Erdogan consumed by domestic troubles bares his claws, again - opinion

Erdogan is facing many economic challenges and still struggling to flatten the coronavirus curve while attempting to show a positive image on the global stage.

 DEMONSTRATORS SHOUT slogans during a protest against the economic policies of the government, in Istanbul, earlier this week.  (photo credit: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS)
DEMONSTRATORS SHOUT slogans during a protest against the economic policies of the government, in Istanbul, earlier this week.
(photo credit: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS)

In recent months, Turkey’s foreign policy has swung wildly between threats to its neighbors, to outreach to rivals, including a willingness to receive a warm embrace from the United Arab Emirates.

Don’t let this apparent incoherence fool you: Both policies derive from the same acute domestic challenges faced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is concerned about the stability of his regime.

First and foremost, Turkey’s economic crisis seems to be getting worse from month to month: The Turkish Lira slumped 40% against the dollar in November, and some observers believe the currency could drop even further.

In Erdogan’s propaganda world, this devastating economic development derives from foreign intervention that is “undermining his regime.” But this crisis in reality stems from Erdogan’s economic policy of growth at any price, and his ensuant demand to lower the Turkish Central Bank’s interest rate. This has occurred alongside substantial government interventions in decisions by the central bank, and an erosion of its independence, leading to a decrease in the willingness of many international actors to invest in the country. All of this, two years into the pandemic crisis, which itself resulted in severe economic fallout in Turkey.

One surprising outcome of this crisis has been the renewal of ties between Turkey and the UAE, who have been regional rivals in recent years.

 TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters in Istanbul, Nov. 5. (credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS) TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters in Istanbul, Nov. 5. (credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)

The UAE’s de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, paid a visit to Turkey and pledged to establish a $10 billion fund for strategic investments in the country. What price Turkey will be required to pay for this generosity is not yet clear, but time will tell what Erdogan pledged in return with regard to regional policies.

Whether this injection of funds will help kick-start the Turkish economy is another question, with the country facing so many economic challenges.

Elsewhere, Turkey is still struggling to flatten the coronavirus curve, even before the outbreak of the new Omicron variant. The Government`s vaccine campaign is based on China’s Sinovac vaccine, but this campaign is faltering, and the public is not rushing to put its faith in it. This is disabling Turkey’s ability to quickly lift coronavirus restrictions and increases negative domestic sentiment towards the ruling AKP Party.

All of the above is occurring against a background of several disasters in recent months, such as the huge forest fires in western Turkey, which claimed a political toll on Erdogan. According to recent public opinion polls, in the event of elections, Erdogan will be unable, for the first time in his 18-year rule, to lead his party to victory, even if his party joins other parties in a coalition. The far-off date for elections (2023) does not ease Erdogan’s fears regarding this front, while some opposition parties have already called for early elections and rare protests over the economic situation were seen in Ankara and Istanbul.

Some spectators have observed that Erdogan, once again, has looked tired and languid in several public appearances, such as the Glasgow climate summit.

Under the weight of the above strains, Turkey’s regional foreign policy has once again become aggressive. This is a deliberate show of force designed to bolster Erdogan’s public image, but one that falls short of sparking a real regional clash, due to his understanding of the difficult situation faced by Turkey.

Meanwhile, Washington once again finds itself struggling to rein in the Sultan from Istanbul.

The United States has already ejected Ankara from the F-35 program after Erdogan opted to purchase advanced Russian-made S-400 air-defense systems. American sanctions on Turkey, anchored by Congressional legislation, were put into place by the Trump administration, despite the relatively warm relationship that existed between the two presidents at that time.

President Joe Biden’s less enthusiastic approach to Turkey and Erdogan hardly decreased tensions. Despite bilateral meetings held between the two leaders, most recently at the G-20 Summit in Rome in October, Erdogan chose to launch a new campaign to “retrieve Turkish funds” paid in the past into the F-35 project, and which the US refuses to return. The Turkish president even presented an alternative solution, in the form of supplying 40 new F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, and upgrading the remaining Turkish air force fleet as a substitute for reimbursement.

Congress, it seems safe to assume, will not take a positive view of this offer. Erdogan has warned that a failure to meet his demands for compensation will lead him to further tighten relations with Russia, and to purchase additional Russian defense products, such as more S-400 batteries, advanced fighter jet platforms and more. Such a maneuver would pose an even greater significant challenge for NATO, of which Turkey is a member.

Moreover, the US is intensifying its military presence in Greece, potentially at the expense of its Turkish bases, a move that is obviously not viewed favorably in Turkey.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has been involved in several highly publicized quarrels. Erdogan declared that he would eject ten foreign ambassadors – including the American ambassador – following a joint statement by them calling for the release of a jailed Turkish businessman. This diplomatic crisis was quickly resolved, and Erdogan backed down after most of the countries clarified that they did not mean to intervene in Turkey’s internal affairs. But the affair illustrates Erdogan’s new willingness to take punitive action – even against the US.

The other quarrel was with Israel after an Israeli tourist couple was arrested for taking a photograph of the presidential palace – an act forbidden by law. Talks leading to their release were slow and grueling, and some observers claim that Erdogan exploited this civil incident in order to bolster his public image, by showing how he “stood up to Israel.” In the aftermath of this incident, new lines of communication were set in place, including between Israel’s president and prime minister, and Erdogan. Yet this is no detente in the relations. It is merely a mechanism to prevent future tensions.

In addition, reports of arrests of supposed spy networks belonging to Israel, Iran and Russia surfaced, designed to signal to the region that Turkey is determined to defend its national interests.

On the military front, Turkey has returned to a pattern of issuing threats and taking action in its own regional environment. Examples include northern Syria, where Turkey threatened a new military operation to broaden its influence, undermining American and Russian interests. The threats were withdrawn after a stern message from Moscow, and it seems that for the time being Turkey’s appetite for a new conquest in northern Syria was has faded.

In northern Iraq, as well, Turkey has broadened its operations against “Kurdish terrorism,” but with no risk of a clash with any superpower in the area.

At the same time, Turkey has gone back to threatening Greece and Cyprus in the context of competition for natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey takes a poor view of growing cooperation between Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel within the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum group, and is seeking to torpedo its activities. To that end, after several months of quiet, Turkey has reactivated its gas research ships off the northern Cypriot coast, an act that is tantamount to marking out maritime territory.

At the same time, Turkey is increasing the presence of its military forces in Northern Cyprus, and has upgraded its airbases on the island, enabling them to launch drones.

Alongside these developments, reports have surfaced over Turkey’s intentions to boost its forces deployed in Libya, on the eve of planned elections in that country.

At the same time, a Turkish “campaign of smiles” has surfaced with the purpose of attracting foreign funds. It is marked by a willingness to swallow some pride and embrace the UAE’s funds, alongside a push for de-escalating tensions with Egypt, Israel and even Saudi Arabia. This is joined by an attempt by Turkey to show a positive image on the global stage regarding climate change and other issues.

So long as Erdogan is consumed by domestic troubles, he can be expected to continue to show his claws. His occasional demonstration of pragmatism is intended solely to attract funds, and does not fool anyone that he has had a change of heart or that he is willing to let go of his neo-Ottoman aspirations.

Lt. Col. Tomer Barak (IDF, Ret.) is a 21 year veteran of the IDF. He served in the Israeli Military Intelligence and in the Strategic Planning Division.. He is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute.