A bitter fact seems to have dawned on the pipe dreamers, even to the most naive among Turkey’s friends and allies: as long as the power structure in Ankara is under the grip of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his “fight to the very end” ally, Devlet Bahçeli, Turkey will remain a wild card in every tense corner of the region.
The element of unpredictability, a pillar of Ankara’s foreign policy ever since the botched coup in 2016, has cemented the realisation abroad that Turkey is seen as a destabilising actor. Some know it, feel concerned, but refrain from expressing it. Only a few call the spade a spade.
And some others, among them many Turkey observers, spend extra energy in order to downplay the Erdoğan-Bahçeli pattern. The term, for example, “assertive foreign policy” is a product of those efforts, which not only fall short of describing Turkish foreign policy moves, but also mislead those interested in understanding the reality. Surely there is a difference between “assertive foreign policy” and sheer irredentism – or expansionism?
The former implies a flex of muscles within the boundaries of international law, while the latter feeds on the will to challenge it, or the choice to be in defiance of it. The tendency to analyse an aggressive foreign policy through a “soft prism” not only misleads the public, but also emboldens those who rule over that policy. If the term “rogue state” seems – as some Erdoğan observers utter behind close doors – to have some validity, it places a heavier burden of responsibility on those trying to explain the mindset, structures and prospects that lie behind it.
“Turkey’s logic in almost all corners of the map is disruption. Anything that undermines the status quo is good for it, because the previous status quo was seen to counter its interests,” said Galip Dalay, fellow at Robert Bosch Academy, in a recent analysis quoted by Reuters.
This is one way of putting it. But if one goes deeper, a deliberate intent to fill each and every vacuum (whether the move has legality or not) in the region becomes clear. This is a high-stakes gamble: beyond filling the vacuum, there is a desire to establish a foothold in different parts of the region on a permanent basis, in order to be seen as an inevitable actor in any future negotiations that could reshape the map.
But here come the “high stakes”: in order to achieve results, a regime needs three elements. First, a leadership focused on strategy, utilising the long-term wisdom of its foreign policy cadres in terms of internal debates. Second, for durability, you need to have a solid economy, not a rapidly declining one. Third, because you need to apply multi-layered irredentism in a large region, you need to rely on a certain combination of international alliances.
The Erdoğan-Bahçeli power structure lacks all three, while insisting on the same self-destructive policy. Here everyone may argue on the importance of the wretched state of domestic policy, but it should only help us understand the poisonous relationship between the domestic political mess and the unpredictability of what some observers timidly call “assertive foreign policy”.
Part of the truth is the following, which tells of the gravity of the situation: while the far-right MHP leader Bahçeli and his circle of powerful supporters that go beyond the party lines – ex-officers and adventurists – believe they have found a golden opportunity to experiment with a Turkey which will “rise alone”, Erdoğan exposes all his weaknesses behind its iron man image. The latter has no insight on the balances that the global system – however wobbly – is placed on, doesn’t speak another language, has only contempt for all those within his power structure that dare stand up.
Far worse: for Bahçeli this is a grand occasion to assert all his thus far unaccomplished dreams to transform Turkey into an expansionist “high security state”. For Erdoğan, who is intensely self-aware of the growing risks of his political future to the point of having nightmares; unable to let go of his dream of ruling over the Islamic world; the implementation of his foreign policy decisions is revealing a constantly erratic mindset. It is because he firmly believes that he can stir up trouble – inventing crisis after crisis – around Turkey’s neighbuorhood, even as he maintains control over his domestic opponents with hate speech, intimidation, oppressive measures and polarisation.
It has worked successfully so far at home, but in all foreign policy clashes, the result so far remains unchanged: in the past decade, especially since 2016, each and every attempt to expand Turkey’s borders, all carrying Erdoğan’s fingerprints, left him empty handed and increasingly alone. He has come to a dead-end in Syria, never gained any trust with Iraq, managed to turn the Arab League into a monobloc against his government; remains constrained by a resolute Egypt, lost huge political ground in Libya, had to bury his legally murky “Blue Homeland” doctrine before a unified EU, alienated further the unfortunate Turkish Cypriots by bullying their elected federalist President Mustafa Akıncı, and could also now be a big loser in Caucasus.
Erdoğan’s “foreign policy hopscotch” has diminished the Turkish foreign office into paralysis, and many of his allies not only left his administration, but have turned against him. A high stakes gamble now also drags his delicate relationship with Putin into a minefield, whose consequences may be very destructive.
The picture issues alarms. Having been left only with Qatar – a remote and poor Pakistan can’t be counted as a source of economic support – the only link that emboldens Erdoğan’s “hopscotch policy”, namely US President Trump, seems to be losing his chances for another term. If that happens, we may see a game-changer taking place, even bringing in the EU and the Arab League. Bahçeli may not be, but Erdoğan is certainly aware of what may come. The possible prospect is that his high-stake game may reach new heights. I would not bet on further military conflicts being taken off the agenda.