Turkey’s Suspicious Charm Offensive

Back in the Autumn of 2020 Turkey’s relations with much of the world were at a low ebb while, at the same time, political developments were in train that seemed likely to frustrate its long-term aspirations. Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan, or his advisers, must have realised that to achieve his strategic objective of extending and stabilising Turkey’s power base across the Middle East, 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 charm offensive, involving an apparent “reconciliation”, or “rebooting” of relationships, with one-time enemies, opponents or unfriendly states. At the time Turkey’s international standing was truly in the doldrums.

The US presidential election was in full swing. Trump may have turned a blind eye to Erdogan’s anti-Kurd land grab in northern Syria, but he drew the line at Turkey, a member of NATO, acquiring the US’s state-of-the-art multi-purpose F-35 fighter aircraft, while already purchasing the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system designed specifically to destroy aircraft like the F-35. Trump ejected him from the F-35 program and imposed sanctions on Turkey. Biden, long opposed to Erdogan’s power-grabbing activities in Syria, would certainly not reverse that.

Neither Trump nor Biden favoured Erdogan’s military interventions in Libya or in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, both pretty obviously designed to extend Turkish influence in the region.  These military adventures also irked France’s President Macron, and Turco-French relations – already strained because of Erdogan’s failure fully to condemn Islamist terror attacks in France – deteriorated to a new low, ultimately descending to personal insults.

Erdogan had also attracted the displeasure of the EU by continuing to explore for gas in what is internationally recognised as Cypriot waters. After months of acrimonious exchanges between Brussels and Ankara, 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 solid ever 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. Subsequently Erdogan, in a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black, repeatedly referred to Sisi as a “putschist president” responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians.

Egypt and Turkey backed opposite sides in the war in Libya, while Turkey – historically at loggerheads with Greece – did its best to subvert Egypt’s developing commercial and maritime partnership with Greece. As for Saudi Arabia, relations had been overshadowed for years by the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi’s consulate in Istanbul and the trial, in absentia, of the 26 Saudis suspected of carrying out the murder.

Erdogan’s relationship with Israel could only be characterised as frosty. It had long been obvious to the world 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, in pursuit of its own political priorities, had fences to mend with, inter alia, the US, the EU, the UK, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It was towards the end of 2020 that its tone on the international scene began to change. When French President Emmanuel Macron got coronavirus on December 17, Erdogan wrote him a letter wishing him well, adding: “I would like to discuss…our bilateral relations and the relations between Turkey and the EU, as well as regional issues, as soon as you feel better.”

It was a clear change of tone after months of public insults and questioning Macron’s mental health. Erdogan videoed Macron in March and held out the olive branch of dialogue and cooperation.

On December 9, after a gap of two years, Turkey appointed a new ambassador to Israel, albeit one with a track record of anti-Israel sentiment. Then in a press conference on Christmas Day, December 25, Erdogan declared that Turkey’s relations with Israel had “not stopped; they continue”, and that he’d like “to bring our ties to a better point.”

Israel treated the developments warily. The media reported that at a meeting held on December 30, Israel’s foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi decided to send “quiet feelers” to Ankara to assess how much weight to attach to them. It is difficult also to determine whether there is any truth in media rumors that the Turkish intelligence service has been holding secret talks with Israel officials about normalizing relations.

These feelers toward Israel, meaningful or not, were followed by conciliatory moves by Turkey in other directions. On 18 January Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, met with German foreign minister Heiko Maas. Ahead of the meeting Maas issued a statement saying that Germany welcomes “the fact that signs of détente have been coming from Turkey.”

Three days later Cavusoglu held a video conference with the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, during which he expressed his country’s desire to get things back on track. He spoke of a “positive agenda” mentioning migration, visa liberalisation and modernisation of the customs union. According to an EU diplomat, von der Leyen later told EU ambassadors that there was clearly a change of tone, but that she wasn’t “over-enthusiastic”.

Borrell, however, welcomed the Turkish gestures to defuse the tensions, adding: “Another good step is the announced resumption of exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece. We strongly wish to see a sustainable de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean but also in the wider region.”

On January 25, after five years of standoff, Turkey and Greece agreed on a new round of exploratory talks over their disputed territorial waters.

On March 12 Cavusoglu went so far as to declare that Turkey was ready to improve relations with the United Arab Emirates – condemned for normalising relations with Israel – as well as Saudi Arabia. Turkey no longer saw the Khashoggi murder as an obstacle.

“We never accused the government of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “We see no reason not to improve relations…”

In pursuit of his effort to win over the Biden administration, on March 3 Erdogan unveiled a long-awaited action plan aimed, he said, at improving human and civil rights in Turkey. “The ultimate aim of Turkey’s action plan is a new civilian constitution.”

Washington has so far received all this with wariness and skepticism. On the Voice of America on March 3 an American official said: “There are few signs that the leopard really has changed its spots.”

Turkey needs to be considerably more charming, it seems, if its reversal of tactics is to convince the world.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com. Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."