As we know, seldom has a political leader or a head of state announced that he is seeking political allies. Political alliances and support among leaders are usually shaped by common interests, mutual respect, and lack of interference in the internal affairs of the other country. Even when it comes to personal friendships, basic requirements are needed to facilitate this amicability, including good intentions, mutual cordiality, and respect for the other’s feelings.
This latest speech given by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during an AKP conference, in which he openly announced that Turkey is currently seeking to forge new alliances and resolve old rivalries is a major indicator that Erdogan is facing a growing disconnect and alienation, with allies and supporters gradually retreating.
The question here is, what prompted Erdogan, the president of one of the largest countries in the region, to reach the point of needing to seek support and new alliances, and how did these current rivalries he seeks to resolve, develop in the first place? In the early years of Erdogan's rule and in the long years in which his predecessors ruled, Turkey had always maintained strong cordial relations on a regional and international level, as an influential country with an important strategic position, and a key member of NATO, so how did all this change?
During the past few years, there has not been a single crisis in the Arab region in which Turkey had not played a role or intervened in the internal conflicts of the countries involved. It can be said that Turkish borders are no longer defined so clearly, whether we look to the East towards the Caucasus, the West towards Greece and the Aegean Sea, the Libyan shores, or to the South towards Syria and Egypt.
There are two main factors that led Turkey to shift towards what can only be described as ‘expansionism’. The first can be attributed to Erdogan’s declared delusions of grandeur, in which he openly romanticizes the notion of restoring the former glory of the Ottoman Empire at every chance he gets. The second factor can be attributed to the role political Islam played in shaping Erdogan’s mindset and ideology. An ideology that is inherited from Turkish Islamic parties which seek to reverse Kemal Ataturk’s secular role, which he chose for Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War which ended with the Ottomans on the losing side.
In truth, these two matters are highly interconnected, and it is difficult to address one without the other. The ideologies driving both Erdogan and political Islam groups seem to be rooted in vengeance towards those they consider responsible for the collapse of the Ottoman empire, who are also held responsible for standing in the way of the expansion of Islamic movements and their threat to the stability of the region's regimes and the sovereignty of its countries.
Modern Turkey has been established on the basis of shifting towards focusing on internal affairs and prioritizing Turkish nationalism in order to encourage modernity and ensure a promising future instead of clinging to past Ottoman glories. However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to begin his rule by following an opposing approach that completely contradicts this notion. Past Ottoman glories seem to be the key driver of current Turkish politics, whether in terms of domestic decisions or Turkey’s global role, not to mention the fact that religious affiliation seems to take precedence over Turkish nationalism.
Erdogan's strategy of expanding Turkey’s power and influence beyond its borders, was bound to trigger many unnecessary conflicts with the countries of the region. As opposed to the “zero problems” foreign policy advocated by former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdogan's policy has steered Turkey towards ‘zero friends’ or nearly zero friends, if we choose not to exclude those who agree with Erdogan's policy of intervening in the internal affairs of neighboring countries, and among them are those who reside in a number of Arab countries. It was expected for such a policy to lead to rivalries with the countries negatively impacted by Turkish intervention. It was also natural for conflicts to arise within Turkey itself, between Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and opposing parties, and even within the party itself, which faced multiple defections, most notably the ones resulting from Erdogan's dispute with his former comrades, Former President Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Not only did Erdogan have conflicts with neighboring countries, but these conflicts expanded to impact Turkey's relations with European countries, most notably Greece, France and Germany. This resulted in a clear decline in Turkey's chances of entering the European Union in light of some of Turkey’s more strict policies on many issues that do not align with the values of the European Union.
Despite his claims, Erdogan's policies did not help protect Turkish interests. On the contrary, tensions with Greece increased due to the Greco-Turkish dispute in the Aegean Sea, in a conflict that merely revives past hostilities instead of focusing on the future of these two neighboring countries. This was reflected in the exacerbation of the conflict in Cyprus, despite European and international efforts to resolve it.
In the Caucasus, Turkey’s intervention to aid Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia also affected its relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the few allies left on Erdogan's list. Similarly, Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian war also had an impact on the relationship between Putin and Erdogan really went south after the Syrian crisis intensified, due to the conflict of interests and the quest to split the spoils of war of what had remained of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
As demonstrated by Erdogan's recent rhetoric, it has become evident that Turkey does not have the luxury to turn its back on the East or the West. The long list of countries with which he wishes to improve relations include, the United States, Russia, the European Union and the Arab World.
It would seem that this is a new side to Erdogan that we have not seen before. However, the question is; Is it wise to trust Erdogan's desire to embark on this major change in his policy, which will not succeed unless it is accompanied by a firm commitment towards halting interference in the affairs of other countries and instead focusing on Turkey’s internal affairs? Are we about to face a different side to Erdogan from the one we have known in recent years?
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell summarizes the answer to this question warning that “the process of de-escalation remains fragile” and thus calls for “more time to judge whether it is sustainable and credible and delivers lasting results, also in the light of the deteriorating domestic situation in Turkey”.
Certainly, many share this caution with the European official, remaining skeptical and fearful of another shift in Erdogan's recent amicable behavior.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.