Erdogan tripping up in cross wires of foreign policy contradictions

The Turks, who are a proud people, hardly relish the sight of their president making a fool of himself on the international stage.
Sunday 15/03/2020
Migrants are on their way to a camp on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Greece border near the Pazarkule crossing gate in Edirne province on March 9. (AFP)
Migrants are on their way to a camp on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Greece border near the Pazarkule crossing gate in Edirne province on March 9. (AFP)

The arrival in 2015 of more than 1 million mainly Syrian migrants on Europe’s shores prompted European governments, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to strike a $6.7 billion cash and resettlement scheme with the Turkish government.

Under the deal, known as the EU-Turkey Statement, refugees arriving at Europe’s frontiers were systematically turned back and housed in Turkey. Ankara was promised that around 70,000 refugees would be resettled from Turkey to the rest of Europe that year.

Disbursements were made to around 100 projects rather than giving payments directly to the Turkish government. Three years after the deal, irregular arrivals were 97% lower than in the period before the deal, an EU Commission report from March 2019 stated.

Ankara accused the Europeans of failing to keep up their end of the bargain regarding visa liberalisation and demanded that funds be directly disbursed to the government. The European Union also failed to deliver on its targets to resettle refugees from Turkey.

The European Union might not have fully honoured its part of the agreement -- and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted as much when she met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 10 in Brussels -- but von der Leyen said the European Union was prepared to discuss "where support might be needed and what is the right basis to start a dialogue.”

She refrained from accusing Erdogan of formally breaking the terms of the deal. Despite his frequent threats, Erdogan is anxious to renew his arrangements with the European Union but European governments are facing a post-Brexit funding squeeze on how to finance their next long-term budget.

Frontex border patrols might be short of cash yet the commission knows that “populist” parties stand to gain if the flow of migrants is not stopped.

Turkey hosts more than 4 million refugees, not all of them Syrian. Its economy is not in good shape, not least because of Erdogan’s populist moves and a propensity to fuel deficits and inflation through massive projects of questionable economic value.

Europeans would be more willing to listen to Erdogan, as would NATO, if he did not resort to intemperate language. An example is the claim made March 10 that “there is no difference between those images on the Greece border and what the Nazis did.”

Erdogan constantly tries to play the United States, Russia, the European Union, the Syrian regime and the Gulf monarchies against one another. His decision to feed Syrian Turkmen, Chechens and European jihadists of North African origin into the Libyan conflict has not gone down well with NATO or the commission. The United States is furious at his buying of Russian anti-missile defence systems, which are incompatible with NATO systems. Many Western officials wonder whether Turkey is still a member of NATO.

Nor has the Turkish leader's adventurist policy in northern Syrian gone down well in Paris, Washington or Berlin. Erdogan claims he is protecting more than 1 million Syrians caught in a trap in Idlib province between Syrian regime troops, strongly backed by the Russian Air Force, which can outgun its Turkish counterpart and Turkish troops, which occupy an increasingly narrow buffer in Syria.

Turkish troops have spent most of their time hunting Kurdish forces, the key element in the fight against remnants of the Islamic State, than protecting Syrian civilians. Erdogan does not make any secret of his support for hard-line Islamic groups, be it in Syria or elsewhere.

This puts him at odds with the United States, NATO, the EU Commission, Syria and Tunisia. Backed by its western neighbour, Tunisian President Kais Saied reportedly turned down Erdogan’s request two months ago for access to a base in southern Tunisia that would help him deploy military forces in Libya.

Turkey is playing so many geopolitical games across so many boards that it is tripping up in cross wires of contradictions that it cannot solve. Erdogan faces mounting opposition to his policies at home, including from former founding members of his Justice and Development Party. Major Turkish cities voted in favour of the opposition in last year’s municipal elections, despite the president forcing a second vote in Istanbul.

Erdogan may gamble that he can pressure the European Union because the latter is distracted by the coronavirus outbreak. He may gamble that he can pressure the European Union in Libya. He may think that the oil price war between the Saudis and the Russians will help him because it lowers the price of oil and gas, both of which Turkey imports.

It is noticeable that, after his meeting with von der Leyen, Erdogan abstained from his usual crude and threatening language. Indeed, there was not even a news conference. In Moscow, a few days before, Erdogan was kept waiting by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Maybe he is eating humble pie.

Erdogan’s policies in Syria have left the Turkish head of state very isolated. He cannot snarl at Putin, US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and von der Leyen all at once. Hubris has its limits and Erdogan is beginning to look slightly ridiculous on the international stage.

After playing the cool responsible statesman in Moscow and Brussels, Erdogan could not prevent himself from uttering another hollow threat as soon as he touched down in Ankara -- he will retaliate in Syria if the truce painstakingly agreed in Moscow is broken.

The Turks, who are a proud people, hardly relish the sight of their president making a fool of himself on the international stage and Erdogan's bark is increasingly worse than his bite.

Erdogan may or may not have begun to realise that jaw-jaw is of greater benefit to him than war-war. If that is the case, and we are far from being sure it is, that would be of benefit to a region wracked by any number of crises.