By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
For anyone following the events in Eastern Europe, Turkey has transformed from a secular state with a clear affinity to the West to a dictatorship after the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2003. In his quest for reinstating Turkey as a world power, Erdoğan has created tensions with multiple countries in the region and around the world.
In fact, Erdoğan has made it a particular point to antagonize the U.S. several times. For example, Erdoğan clashed with the U.S. over Turkey’s cooperation with Russia that included the possible leaks of classified technology. It did not go well and Erdoğan faced clear consequences from the White House, who declared sanctions after Turkey bought Russian anti-aircraft missiles.
Both of these actions – the buying of the missiles and the economic sanctions – were previously unthinkable for a NATO member like Turkey. However, these actions are a prime example of how Erdoğan is testing Turkey’s limits in the geopolitical arena.
But now, it appears that Erdoğan is finally learning the lesson most people learn in elementary school: if you fight with everyone, nobody will want to play with you.
Erdoğan Has Both Foreign and Domestic Problems
As I have mentioned in previous articles, Erdoğan has an end game of neo-Ottomanism. He sees himself as the leader who will make Turkey great again and restore the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. Using the rhetoric of pan-Turkism, he wants to connect Turkish ethnic groups all over the region and catapult Turkey to the role of world power.
But now it seems Erdoğan is realizing the situation might be more complicated. The long war in Syria has put Turkey in a dangerous spot. This war involves Turkey directly since its military forces have attacked Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. military. There is the fear that the Kurds will soon attack Turkey in an attempt to create a Kurdish state with their brethren.
In addition, ISIS has used Turkey as a base of operations. Just last month, Voice of America reported that Turkish officials arrested the new leader of ISIS safe house in Istanbul.
The Turkish economy is floundering, and Turkey’s tenuous relationship with the U.S. is not helping. Iran is also competing against Turkey for dominance in the region and the Muslim world in general.
So things in Turkey are slowly changing. Erdoğan made attempts to facilitate a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine earlier in the war, and he has made some changes in his country’s relationship with Israel.
Turkey and Israel
Before Erdoğan, Israel and Turkey were close allies. They shared security connections between their military and intelligence agencies and had many joint military training drills. The two countries also had good economic relations.
Things changed, however, when Erdoğan began positioning himself as a defender of Islam. Erdoğan sought to become a caliph like the previous Ottoman emperors; the caliph rules with the authority of Islam and has rights to lead the entire Muslim nation.
As a result, there was real tension between Erdoğan and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and the relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated to a point where Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel in 2018. After the establishment of a new Israeli government under the leadership of Naftali Bennett, Turkey decided to improve its relationship with Israel.
In March 2022, Israeli president Isaac Herzog visited Istanbul and met with Erdoğan to jump- start the strained relationship. The Brookings Institution noted, “After more than a decade of acrimony between Israel and Turkey, Herzog’s visit to Turkey is welcome, but it should not be seen as more than a first step forward in a precarious relationship marked by deep mistrust.
“There appears to be interest on both sides to see it succeed, but much will depend on developments on the Palestinian issue and on the position that Erdoğan will take vis-à-vis Hamas’s continued presence in Turkey. Furthermore, the willingness of leaders on both sides to avoid populist rhetoric to serve domestic political ends and instead maintain a pragmatic approach that focuses on common interests will be critical.”
Soon after that, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Jerusalem to meet with his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid. Çavuşoğlu’s visit was another reminder that both Israel and Turkey are interested in mending broken fences.
But it’s not that simple. Last week, Israel warned Israeli tourists visiting Turkey – a favored destination among Israeli tourists – of security threats. According to the Times of Israel, Iran may attempt to target Israeli tourists for abduction or assassination. Iranian operatives have been plotting to carry out such an operation in Turkey and other countries to retaliate for the assassination of an Iranian senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
It’s Important to Remember that Erdoğan Is Not Reinventing Himself
These signs of change within Turkey are not to say that Erdoğan is totally reinventing himself, however. His latest remarks on Greece make that clear.
Erdoğan halted talks with Greece regarding attempts to find a resolution to disputed maritime borders, airspace and other issues. According to Reuters, Erdoğan stated, “You keep putting on shows for us with your planes…What are you doing? Pull yourself together. Do you not learn lessons from history? Don’t try to dance with Turkey. You’ll get tired and stuck on the road. We are no longer holding bilateral talks with them. This Greece will not see reason.”
So for Turkey and Erdoğan, there is still a way to go. But Erdoğan is a good lesson to everyone in the region and around the world that you should not let your ego get ahead of you when you govern a country.