Turkey’s steady descent into authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been accompanied by an erratic foreign policy. Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan has combined neo-Ottoman rhetoric at home with pan-Islamist ambitions abroad, patronizing the Muslim Brotherhood globally and, more recently, supporting jihadist proxies in Syria. Yet shifting domestic alliances and foreign policy failures have constrained the Turkish strongman’s ability to act on ideological principles alone. The resulting tension—between Erdogan’s Islamist zeal and his forced pragmatism—helps explain Ankara’s patchwork foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond.
STATES OF CHANGE
Over the last four years, Erdogan has survived two attempts to oust him: a landmark corruption scandal in 2013 and a bloody coup attempt last summer. The Gulen movement, Erdogan’s closest political ally between 2002 and 2013, played a key role in both. The vicious infighting within Turkey’s ruling bloc has led Erdogan to purge the country’s political and bureaucratic elite, replacing Gulenists with ultranationalists. Meanwhile, the failure of Ankara’s attempt to resolve its conflict with Kurdish groups in 2015 and the rise of jihadist groups in neighboring Syria have led to periodic terror attacks in Turkey, producing unprecedented casualties. As a result, both the Turkish people and their leader have lately become more paranoid and nationalistic.
Turkey’s neighborhood, too, has been transformed. The Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Islamists who seemed ascendant during the Arab Spring now appear to have been exiled to the margins of Middle Eastern politics by the region’s staunchly anti-Brotherhood heavyweights—namely, Saudi Arabia and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt. This summer’s Gulf crisis, which culminated in a coordinated diplomatic assault on Qatar, the Brotherhood’s top patron alongside Turkey, was yet another setback for political Islam. Ankara, having sided with the Islamists from the onset of the Arab Spring only to see them fail to hold power, has found itself on the losing end of regional diplomacy. Since 2013, Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Libya have proxy war against Egypt and United Arab Emirates–backed forces in Libya. Erdogan’s forceful support for Qatar in the latest crisis will only further isolate Turkey in the greater Middle East. Erdogan’s nationalist turn, born out of necessity, has not eliminated the enduring Islamist undertones of his foreign policy.
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