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.


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 been antagonistic, and those with the Gulf’s Saudi-led bloc have been strained. Turkey and Qatar-backed factions continue to fight a 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.

The most pressing concern for Ankara, however, is in neighboring Syria. As the country descended into civil war, its Kurdish-majority areas obtained de facto autonomy under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that has fought a 40-year insurgency against the Turkish state. The rise of jihadist militants, including the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), meanwhile obliged the PYD’s defense units to protect themselves by expanding their control beyond Syria’s Kurdish regions into majority-Arab towns. From Ankara’s point of view, the political and military advance of Rojava, as the self-governing Kurdish statelet in northern Syria is called, is an unwelcome inspiration for Kurds on the Turkish side of the border. Turkey’s security bureaucracy, moreover, sees PYD-dominated Rojava as a launching pad for the PKK and thus an existential threat to Turkey—all the more so since Ankara’s 2015 resumption of its intermittent war with Kurdish insurgents.


The rise in anti-Kurdish sentiment within Turkey, as well as the perceived danger posed by Rojava to the Turkish state, has coincided with the rise of a new existential threat to Erdogan’s one-man rule, represented by last summer’s coup attempt. The coup only reinforced the perils of the president’s break with the Gulenists and pushed Erdogan to make nice with Turkey’s ultranationalist, relatively secular political and security establishment, which he had previously rebuffed. Indeed, this new alliance is the biggest constraint on pursuing his ideal domestic and foreign policy. Erdogan, the first Turkish leader to seek a comprehensive political solution to the conflict with the Kurds, is now waging a brutal campaign in the Kurdish-dominated south and painting Rojava as Turkey’s top security threat.

Downtown Istanbul, July 2017.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

The practical meaning of all this is that Turkey’s policy in Syria is now obsessed with containing the Kurds’ political progress there—a major reversal of Erdogan’s earlier ambitions. At the outset of the unrest in Syria, Erdogan pursued a proactive Islamist policy aiming for a quick regime change, going so far as to fund and arm jihadists to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Today, Erdogan is willing to keep the Syrian strongman in place and is redirecting his threats toward Rojava, to the delight of hard-line Turkish nationalists.

But Erdogan’s nationalist turn, born out of necessity, has not eliminated the enduring Islamist undertones of his foreign policy. To be sure, what appeared in 2011 as a coherent, proactive, pan-Islamist grand strategy has given way to a reactive and patchwork approach. Yet the ideology informing that original grand strategy persists, restrained only by tactical needs and the threats to Erdogan’s rule. In the short term, until he can fully consolidate his position, Erdogan will be beholden to the nationalist fixations of his newfound allies. In the long term, however, those allies will dampen but not end Erdogan’s pan-Islamist designs.


The persistence of this pan-Islamist vision is most evident in Turkey’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before the Islamists’ ascent to power in Turkey, Ankara and Jerusalem cooperated closely in intelligence, defense, and security affairs. Despite Erdogan’s best efforts to undermine that, which culminated in the downgrading of diplomatic ties in 2011, Turkey’s security bureaucracy still sees Jerusalem as a key resource, especially in light of resurgent Kurdish nationalism and growing Iranian influence in the region. Hence today’s Turkey, newly anxious about security, has sought to improve its relations with Israel, pushing Erdogan toward last year’s rapprochement, whereby Ankara agreed to reinstate ambassadors and acquiesced to Israel opening a permanent mission at NATO headquarters. But although Erdogan will continue to accommodate the Israelis, he will never disown his comrades in Hamas, which he has continued to support and whose exiled members he has sheltered in Turkey. Beyond his ideological common ground with Hamas, the patronage of the Palestinian cause is indispensable for Erdogan’s publicity campaigns in Turkey and the Muslim world.

Another example of Erdogan’s patchwork approach is in Turkish policy toward Iran. Historically, Ankara has been wary of Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Yet Erdogan and his fellow Turkish Islamists have traditionally been sympathetic to Tehran and under the right conditions would probably be willing to partner with Iran to challenge the Western-led liberal world order. That sympathy led Ankara to oppose the 2010 UN sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, despite the significant threat a nuclear Iran could pose to Turkey. Ankara’s Iran-skeptic security apparatus, however, has long viewed Tehran as one of the main supporters of the PKK. Combined with deepening sectarian rivalries in Iraq and Syria, this skepticism will continue to undermine Erdogan’s hopes for building a strategic partnership between the two countries. Even so, Iranian-Turkish cooperation is poised to endure in the fields of energy, trade, and illicit finance

Ankara’s patchwork foreign policy looks contradictory now—it champions Erdogan’s pan-Islamist partners while also working with their rivals. This confusion stems from a forced pragmatism prompted by a number of challenges to Erdogan: backstabbing allies at home, resurgent Kurdish nationalism, and the global reversal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s fortunes since the Arab Spring. But Erdogan is a savvy politician and a resolute survivor. He will do whatever it takes to stay in power, but he has not lost his Islamist zeal. For now, Erdogan will continue to make compromises to protect his rule, hoping for the favorable winds of another spring.

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