be very troubling. As critics (Defence Report included) have often pointed out, Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic government has moved to muzzle dissent, erode civil liberties, censored the internet, and attempted to co-opt the judiciary with the aim of eliminating opposition. Simultaneously Erdoğan has engaged in an attempt to circumvent his economic failures and essentially buy the goodwill of voters. Sensing the situation, he has introduced record levels of unsustainable social spending that equal 1.4% of the country’s total annual budget. This has included energy subsidies, doubling the minimum wage, and lowering retirement requirements.
Moving forward, the concern will be that if the carrot fails for Erdoğan, he is clearly all too willing to use the stick. He has always fostered apprehension amongst NATO allies for this tendency. Despite this, although at times difficult, Turkey remains a critical ally. The position that Turkey occupies within the security environment is significant to put it mildly. Turkey represents an ancient crossroads of geography, history, culture, and religion. Straddling Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus makes Turkey one of the most strategically important countries in the world.
The rationale within NATO for not pressing Erdoğan to aggressively on his troublesome tendencies has likely been rooted in an awareness that a resentful, isolated Erdoğan, who has shown himself at times to take a somewhat lukewarm attitude towards his commitment to NATO, would hold the danger of upsetting delicate relationships. This would include those with Greece and Cyprus, or could act to further difficulties in Syria; not to ignore most critical, the influence Turkey could hold for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Turkey also plays a critical role in the migrant crisis in that region. However one could point out that Erdoğan has already done a great deal to upset these various concerns anyway.
Thus far Erdoğan has, to give credit where I suppose one might argue credit is due, managed to balance relations with NATO allies (albeit clumsily) against that of Russia, and Iran, a policy of realpolitik poorly understood by NATO allies. This lack of appreciation of, or perhaps more appropriate unwillingness to acknowledge and address Erdoğan for who and what he is, might be understandable but no less dangerous in the long-term as it further encourages Erdoğan’s erratic behaviour.
Erdoğan’s assertive foreign policy, although not entirely unjustified, has been based on exerting Turkey’s military might as an independent power in its own right, often in contradictory ways. In the Middle East, this has led to forays into Syria aimed at the Kurds. This comes after having supported efforts to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, this approach has seen Turkey intervene, notably against Russian aims, in the Libyan civil war. More interestingly still has been Turkey’s involvement with Azerbaijan against Russian-backed Armenia concerning the ongoing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has also experienced diplomatic difficulties with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and most worryingly, NATO ally Greece, concerning Cyprus and maritime boundaries.
It should be mentioned Turkey has shifted towards rapprochement on some fronts such as with Riyadh and Tel Aviv. This rapprochement has also, problematically, expanded to include Syria. Here Erdoğan has renewed relations with the Assad regime he had previously argued must be removed from power. This might aim to relieve the threat of People’s Defence Units (YPG) to Turkish security but creates a nearly impossible situation for the United States and other NATO allies working with Syrian-Kurdish fighters against the Islamic state.
This is additionally motivated by the more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey which have become an increasingly difficult economic hardship for the Turkish state to bear. Therein lies the problem, this underlying economic motivation is what has driven Erdoğan’s short-term rapprochement efforts on all fronts. It is important that these motivations be stressed and fully understood. This represents a worrying sign about Erdoğan as it suggests desperation and insincerity. What would he do were the economy to turn around, immediately make an about-face back towards antagonism? He is showing himself an unreliable, volatile, and dangerous autocratic leader, intolerable for such an important regional power and ally.
This is not to say Erdoğan has turned his back on relations with NATO allies, only that he seeks to assert himself and Turkey as an independent power in their own right, exploiting whatever avenues are most convenient in the moment. It would be worth pointing out that Erdoğan, requires the support of both Western and regional allies if he wishes to stabilize his battered economy. This is to say that regardless of the outcome, the upcoming Turkish elections hold significant dimensions beyond a reversal of Turkey’s domestic policy, ones which could significantly impact upon the role Turkey plays in global affairs and NATO allies need to pay attention.
If Turkey and its NATO allies cannot reconcile the divisions within their policies it is important to understand that Erdoğan does not necessarily see the West as his only option. Turkey’s relationship with Russia, which is terribly conflicted, is of critical importance to the future of the region. Despite Ankara’s many foreign policies moves against Moscow there has also been equal effort to improve (particularly economic) cooperation. Indeed Erdoğan has resisted calls for sanctions against Russia in favour of expanding economic ties with Moscow. This is unremarkable, with the dreadful state of Turkey’s economy Ankara has doubled its trade with Russia making it the latter’s third-largest trading partner. With the retreat of Western companies from Russian markets, Turkish companies have filled the vacuum. Much of this has been focused on the energy sector with most of Turkey’s natural gas and oil coming from Russia. Türkiye has long held ambitions of becoming a hub for Russian oil and gas, which would allow the resale of cheap Russian resources to balance Ankara’s books.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine however has further highlighted the difficulties presented by the independent, self-interested, sometimes short-sighted, and often conflicted nature of Erdoğan’s foreign policy along with the difficulties this presents for NATO allies. It should immediately come to mind that Erdoğan purchased Russian air defences which raised questions about Erdoğan’s commitment to NATO and resulted in their exclusion from the F-35 fighter programme. In terms of Ukraine, Erdoğan, although condemning the Russian invasion has criticised NATO for its inability to prevent it and going even further accusing the alliance of provoking it, playing to anti-western sentiments among his domestic base. Simultaneously he has supplied Ukraine with drones and weapons, secured Ukrainian wheat exports via the Black Sea, and recently sent power generation ships to Ukraine as part of a Turkish humanitarian relief effort.
On the humanitarian front, to again give what credit where due, Turkey has stepped up its military engagement in peacekeeping missions in several regions, most notable being Bosnia, further signalling to allies the message that it is a great power. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, speaking at a joint press conference with Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Foreign Minister Bisera Turković, expressed the belief that that ‘some Western states view Turkey as a competitor in the Balkans, but that despite this Ankara is committed to promoting peace and stability in the region.’ Interestingly, this commitment to deescalating tensions, Çavuşoğlu stated, includes Turkey’s support of Bosnia’s bid for NATO membership.
Turkey has indeed shown increased interest in playing a greater role in the Balkans and is willing if not eager to utilise NATO relationships to foster these ambitions. Recently it was reported that North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski, while at Davos, stated that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made greater military cooperation with Turkey an urgent priority. Arguing that the Western Balkans was a soft spot in Europe’s security architecture susceptible to Russian subversion President Pendarovski stressed that greater military cooperation with Turkey was specifically aimed at creating an effective means of countering Russian efforts. This is a relationship already well developed, with many North Macedonian officers trained at Turkish military colleges. Furthermore, North Macedonia has made arrangements over the last year and a half to procure a greater portion of its military equipment from Turkey. President Pendarovski’s praise of Erdoğan’s diplomatic efforts to end the Russian war in Ukraine may perhaps however reflect some naiveté.
These contradictory positions challenge Western partners and pose a potential threat to their interests as well as regional stability as Erdoğan makes a misguided attempt to underscore that Turkey exists as an independent regional power and indeed a global actor. Although Turkey’s position as a significant regional if not global power is true enough, and reasserting this position to NATO allies may be justified given the neglect it often faces, this approach, perhaps popular in domestic circles, poses the risk of damaging Turkey’s own long-term interests. The course charted by Erdoğan, possessing a clear non-aligned nationalist current is very much a reflection of his domestic approach. Although Erdoğan has thus far managed to sustain his clumsy balancing act it has slowly eroded relations with NATO partners and the scales have tipped in a worrying direction for all. Even as a great regional power, going it alone and playing both sides of the middle is a risky course, particularly at times of great upheaval.
Regardless of what view one takes to the cause, difficulties remain within the relationship between Turkey and its NATO allies, not all of which can be placed solely at the feet of Erdoğan. Recently, President Biden’s global democracy summit snubbed Turkey. Although Erdoğan clearly stands as an opponent of democracy and is likely the motivation for this move, there is no doubting the importance of Türkiye as an ally and partner with considerable shared interests, which makes this snub a major failure on the part of the Americans.
On the other side of this, the American attitude, if manifesting in perhaps misguided ways, is more than understandable. Erdoğan is a “tireless haggler” who is largely responsible for creating the situation. His adversarial approach to negotiations with NATO allies may be popular to his base at home but presents tremendous challenges going forward if he remains in power. Although he might dial back his ‘obstructionist tendencies’ to secure immediate needs, he will revert to his previous means as soon as rapprochement is no longer required. To address this requires a full-blown diplomatic offensive by the West that aims to rehabilitate the course and long-term role Turkey holds within NATO.
As a first step, this might involve reversing course on the understandable but perhaps misguided attempt by the US Congress to block the sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey. The recent visit of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to Washington is perhaps a positive sign after a nearly two-year hiatus in formal meetings at this level. Additionally, there is the possibility that this Congressional pushback might be precisely the type of pressure needed to deal with the current situation. This, along with concessions from both sides and the eventual approval of the necessary F-16 deal could help rehabilitate relations.
Worryingly, the hope that Erdoğan might moderate his position and rhetoric in pursuit of immediate needs is questionable in light of his recent not-so-veiled threat to the US concerning the sale of these fighters. The problem with attempting any sort of diplomatic offensive aimed at strengthening relations with Turkey remains Erdoğan himself. His unpredictability and propensity to play to his base by engaging in antagonistic rhetoric targeting the very allies he is trying to woo undermines any thesis concerning a diplomatic offensive at present. In short, the greatest hope remains Erdoğan’s defeat, short of that it will require the rather deft and likely rather heavy-handed application of both carrot and stick to place Erdoğan into a position where he recognises his miscalculations (if that’s possible) and alters course (which he may be unwilling to consider).
Recently, Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy adviser to Erdoğan publicly stated, in a remarkable application of doublespeak, that the F-16 deal would not become hostage to the NATO membership bids of both Sweden and Finland. This is in effect exactly what Erdoğan is attempting to do and underscores that Erdoğan’s current course is a liability to his NATO allies. By now most are aware that it is Turkey’s vote which represents the primary roadblock to what should be the easiest decision NATO has ever made. The approval of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership has instead become tangled in a complex mix of Erdoğan’s personal grievances. These include demands for the extradition of individuals the Turkish state has labelled ‘terrorists’ in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt.
In particular, Erdoğan has been adamant that Sweden crackdown on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Although the US and EU both recognize it as a terrorist organization the threshold by which affiliates are defined varies considerably between Ankara and Stockholm, which only further highlights the divide between Erdoğan’s Turkey and European states governed by the rule of law, with independent courts who will not extradite journalists on political grounds for criticising governments. A less problematic demand, however, that appears well on its way to resolution is the lifting of a prohibition on selling arms to Turkey, which was imposed after Turkey launched attacks inside Syria against Kurdish militias associated with the PKK. Sweden has already begun selling arms and Finland will likely follow suit. However, this is a small sliver of light in what is an incredibly tense relationship between Ankara and Stockholm.
Last week Turkey lodged a formal complaint with the Swedish ambassador after a Kurdish group, the Rojava Committee of Sweden, hung an effigy of Erdoğan in Stockholm. This, to be fair, would be no better received if positions were reversed, and under the circumstances, Turkey has a point. Adding insult to injury although Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson denounced the protest as an act of sabotage aimed at Sweden’s NATO membership, the hits keep coming.
Concurrently a right-wing provocateur from Denmark managed to secure a permit to stage a protest outside Turkey’s Embassy in Stockholm where he burned a Quran in what was clearly an act aimed at antagonising Turkey and ultimately sabotaging Sweden’s NATO bid. I say clearly because it has since come to light that two ‘journalists’ from Russian media outlets were behind organising and funding the exhibition. Regardless of the motivations, a justifiably annoyed Ankara has cancelled a planned trip by Sweden’s Minister of Defence, Pål Jonson, to Ankara, with Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar stating that the trip no longer held “any importance or point.” Furthermore, it now appears that Ankara may take up a strategy of approving Finland and denying Sweden in an effort to isolate Stockholm with the ambition of advancing Erdoğan’s domestic agenda.
The involvement of Russian ‘journalists’ likely makes little difference to Erdoğan or his approach. This gives him an opportunity to advance his own ambitions. It is why he has been willing to hold a gun to the head of NATO in terms of Sweden and Finland’s membership despite knowing it is in everyone’s best interest, including his. This is why NATO needs to engage with Erdoğan more aggressively. He is volatile and short-sighted entirely willing to set his house on fire just to have a moment to bask in the warmth of it.
There is no question of either the importance of Türkiye to the NATO alliance nor to the challenges it presents its partners. It has been an awkward partner long since before Erdoğan took the helm but has since then charted an increasingly difficult course for the alliance. For NATO there is no question of Turkey’s critical strategic value, it has been a bulwark on the alliance’s Middle Eastern front. Inversely NATO has been of incredible value to strengthening Turkey’s regional influence and security, providing valuable reassurance against Soviet and then Russian Black Sea ambitions and also providing an avenue to advancing both Turkeys’s international standing as well as domestic conditions through trade and economic growth.
There realistically is no advantage, but only loss in Erdoğan’s continued attempts to sow division within the alliance for his own gain. The sooner he realises this or is removed from office the better off both Turkey and the NATO alliance at large will be. Regardless of the election result the lesson here for Turkey’s NATO allies is that there exists an acute need to re-evaluate Erdoğan and their overall relationship with Turkey, paying particularly close attention to Erdoğan’s thinking. There is no doubt that regardless of if he stays or goes the relationship is in need of repair. That said, I believe the best hope starts with Erdoğan’s departure.
Feature Photo: Turkey, Istanbul. Pro-secular Turks rally against Erdogan’s possible presidential candidacy Gül as president. 219 April 2007. Wikipedia, 2023.
Inset Photo: 2016 Turkish no FETO “[[2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt |terrorist coup d’état attempt]]” democracy protest. 24 August 2016. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Turkish KFOR soldiers in riot training. 25 September 2010. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Cumhurbaşkanlığı Külliyesi . 2014. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Composite satellite image of Anatolia . 11 February 2002. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Встреча Президента России Владимира Путина с Президентом Ирана Хасаном Рухани и Президентом Турции Реджепом Тайипом Эрдоганом в Сочи. Переговоры посвящены проблематике сирийского урегулирования. 22 November 2017. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Erdogan waving the flag of Palestine to get the sympathy of his voters while keeping Turkey’s ties with Israel & US. 14 June 2011. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: HXP (Seld-defense Forces) YPG. 30 May 2016. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Ukrayna Cumhurbaşkanı Vladimir Zelensky ve Türkiye Cumhurbaşkanı Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Kiev, Ukrayna. 3 February 2020. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: empfing Außenminister Alexander Schallenberg die Außenministerin von Bosnien und Herzegowina Bisera Turković in Wien. 25 September 2020. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: President of the Republic of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. 18 January 2018. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: A Turkish soldier, with Multinational Battle Group-East, watches as a UH-60 Black Hawk gets ready to land after receiving a 9-line call for a simulated casualty. U.S. and NATO forces have contributed to the United Nations-mandated peacekeeping mission in Kosovo since June 1999. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Donna Davis, Multinational Battle Group-East public affairs). 28 June 2016. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu . 16 May 2019. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: ibrahim kalin. 5 July 2018. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson discussed the priorities of the Swedish Council Presidency with MEPs in Strasbourg. 20 January 2007. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: Pål Jonson speaks at a pro-Ukrainian rally on Norrmalmstorg in Stockholm on March 12, 2022. 12 March 2022. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
Inset Photo: U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan and German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen welcome Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to a defeat-ISIS defense ministerial, Munich, Germany. 15 February 2019. Wikimedia Commons, 2023.
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