By Joel Moffat – Regular Contributor
Following the 2016 coup, Erdogan’s regime has greatly extended its nationalist powers, encroaching upon authoritarianism. The President’s foreign policy continues to fuel regional tensions in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. Under Erdogan’s growing despotism, Turkey has become a pariah state to Europe, and a dangerous rogue element within NATO. Despite dwindling economic stability, Turkey’s will remain a political magnet due to its geographic position. Managing the political ambitions of Erdogan will prove crucial to ensuring peace in the region.
Erdogan rose to the position of Prime Minister in 2003 and has held on to the Presidency since 2014. His early success was the result of an appealing pro-European and moderate Islamist rhetoric, with a clear underlying defence of democracy and the rule of law. However, the years of rule under Erdogan have witnessed increased authoritarian leanings. The pivotal moment for this development was the 2016 Coup against Erdogan. The aftermath saw the firing of 130,000, imprisonment of another 45,000, and prolonged rule through state of emergency measures. Those arrested came disproportionately from secular, leftist, or Kurdish backgrounds. Turkey has the highest count of imprisoned journalists in the world, with around 120 arrests following 2016. It was in a 2018 snap election that Erdogan finally secured the means to fully protect his position. His victory allowed him to secure a constitutional change that eliminated the Prime Minister position and limited the number of institutions that could oppose the President.
Notions of Erdogan’s increasingly Islamist leanings have not been overlooked by the international community. There is some truth to this change, but the reality is naturally more complex. Under Erdogan, the number of religious schools has increased significantly, and he has questioned the piety of those who would vote in opposition during the 2018 snap elections. The most indicative moment of the transition is surely the conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. The historic building is one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks, and the move served to raise some international concern. To many, this represented a regression from the secular vision of Ataturk, who established the Sophia as a museum in 1934. Yet this move sparked little controversy within Turkey itself; being publicly criticised by only one political party. Yet, there are clear limits to this transition. Erdogan’s AK party includes several women, many of whom do not wear a headscarf. Furthermore, several of the party’s politicians choose to portray themselves as conservatives rather than Islamists. The Saudi royal family this is not.
The geographic location of Turkey will always oblige the country to be in the international limelight despite a deteriorating economic situation and policies which serve to further isolate Erdogan from the west. Such geography both represents the country’s greatest strength and weakness, and Erdogan is aware of this. The Bosporus Strait that cuts through Istanbul, separating Europe from Asia, is the single most important natural asset Erdogan possesses. It is one of the single most important chokepoints of the global economy. It provides naval access to the Mediterranean and therefore the Atlantic for Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Russia. For any country on the Black Sea, the Bosporus Straight is the lifeline to international markets, and therefore gives Turkey an inherent regional advantage. Yet Turkey also suffers notable insecurity along its southern border with Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Civil War, starting in the Arab Spring of 2011, has prompted a migrant crisis in Southern Turkey. The country holds the largest refugee population of any country in the world. Furthermore, internal pressures threaten to undermine governmental control in remote regions. The majority Kurdish areas of the interior have had an uneasy relationship with Ankara for decades. In this way, the geography of Turkey is the country’s greatest asset, and potentially its greatest weakness. Either way, these are factors Erdogan knows he cannot ignore.
Historically, Turkey has been a critical American regional ally since the Cold War. Yet Erdogan has cultivated a dangerous divide between the two nations. This looks to continue under the relatively young Biden administration, with affairs reached a new low with the Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 Missiles. This disrupted the planned sale of American F-35 Fighters Jets. The subsequent US sanctions imposed following the withdrawal from the deal placed greater pressure on the already anaemic Turkish economy. This makes Turkey the only NATO nation currently under US sanctions. Tensions were further reinforced during Biden’s 2020 election campaign, in which the future president stated he would support opposition groups within Turkey and described Erdogan himself as an “autocrat”. Biden’s recent recognition of the Armenian Genocide proved to further inhibit relations. The incident involved the systematic murder of around one million ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Territory during World War 1. The Turkish government continues to deny the event despite growing international recognition. In response to Biden’s formal recognition, Erdogan summoned the US ambassador from Ankara. The government declared that “The statement does not have legal ground in terms of international law and has hurt the Turkish people, opening a wound that’s hard to fix in our relations”. A meeting from the two heads of state earlier this month may serve to prompt a period of restoration; Biden and Erdogan have a long-standing relationship. However, the benefits of the meeting have yet to be proven.
With the failing US-Turkey relations, Erdogan increasingly searches for allies outside the west. Its strongest regional ally has come to be Azerbaijan, proven in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Despite criticism from the international community, both countries continue to develop strong economic and military ties. Turkey is the third-largest supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan, with sales increasing six times in the last year. Furthermore, Azerbaijan is crucial to Turkish energy security, with imports of Azerbaijani gas rising 23% in early 2020. In addition, Erdogan also seems set to advance his relationship with Putin. The decision to take the Russian weapons deal over the American option is indicative of this move. Furthermore, Turkey holds a significant Russian gas pipeline that services Europe. Yet there remain significant points of tension between the two states. In 2017 Turkey shot down Russian warplanes flying over the Syrian border, and both countries support rival proxies in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, Turkey has worked on a complex defence agreement with Ukraine over the last five to six years. The sale of a dozen Turkish aerial drones to Ukraine prompted a ban on Russian flights to Turkey.
It is important to remember that Turkey maintains a strong hand in NATO despite this transition to new allies. Turkey holds nearly 4 million refugees that may otherwise be pushed into Europe. Furthermore, Turkey will play a significant role in the future of Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. It has promised to defend the Kabul airport during this period, which will be crucial in maintaining diplomatic connections between Afghanistan and European embassies. Furthermore, it was with Turkish intervention that the UN-backed government of Tripoli was able to withstand a Russian backed rebel siege of the Libyan capital in 2019. Despite US sanctions and increasing isolation from the west, Erdogan is not a minor figure within NATO for 2021.
It is only due to economic pressures that Erdogan has been forced to soften his foreign policy. The necessity of Western investment has finally proven greater than that of Erdogan’s international ambitions. The Coronavirus Pandemic has exposed the rising rates of inflation and unemployment, and the failing Lira suggests an impending debt crisis. Such concerns have convinced Erdogan to halt gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has also sold drones to fellow NATO ally Poland to regain some lost favour in Europe. However, the drift towards authoritarianism and Russian weapon purchases are likely to continue.
Erdogan remains one of the principal threats to regional security in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. He has impeded any hope for opposition groups within Turkey and has consistently pursued a dangerous foreign policy. He has shown a dangerous record on human rights and is willing to fuel proxy rivalries for his own ambitions. His increasing economic and military ties with Russia and Azerbaijan have further isolated Erdogan from the west. Whether the recent changes due to economic pressures will last has yet to be seen. In virtue of the geographic, political, and economic importance of Turkey, the move towards increasingly authoritarian policies represents a grave threat to regional security. Erdogan has become the new despot on Europe’s doorstep.