Erdogan's troubles: the "charm offensive" is not gaining momentum


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East | May, 2021

Erdogan giving a speech
Photo: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


It is becoming quite clear that President Erdogan's "charm offensive", designed to mitigate tension and friction with both western and regional countries, is failing to meet its objectives, and that the Turkish president continues to pay the price of the loud aggressive foreign policy he has been leading for the past two years. This trend was demonstrated well recently by President Biden's dramatic recognition of the Armenian genocide.



Hero to Zero


Erdogan's assertive policy was reflected, inter alia, in Turkey's military intervention in Syria, Libya, and Southern Caucasus; its power projection in the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean; the threats it made against the European Union on the matter of the refugees; its defiance vis à vis the U.S. with regard to the acquisition of S-400 air defense systems from Russia; statements pertaining to Turkey's need for weapons-grade nuclear capabilities; and more.


While Erdogan's forceful policy has indeed led to some achievements – particularly in Libya and Nagorno Karabakh – it has also caused tensions on several simultaneous fronts both regionally and internationally. Turkish momentum has therefore been halted, especially in Libya where Egypt threatened to intervene militarily. Furthermore, Turkey's opponents have "closed ranks", and in Washington the tables have turned for Erdogan now that President Biden has been elected.


The Turkish president's status is also deteriorating domestically. COVID-19 cases remain high, the economy is taking a nosedive, and Erdogan's and his party's popularity is at an all-time low.


Thus, preferring political considerations to the economy's best interest, Erdogan has dismissed the Central Bank Governor after a mere four months in office because of his decision to raise the interest rate in Turkey (to 19%) in an attempt to impede inflation. The dismissal caused the value of the Turkish Lira to drop even further. Turkey's external short-term debt has reached 140 billion US Dollars, about one fifth of the GDP; and the foreign currency reserves are approximately 11 billion US Dollars, down from 30.7 billion just a year ago.


The financial situation is reflecting on Erdogan's political one. According to recent polls, support of his party, AKP, has dropped to below 30%, and its partner to the coalition, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), is supported by a mere 6%. At the same time, dozens of former admirals are challenging Erdogan's stance against the 1936 Montreaux Convention, regulating the passage of sea vessels in the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. These admirals, some of whom have been arrested, claim that the convention plays an important role in Turkey's national security and stability, and have touched a raw nerve when they protested against the Islamization trends in the Turkish armed forces, while expressing their support of the secularization principle advocated by Ataturk.



The "charm offensive" and its outcomes


Under pressure, President Erdogan decided to change direction, shifting from an aggressive foreign policy to a "smile offensive" on all fronts. This profound change is reflected in a series of statements made by Erdogan himself, as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs Çavuşoğlu and Defense Minister Akar, expressing Turkey's desire to turn over a new leaf in its relations with Europe, Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf States; the launching of human right and constitutional reform initiative; diplomatic signals such as the appointment of ambassadors and a declared willingness to resolve fundamental bones of contention; good faith gestures (offering Egypt support when the Suez Canal was congested, calling upon the Houthis to cease attacks against Saudi Arabia) and budding accelerated talks promoting normalization. These steps are accompanied by a media offensive consisting of at times unreliable reports of progress made in Turkey's foreign relations with various parties.


Following are the main steps taken by Erdogan in matters of foreign affairs on the various fronts, as well as their outcomes.


Egypt – At the center of the Turkish effort. Ankara is seeking to make a breakthrough in its relations with Cairo, and renew the diplomatic ties severed in 2013 when it objected to the ousting of President Mohamad Morsi. Ankara initiated contacts with Cairo through intelligence, security and diplomatic channels, and is focusing on the most sensitive issues over which the two countries have not been seeing eye to eye: Turkey's support of the Muslim Brotherhood, rights to energy resources in the Mediterranean and Libya.


The media coverage of these talks has revealed that Ankara agreed and is already taking action to limit Muslim Brotherhood activists operating on its soil against el-Sisi's regime; is negotiating Egypt's demands that it withdraw its forces and mercenaries from Libya; and has announced its willingness to discuss a naval agreement with regard to the East Mediterranean with Cairo.


At present, a breakthrough in talks has yet to be made, since Cairo is displeased with Turkey's pace and compliance with its demands.


The Gulf states – Unlike the talks with Egypt, Turkey's calls to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as its willingness to discuss the primary issue between the parties – its support of the Muslim Brotherhood – have been given the "cold shoulder". Saudi Arabia – who faced a frontal attack by Erdogan with regard to the Khashoggi affair, and is concerned about Turkish military presence on its borders (Qatar, Somalia) – continues to block import from Turkey, is shutting down Turkish schools on its soil, and has recently conducted a joint military exercise with Greece, with the participation of Saudi F-15 aircraft, in the Mediterranean. Greece has also supplied Saudi Arabia with a patriot battery to help it address the Houthis' attacks from Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who signed a strategic partnership agreement with Greece in November 2020, have recently held a summit at foreign minister level with Turkey's adversaries: Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and France.


The Western countries – Are not convinced by Erdogan's calls to warm up their relations, the launching of his human right initiatives, the new ambassador he sent to Washington or the appointment of another to Paris (the latter having attended the National School of Administration [ENA] in Paris with President Macron).


The Greek Foreign Minister's visit to Ankara ended with a clash when he accused his hosts of infringing upon Greek sovereignty, and threatened them with European sanctions. The conflict between Greece and Turkey reflects negatively on Ankara's relations with the European Union. Their ties suffered a blow due to the diplomatic incident during the EU and EC Presidents' visit to Ankara, as well as the recently renewed tension between Turkey and France.


President Biden is also in no hurry to make his country's relations with Turkey any warmer, as his administration currently disagrees with Turkey on several issues. On the contrary, Biden waited for three months, during which he contacted dozens of leaders around the world, before finally calling Erdogan. During their conversation, Biden delivered a blow when he informed his Turkish counterpart of his intention to recognize the Armenian genocide.


Israel – The appointment of a Turkish ambassador (who has yet to arrive) to Tel Aviv after his predecessor left in May 2018, as well Turkish probes for an arrangement with Israel on energy in the Mediterranean and a collaboration between the two countries in transporting gas – have been met with silence from Jerusalem. Israel has signed a huge defense procurement deal with Greece, and in a four-way meeting with his Greek, Cypriot and Emirati counterparts, Israeli Minister of Defense Ashkenzai announced a strategic route from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.



Conclusions and implications for Israel


In preparation for President Biden's entry into the White House, and in light of the incoming president's critical stance against Turkey on several topics, Erdogan was forced to soften his aggressive policy. It seems that the Turkish President is between a rock externally and a hard place domestically. While being isolated internationally and regionally, he is also worried that significant concessions on foreign affairs will be perceived as a weak withdrawal from the Islamic line, particularly by his coalition partner, the MHP, known for being nationalist and for its anti-western attitude.


In the tension between these two poles, Erdogan is taking steps that detract from the effectiveness of the pragmatic approach he wishes to convey, and is thus perceived as sending "mixed signals". In this vein, while launching human right and constitutional initiatives, Erdogan is also taking action to shut down the Kurdish opposition party (HDP), and has withdrawn from the Istanbul convention for the protection of women (due to criticism claiming that it conflicts with family values). In the matter of the dispute over natural resources in the Mediterranean, Erdogan and the head of the temporary government established in Libya, Dbeibeh, have ratified their commitment to the controversial naval agreement between the two countries. The Turkish president has made it clear to the United States that he will not allow NATO to dictate any terms with respect to the acquisition of additional air defense systems from Russia, and, alongside the positive signals directed at Israel, Erdogan has also condemned the latter's "anti-Islamic aggressiveness" in Gaza, and attempted to pressure Kosovo into not relocating its embassy to Jerusalem.


Moreover, Erdogan's brazen style on the one hand, and his transparent attempts to drive a wedge between the anti-Turkish camp members on the other have caused distrust in the candor of his moves, while also failing to deter Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf States from becoming closer as a counterweight for the Turkish challenge. Under such circumstances, Erdogan appears to be focusing his efforts on the negotiations with Egypt in the hope that a breakthrough with Cairo will lead to the thawing of tension with other regional players.


As for Israel – Erdogan's maneuvers prove that its suspicious attitude toward the signals sent from Ankara is justified and correct. Before Jerusalem alters its own policy vis à vis Turkey, Erdogan is still required to prove that he is willing to genuinely compromise on the parties' bones of contention.


In principle, it is in Israel's best interest to mitigate all military tension and friction with Turkey in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, collaborate with Ankara against the regional challenges posed by Iran, and limit Hamas and its terror activity on Turkish soil. It would seem that Erdogan's policy and the isolation he has found himself in allow Israel to promote these objectives without jeopardizing its relations with its regional partners. It may even demand a detailed dialogue with Turkey on Hamas based on the model currently employed in the talks between Ankara and Cairo on the Muslim Brotherhood's presence and activity in Turkish territory.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental.


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