Turkey pushing its own envelope in foreign affairs

The latest unfortunate episode of Turkish diplomacy stemmed from the signing of an agreement in mid-August between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – and brokered by the United States – for the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Ankara expressed its strongest opposition to the agreement, annoying the U.S. and earning itself the ridicule of the Arab world. It was laughable for Turkey, which had recognised Israel in 1949 and has an embassy there, to appear irked by a similar move by the UAE, which, what’s more, was able to secure from Israel a commitment to suspend its West Bank annexation plans.

Overall, an assessment of the accomplishments of Turkish diplomacy in recent months is nothing short of disappointing: It triggered an anti-Turkish rally in the East Mediterranean over a gas pipeline project, EastMed, which is unlikely to ever come to fruition; its intervention in Libya put it on a collision course with France, and Paris is now leading a campaign against Turkey with evident military implications; Turkey was further alienated by the U.S. following its decision to receive the leadership of Hamas in Ankara and to issue some its members with passports even though the West has labeled it a terrorist organisation; Turkey and its relationship with the European Union is the top item on the agenda of the European Council summit later this month.

According to Ahval, a website critical of the Turkish government, Ankara’s diplomatic paranoia is illustrated by the announcements of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued after August 25. In 14 of the 27 announcements made since then, it made accusations about or issued warnings to another country, most notably France, with Greece and Cyprus hot on its heels. The Turkish Foreign Ministry, however, does not even spare Russia (for meeting with Kurdish representatives and for its treatment of Tatars), the United States (for condemning the meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Hamas leadership), Norway and Sweden (for disrespecting the Quran), Austria, Serbia etc. 

A similar excess of zeal is also evident in the declarations of President Erdoğan. His rhetoric – always somewhat problematic – has exceeded every acceptable limit in recent weeks. We should not underestimate him; he is one of the most capable heads of state in the world right now. He has emerged victorious from a series of very serious clashes with systems and interests and has escaped traps that would have vanquished many other leaders. Today he is counting on his country’s geopolitical importance to the West, his personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, his strange alliance with Russia and President Vladimir Putin and on money from Qatar.

The worst thing for Erdoğan is that there is no one in his inner circle to question his actions, much less oppose him. Even the once moderate Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has surpassed Defence Minister Hulusi Akar in excessive rhetoric. He obviously hopes this is the way to become one of Erdoğan’s daily interlocutors. Erdogan’s diplomacy and rhetoric are indicative of the situation, but Turkey’s military operations expose its Achilles’ heel. It is maintaining two active fronts, in Syria and Libya, while keeping troops and carrying out operations in Iraq. Its recent mobilisation in the eastern Mediterranean, meanwhile, is much like another front. With the exception of the United States and perhaps Russia and France, no other country today could hold three fronts at once.

Maintaining this military presence comes at enormous economic cost. On August 11 and 26, in fact, the Turkish state had to proceed with emergency borrowing of over 5 billion euros to support the country’s defence bill – and this is while the Defence Ministry’s 2020 budget was already set at 16.5 billion euros.

Turkey is clearly pushing its own envelope, testing its own limits, by following the mine-riddled path of Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman fixations. The Turkish president knows that if he loses his grip on power, he won’t simply go home – investigations are bound to be launched into the incredible wealth amassed by himself and members of his family. He remembers the fate that befell former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who was hanged. It is such thoughts that are pushing him to more extreme choices. What we need to realise is that it is just a matter of time before the Erdoğan system comes tumbling down, with everything that this may entail for the region.

(A version of this article was originally published by Kathimerini and reproduced by permission.)