As tempting as it may be to envision a NATO without Turkey, President Erdogan knows that the West needs Turkey as much as Turkey needs NATO. National elections will be held in June 2023. Symbolically for its people, it will be the centenary of the founding of the secular Republic of Turkey under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. With Turkey’s economy in shambles, inflation nearing 80% weakening his grip even on his political base, Recep Tayyip
Erdogan (RTE) is playing a high-stakes game to stay in power. A persistently weak economy would normally be the death knell for a longtime incumbent, but like President Obama in 2012, he can defy the odds.
Opposing Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, jeopardizing the security of other NATO members in the Baltic States in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, is a prize that Erdogan is ready to pay to strengthen its image on the regional and international scene. And, just when Sweden and Finland think they have sacrificed sovereignty enough in response to Turkey’s claims that they are harboring Kurdish separatist operatives, RTE agrees.
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But then, as usual, as these countries, NATO and the West breathe a sigh of relief, he declares that his Parliament, which he otherwise has no use for, must approve. They do so in return for a promise to extradite 73 people to Sweden on terrorism charges. Of course, Sweden won’t, any more than the United States would agree to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gulen, the mastermind accused by RTE of Turkey’s failed 2016 coup, who fled Turkey to America over 20 years ago.
There are a number of states, parties, businesses and political leaders who arguably benefit from a more protracted war in Ukraine. Number one on this list is President Erdogan. To that end, he plays all his cards, unbalancing his friends and foes, designed to have both guessing his next move. If he lost the next election, there would be many scores to be settled by a growing opposition.
The other critical card that RTE is playing is to keep Turkey’s historic enemy to the north, Russia, at bay. Again, holding Russia in check, while providing Ukraine with Bayraktar II drones with which to inflict pain and death on Russian troops, he is giving refuge to Russian oligarchs, whose support Putin needs, while buying the majority of Turkey’s energy needs to Russia, among many other vital trade links.
Cleverly, RTE has carved out the position that Turkey will not apply NATO sanctions to Russia, while playing the role of broker, with one foot in each camp, to try to facilitate the end of the conflict in Ukraine. In the international spotlight, he shrewdly walks a tightrope that NATO dares not compromise.
Erdogan knows that by opposing Russia in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria, while welcoming some 4 million refugees from the Syrian war, he is fulfilling Turkey’s role as a useful ally of the NATO, while operating largely independently of NATO.
Given Turkey’s strategic control over the maritime outlet for Ukrainian grain in the world and Russia’s naval access to the Mediterranean, with the second largest standing army in NATO, and its land reach in the heart of the Middle East , President Erdogan knows what cards he holds, when to play them, and he is in no hurry.
By playing these cards, he effectively punches above his weight, at home and abroad. He is now in pre-election mode, mending fences here and there with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and America, in hopes of attracting desperately needed foreign investment to Turkey, and military planes. F-16 fighter from America, where congressional opposition to the matter remains strong. He finds currencies of exchange.
As contrary to the principles of NATO, the West and the UN as the tyrannical debasement of the rule of law by RTE, and as maverick in its foreign policy, it has positioned itself at the national level , for more than two decades of reign, as the embodiment of the glory that was the Ottoman Empire in the minds of its followers. He sees himself as a latter-day sultan, making the most of Turkey’s assets in the country’s long-term strategic interest.
Infuriating as it is for its NATO partners and neighboring states, it has provided an interesting model. If he were to lose the election, there is no reason to believe that his successors will not largely follow a similar path. International relations in a multipolar world invites the tails to seek to wag the dogs.
The President of Turkey has been confusing and masterful. However, some would say he overplayed his hand. As the opposition mounts ahead of the election, overthrowing him remains a daunting challenge. Assuming a formidable candidate/leader can be accepted, ironically how the Turkish Kurds vote may well be the key to forcing President Erdogan to finally bow.
Henry P. Williams III, PhD, is Adjunct Professor at the Institute of World Politics, Washington DC, and at Koc University, Istanbul, Turkey. He is the author of “Turkey and America – East and West”.