Erdoğan’s Middle East challenges

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You don’t have to be particularly observant to surmise that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently embarked on a policy with divergent aims and areas of focus. He is trying to effect a fresh rapprochement with the countries in the region, and particularly the Muslim ones like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and has dampened the fire in his rhetoric in an effort to create a better impression with the United States and also with Europe. At the same time, though, he persists with efforts to sideline Greece (and the Republic of Cyprus, of course) from developments, while staunchly resisting all pressure as he seeks to hang on to his claims, particularly in Libya.

It is impossible to predict where all of this is going and how anything will be resolved on Turkey’s many open fronts, chief among which is also the matter of the Turkish economy. There are no real signs of improvement in this area and economic woes are not only making the country vulnerable to pressure but also taking a toll on the government’s popularity, as illustrated by recent public opinion polls. For the time being, all the signs indicate that Ankara’s attempts to shift the mood are being seen with scepticism if not downright frostiness by the interested parties. This is evidenced by talks so far with the Egyptian government, as Erdoğan’s self-confessed links to the Muslim Brotherhood and his refusal to withdraw his mercenaries from Libya are major thorns in the relationship and are also taking a toll on the Turkish economy, among other areas.

Something similar is also the case in Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which went south over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi but was nevertheless soured by Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman vision of reviving the caliphate in Turkey, appointing himself protector of the world’s Sunnis, just as the sultan once was. The difference, of course, is that back in the sultan’s day, most Arabic territory belonged to the Ottoman Empire. This is certainly not the case today and, what’s more, the vast majority of the Arab people have no fondness for the Turks, both for ethnic and historical reasons.

Nevertheless, Erdoğan is trying to woo the Arab people and their governments by casting himself as a staunch Islamist, but also as a defender of the Palestinians by criticising Israel. Following a rather lacklustre effort to warm relations recently, ties between Turkey and Israel became chilly once more as a result of the Israeli government’s extremely controversial settlement plans. Erdogan went back on the offensive, even though it is common knowledge that many Arab states do not care about the fate of the Palestinians anymore and would much rather have better ties with Israel and, by extension, Washington.

All of this is going on as Erdoğan expects to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the upcoming NATO summit in June and is coming under increased pressure from Europe over Libya ahead of the next EU summit. Nevertheless, Ankara is showing no sign of willingness to change course and a new crisis in the North African country will come as no surprise, especially after Libya’s foreign minister called for the departure of all foreign forces and mercenaries.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Kathimerini newspaper and is reproduced by permission.)

Ahval

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