On Sunday, I woke up and, as usual, skimmed through the news on Twitter over breakfast. I looked at Turkish news sites and the social network accounts of journalist colleagues.
As is often the case these days, there was a lot about military and security campaigns against the extremist Islamic State (IS) group as well as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoots.
There was also plenty of material on traffic accidents and on people returning from the long Ramadan Bayram vacation to celebrate the end of the fasting month.
And there was an awful lot about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent idea to grant Turkish citizenship to “our Syrian brothers and sisters” who have fled to Turkey.
I had been curious about what had been said regarding Erdogan’s participation at the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 8-9, but there was virtually nothing to be found.
Before leaving for the summit, Erdogan had asked NATO “not to forget Turkey” in its fight against terror, coming both from IS and the PKK.
A slim report said that NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg promised to support Turkey in the form of a comprehensive Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), which would ensure surveillance planes and early notifications of any potential threats. He also promised to send more military trainers to Iraq to strengthen the campaign against IS.
It seems the NATO Summit was so busy with Russia, Ukraine, and European matters, including Brexit, that it didn’t have too much time for the Middle East. That region has never been its direct priority anyway.
Geographically and politically, Turkey has always looked both East and West. For the last six years or so, however, it has become a more Middle Eastern country and less European. The same could not be said of the period from 1952 (when it joined NATO) to 2010 (eight years after Erdogan started to lead the country).
Erdogan’s Early Years
There are a number of developments that occurred during Erdogan’s first years in government which may have persuaded him to move away from the West.
He came to power in 2002, a rather unfortunate time since the United States was preparing to invade Turkey’s neighbor, Iraq, and effect a change of regime there.
The Turkish parliament rejected the U.S. Army’s request to use Turkish territory for the Iraq invasion. This started a period of distrust between the West and Turkey, which was exacerbated by Erdogan’s pro-Islamic background and rhetoric.
Later, the Erdogan government opposed both the occupation of Iraq and the bombing of Libya, which helped precipitate another regime change with the subsequent fall of Muammar Qaddafi.
Both operations resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of displaced people, and the mass destruction of infrastructure in the two countries.
Later revelations, including the recent Chilcot report on British participation in the Iraq invasion, indicate that Erdogan was right not to get involved.
Erdogan’s pivot eastwards could also have been reinforced by the Arab Spring, which saw masses of people come out onto the streets of Arab countries in the Middle East, protesting their corrupt and authoritarian governments.
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had already been overthrown, and his country had since fallen into chaos. Now, Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were teetering and Erdogan perhaps saw an opportunity to ensure that Turkey was well placed to capitalize on the situation should their regimes collapse.
You could also factor in Erdogan’s personal, national and religious romanticism, which has been colored by a nostalgic view of the Ottoman Empire.
Another thing that could have been influencing Erdogan’s thinking was the internal uproar that had been caused in Turkey by supporters of his former ally turned enemy, Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric who had been granted asylum in the United States in the late 1990s. He and his supporters had quietly infiltrated the Turkish army, police, education system, judiciary, and media even before Erdogan came to power.
And maybe the Kurdish insurgency also played a role in shaping Erdogan’s attitude.
To be fair, Erdogan started his tenure with the intention of reconciling Turks and ethnic Kurds and he took the first steps toward achieving this.
However, even many ethnic Kurdish intellectuals would admit that the PKK, and its political arm, the Democratic Union of Peoples (HDP), which is represented in the parliament, have been reluctant to clearly denounce the terror that has been unleashed by the PKK’s 32-year war on the Turkish state and army, which has resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Turkish and Kurdish citizens.
At some stage though, Erdogan very clearly changed tack.
In his dealings with opponents, his language and tone became aggressive, even unusually rude. He became intolerant of criticism, including dissent from within his own party.
This happened around 2010-2011. Erdogan may have thought he was following the international trend, actively backed by the West.
It was very clear from his fiery speeches at the time that he felt he would need to support a number groups and movements, most of whom turned out to be violent Islamic extremists. He volunteered to give all possible, occasionally uncontrolled, support to the enemies of his old friends, such as Assad and Mubarak.
His foreign policy took a disastrous turn — and clearly moved away from the traditionally good relations Turkey had enjoyed with its neighbors and other countries in the region.
In 2010 he attacked Israeli President Shimon Peres over the Palestinian issue. He accused Israel of “wildly killing Palestinian youths without mercy” and said the Jewish state was “no better than Hitler.”
Later, in 2011, he tolerated and indirectly supported a group of Turkish Islamic NGOs sending a flotilla of humanitarian aid to Gaza via the Mediterranean in order to break Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian territory. Israeli troops attacked the ships at sea and killed nine Turkish citizens, blocking the way to Gaza. Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated hugely and this was accompanied by hostile rhetoric on both sides.
From 2011 onward, the Erdogan government increased its all-round support for rebel groups in Syria with the clear objective of overthrowing Assad. Turkey became a safe backyard for all sorts of armed Syrian and non-Syrian groups fighting against Assad and against each other.
The Damascus regime managed to survive, however, mainly thanks to support from Russia and Iran.
Meanwhile, extremist groups kept using Turkey as source of recruitment, arms, and money. They came to Turkey for the purposes of smuggling, receiving hospital treatment, and taking a rest.
There are now many rebels fighting in Syria with families living in Turkey — some of them Syrians, others from other Arab countries as well as Central Asia and the North Caucasus. These groups of rebels include the Al-Nusra Front, which has ties with Al-Qaeda, and even IS, which has recently turned against its Turkish host,
Initially hoping that these rebels would also fight with Kurdish insurgents across the border, Ankara finally came to realize that the PKK and IS now pose a major threat to its stability and existence.
The situation deteriorated even further after Russia actively entered the war in Syria to support Assad. Turkey, still buoyed by a mood of “imminent victory,” downed a Russian Su-24 fighter jet last November, right on the Syrian-Turkish border. The plane’s pilot was shot dead by pro-Turkish militants as he descended by parachute after ejecting from the aircraft.
After that, Turkey’s relations with its “old neighbor and friend” Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, turned positively glacial. The Russian leader froze almost all relations, took punitive measures, such as a boycott of tourism and imports from Turkey. He also demanded an apology from Erdogan — a gesture that nobody in Turkey could imagine him making.
Eventually, however, something “clicked” on June 27 and almost simultaneously triggered a fast and effective U-turn with both Israel and Russia.
Relations with Israel started to normalize. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already sent a letter of apology to Erdogan two years after the flotilla incident and talks were going on for some time, it was reported.
On the Russian front, Erdogan sent an apology to Putin “expressing his wish to restore Turkish-Russian relations as swiftly as possible.”
Turkish Foreign Ministry officials have been hinting that efforts are underway to address relations with Egypt, too. This has not proven easy given the harsh tone Erdogan had taken against the military government, which overthrew the elected administration of the Turkish leader’s ally, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even more unexpectedly, leaked reports from Ankara suggest that Erdogan is even ready to accept a solution in Syria without the precondition of Assad’s removal from power, something Turkey and the West have been insisting on so far.
What triggered this “click”? One can only guess, but various reasons have been suggested. These include the need to find a quick fix for Turkey’s vital tourism industry, whose rapid decline could negatively affect Erdogan’s perennially high approval ratings. Ankara may now also find it expedient to unite with as many countries in the region as possible in order to tackle the country’s number-one problem: the Kurdish insurgency and, more recently, the expansion of IS terror to Turkish soil.
Is Erdogan now seriously returning to the “good old days” of Turkish foreign policy and refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbors?
After six years of consistently making enemies in the region and now trying to become friends with them again, one would hope that he can also start to make peace with his opponents and with the some 50 percent of the electorate who did not vote for him in the last 14 years. “Getting along with people cannot harm anybody,” noted Ertugrul Ozkok, a prominent columnist with the Hurriyet daily.