Two weeks ago, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Egypt, Tunisia and Libya on what was dubbed his “Arab Spring Tour.” With a growing economy, a strong regional military and three successive electoral pluralities (the most recent this past June), Erdogan enjoys greater legitimacy than any other Middle Eastern Muslim ruler. He designed his Arab Tour to bolster his claim to lead the Middle East. But Erdogan also needed his tour to obscure his recent record of regional failures, failures from which he badly needs to recover.
Outwardly, the tour appeared to succeed. Erdogan’s airport arrivals won him “rock star” treatment, and he even addressed the Arab League the first non-Arab afforded that distinction. Arab Spring activists, worried that hold-over militaries might yet derail their revolutions, marveled at Erdogan’s ability to reassert Islamism and, most recently, his success in bringing Turkey’s generals to heel. But his greatest appeal sprang from his vociferous attacks on Israel, which he threatened with naval war, and the West, whom he accused of seeking to exploit Libya’s wealth. By contrast, he cited Turkey as a long and selfless friend. Here was a man, he would have people say, willing to confront Israel like a Nasser, willing to lead like an Ottoman.
Heady stuff, but in fact Erdogan’s foreign policy is in shambles. The Arab Spring, which often cites approvingly Turkey’s domestic model, has also presented the Turkish prime minister with his first serious tests. And Erdogan has stumbled badly.
It began in Libya, where Erdogan had warned sternly against NATO intervention, even though NATO sought to protect Muslim civilians. NATO ignored him, and Erdogan soon crept back into line, even trying to claim credit.
But it is in Syria that Erdogan has suffered his most serious setbacks. He had once loudly advertised a regional foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors”; helped create an EU-like free trade and travel zone with Syria, Iraq and Iran; and backed Syria’s President Assad and Iran’s rulers in their quarrels with the West, even seeking to shield Iran’s nuclear program. But today, Turkey staggers under problems with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Worse yet, Erdogan has appeared ineffective. The Syrian crisis is the proximate cause, but Erdogan’s problems run deeper still.
Erdogan raised the stakes in Syria by declaring it to be not merely a regional issue, but a crucial “domestic” one for Turkey. After all, violence in Syria risks flooding Turkey with Syrian Kurds; and Turkey’s long-running problems with its Kurdish population includes terror attacks by the Kurdish group, PKK. So Erdogan demanded that Assad halt assaults on Syrians and reform, even as Erdogan was bombing PKK camps in Northern Iraq, killing Iraqi civilians, violating Iraqi sovereignty and causing Iraq to complain about Turkey.
Nonplussed, Assad has repeatedly rejected Turkish demands, despite Turkish sputtering that its “patience” was running out. Once, Turkey’s foreign minister proudly announced he had persuaded Syria to withdraw tanks from a siege, only to see the tanks return hours later. Turkey looked the fool.
Turkey failed because Assad knows both the dreadful price of looking weak and that Iran will support him. Herein lies the deeper cause of Erdogan’s failures in Syria: Iran also seeks to lead the region. For that, it needs its proxy Syria. Erdogan is in Syria’s and Iran’s way. So Iran charges that Turkey’s suppression of its Kurdish opposition is no different than Assad’s suppression of his opposition. Iran – which is itself shelling Iraqi territory refers sometimes to the PKK not as “terrorists” but as “insurgents,” who are an authentic voice of legitimate Kurdish aspirations. As Erdogan squirms, Iran chortles.
For the moment, and for so long as Assad stands, the region will see Iran as winning. As long as Iran continues work on its nuclear program, time works against Erdogan. This is what lay behind Turkey’s recent decision to accept installation of a U.S. radar needed to protect against Iran.
Against this background, Erdogan launched his Arab Spring tour, expelled the Israeli Ambassador and threatened naval war with Israel. He sought to shift the focus to those Arab and largely Sunni lands where his strengths lay; but his liabilities lurk still. Arab League dignitaries in the audience were enraptured by Erdogan’s denunciations of Israel, but others – the Egyptian military included do not relish where this may lead. And the League’s serious business that day was Syria, about which Erdogan sat silent. As he left the hall, Syrian exiles called him “coward.”
Indeed, some in the Turkish opposition have begun to denounce Erdogan’s morally hypocritical “glass house.” They ridicule his government’s travels as motion without results. They deride his vanity, a man given to delivering moral sermons whose tests he fails – ironic commentary on the man who still holds with pride the Gaddafi prize for human rights.
All this, then, marks Erdogan’s reverting to trump: the anti-Israel card. Erdogan’s hostility to Israel undoubtedly runs deep. In 2006, he embraced Hamas, devoted to Israel’s destruction. But now he slaps trump down with ever greater ferocity, threatening military conflict.
Erdogan’s broader international standing slides, too. The UN Palmer Report criticized his support for Turkish ships attempting last spring to run Israel’s legitimate effort to keep weapons from terrorists in Gaza. Erdogan’s efforts to block Cyprus from enjoying the rights of EU membership, and his military threats against Cyprus lawfully developing resources useful to the EU, win few friends.
For a would-be leader of the new Middle East, his anti-Israeli, anti-Western tactics look awfully similar to the old. So far, at least, Erdogan’s foreign policy has mostly just entangled Turkey more in the unproductive Middle East politics his predecessors avoided. Erdogan’s foreign minister has essentially admitted as much. While calling the “zero problems” policy a success, he now defines it narrowly as Turkish-Egyptian alliance, one implicitly directed against Israel.
It would be nice to suppose that Turkey’s inherent strengths, its past moderation and the apparent political and moral limits to Erdogan’s regional influence might soon turn him to a more sober course. After all, a would-be “leader” must eventually show results more substantial than applause.