On June 1 Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, broke off the talks he had initiated with Greece back in January 2021, and canceled the High-Level Strategic Council that they had set up as a forum in which to discuss their differences.
Erdogan’s approach to Greece had been part of the policy turn-around that so puzzled political observers in December 2020. Out of the blue Turkey embarked on a charm offensive that had politicians and commentators scratching their heads. Was Erdogan playing a new devious game, or was he genuinely trying to turn over a new leaf?
There was certainly reason enough for Turkey to mend fences. In 2020 its international standing, on a steady downward trajectory for some eight years, was truly in the doldrums.
The US presidential election was in full swing. President Donald Trump, who had turned a blind eye to Erdogan’s anti-Kurd land grab in northern Syria, had drawn the line at Turkey, a member of NATO, acquiring the US’s state-of-the-art F-35 fighter aircraft while already purchasing the Russian S-400 – an anti-aircraft system designed specifically to destroy aircraft like the F-35. So Trump ejected him from the F-35 program and imposed sanctions on Turkey. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden, long opposed to Erdogan’s power-grabbing activities in Syria, would certainly not reverse that.
Erdogan had also attracted the displeasure of the EU by continuing to explore for gas in what is internationally recognized as Cypriot waters. After months of acrimonious exchanges, in December 2020 the EU actually imposed targeted sanctions on Turkey. The UK, now no longer in the EU, sanctioned Turkey on the same grounds.
Turkey’s relations with Egypt had been frozen since 2013, when Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Erdogan, a life-long adherent of the Brotherhood, expelled Egypt’s ambassador, and Sisi reciprocated. Egypt and Turkey backed opposite sides in the war in Libya, while Turkey did its best to subvert Egypt’s developing commercial and maritime partnership with Greece. Relations with Saudi Arabia had been overshadowed for years by the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi’s consulate in Istanbul.
As for Israel, it had long been obvious that Erdogan seized every opportunity to denounce Israel in the most extravagant terms, and to act against it whenever he could. Not the least of his hostile moves was to support Hamas and to provide a base in Istanbul for senior Hamas officials, granting at least twelve of them Turkish citizenship.
In short, Turkey urgently needed to improve its relations with, inter alia, the US, the EU, the UK, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Greece and Israel.
This was the background to Erdogan’s change of tone on the international scene. To achieve his strategic objective of extending and stabilizing Turkey’s power base across the Middle East, he or his advisers must have realized that a reassessment of tactics was called for. Out of what must have been a root and branch analysis, came a plan to address the problem – Turkey would embark on a program of “rebooting” relationships with unfriendly states, opponents or enemies.
A change of tone, leading to conciliatory moves, proved remarkably successful in a number of instances– not least with Israel, whose president, Isaac Herzog, visited Turkey in March 2022. This was followed by a visit to Israel by Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and the opening of renewed cooperation between the two countries.
Turkey’s relations with the EU in general, and Germany in particular, were put on a new footing. Repaired relations with Egypt, too, seem on track – Egyptian and Turkish diplomats are about to hold a third round of negotiations, while Turkey has decided to appoint a new ambassador to Cairo after a gap of nearly nine years.
Elsewhere the story is less encouraging. Turkey began wooing Iran in November 2021, when Turkey’s Cavusoglu met the newly-elected Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi. Two weeks later the two presidents met for the first time and signed up to a comprehensive improvement of bilateral relations. That arrangement has come unstuck. Already at odds over Iraq and control of the Iraqi region of Sinjar, in May a major row erupted between Turkey and Iran over transboundary waters. Turkey has started to construct dams on the Aras and Tigris rivers, and is ignoring Iran’s objections.
As for Greece, reconciliation has apparently proved too hard a nut for Turkey to crack. A breakdown in the détente turned on the status of certain islands in the Aegean. On May 31 Turkey’s Cavusoglu accused Greece of violating international agreements that guarantee the islands remain demilitarized. He claimed that Greece was violating the agreement by flying aircraft over them. He threatened action if the violations did not stop.
More than once during the Syrian civil conflict Erdogan’s obsession with the threat he perceives from the Kurdish independence PKK party has led him to actions at odds with NATO policy. For example the defeat of Islamic State in Syria was due in large part to the heroism of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting on behalf of the Western coalition, but Erdogan regarded them as potential enemies and grabbed swathes of Kurdish occupied territory south of the Turkish border.
Now Turkey is pitted against a NATO consensus over the wish of Sweden and Finland to join the organization to strengthen the West against the imperial ambitions of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Erdogan has used the veto available to every NATO member to oppose their membership. Once again the perceived PKK threat to Turkey’s integrity lies at the root of the issue. Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of harboring people linked to the PKK and others it deems terrorists.
“As long as Tayyip Erdogan is at the head of the Republic of Turkey,” Erdogan told journalists on May 28, “we cannot say ‘yes’ to countries that support terror joining NATO.”
Sweden and Finland have said they condemn terrorism and would welcome the possibility of liaising with Turkey. Erdogan remains adamant. Charm – at least as far as Greece and NATO are concerned – seems to have dissipated.