How did the mercurial Recep Erdogan get himself into the military geopolitical wrangle that he’s in both with the Pentagon and Russia?
April was quite a month for Ankara-based foreign correspondents who were kept busy with what seemed to be a never-ending stream of news stories about Turkey’s role in the world. After the dust has settled, many analysts might conclude that Turkey is now more isolated than ever. The new rogue state in the Middle East. The question is whether the region is better off and more stable and – critically – if the thawing of relations, as a consequence, with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia is sustainable.
From an analyst’s point of view, Turkey’s geopolitics was always a moving target which no one could entirely understand. The opaque nature of Mr Erdogan’s strategy even baffled Turkey’s own best hacks and at times made him look almost Trump like with his serendipity.
The geomilitary strategy of buying Russia’s S-400 missile system and imagining that the U.S. would allow Turkey to also have U.S.-made F-35s was always going to be a brain teaser.
Initially, Turkey pledged to purchase 100 F-35 fighter jets. In 2018, six were meant for Turkey with some conditions about pilot training, but the actual delivery of the jets was postponed after the start of the S-400 crisis between the U.S. and Turkey kicked off.
But by July 2020, things were looking increasingly shaky as eight jets initially intended for Turkey were instead purchased by the U.S. Air Force which was followed by the cancellation of the supply of parts for the jets, from Turkey.
U.S. empties both barrels at Turkey
The final communication which came from the Pentagon removing Turkey from the F-35 program came in late April and banged a final nail in the coffin of a military hardware sharing deal with the U.S. – forcing Turkey, a NATO member, out in the cold. Perhaps a final blow even to Ankara-Washington relations came days later when Joe Biden formally announced his acknowledgement of Turkey’s role in the Armenian genocide.
The reason the U.S. took this position was that there was a growing skittishness from military figures in the Pentagon over whether Turkey can be trusted not to share sensitive information about the jets with Russia. The timing of this decision is both curious and poignant though.
Relations with Russia in recent years have been at best lukewarm and barely cordial at best, but quite delicate at worse. President Putin on occasion has felt the need to issue veiled threats to Erdogan during tense talks over such incendiary subjects like Syria – where both countries are fighting on opposing sides in Idlib – and Erdogan has appeared to respect the lucid but polite warnings from the Russian leader.
Russia out in the cold
But Erdogan recently went over a line with regards to Ukraine making it very clear that his government would always be more sympathetic to siding with Kiev in any dispute with Russia in the Donbas region. On April 21st, President Zelensky met with President Erdogan in Ankara where they underlined the importance of another defense contract which has also proved to be costly to the firebrand Turkish leader: Turkey’s sales of its own drone to Ukraine.
And this is where it gets complicated. If it were not for this deal and the coziness of Ankara and Kiev, Erdogan could have turned to the Russians when the F-35 deal dell flat on its face and struck a new deal over the Russian fighter jets currently making the headlines on the Ukrainian border itself.
The irony here is that Turkey was always the delinquent member of the NATO pack with generals of western countries always questioning whether it could be useful if the west ever had a conflict with Russia – as Turkey, they say, could be relied upon to ‘choke’ the Bosporus straits blocking Russia’s naval fleet to return to its Black Sea base for refueling. Or at least that’s the theory. With the Ukraine crisis in mid-April, and Turkey’s divided loyalties now after being snubbed by the NATO giants as well as Russia, this role is being more and more questioned.
Turkey has literally dug itself into a deeper and deeper hole entrenching itself increasingly with complicated geopolitical and geomilitary relations – and rows – that it is now stuck out in the cold with no partner for stealth fighters.
And yet, with recent shifting plates in the Middle East of old foes becoming friends, some might be forgiven for arguing that Turkey doesn’t need this grade of stealth fighter anyway, which would have been a huge drain on an economy already in the doldrums.
In recent months, we have seen relations with archenemy Saudi Arabia thaw, after King Salman held out an olive branch in November of last year and this theme was followed by the Saudi Crown Prince ‘MBS’ who recently took the decision to re-open the border between KSA and Qatar – its uber-adversary and partner with Turkey. This coincides with a new chapter of relations between Turkey and Egypt, where there was genuinely some bad blood geopolitically which needed tackling head on.
That’s a considerable shift, coming after a seven-year freeze in relations that started after Turkey’s backing of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who was elected in 2012 and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi was of course deposed in 2013, following uprisings and finally a military coup that led to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi becoming president in 2014, leading to what analysts called a “deep freeze” thereinafter.
But with these new chapters being turned, largely due to Joe Biden becoming U.S. president in December of 2020, a casual observer of Middle East politics might surmise that peace is breaking out in the region – especially with Iraq brokering talks between Iran and KSA presently.
Turkey still has though an ace to play with its largely victorious role in Libya, where in recent weeks we have seen a new attitude from the UAE (also previously an enemy) which is warming to a new political leadership in Tripoli raising many questions as to whether now the “warlord” General Haftar can be trusted to adhere himself to the new mood which his nemesis Ankara can take credit for.
But Ankara still has this enfant terrible role with the European Union. Erdogan creating headlines over a chair incident, which denied EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen the seat next to his when she and the European Council president both visited Ankara, has only soured relations with Brussels to a new low point. With relations also with both the U.S. and NATO at an all-time low, matched only by a new stand-off with Russia, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Turkish president is more comfortable out in the cold and, like a fairground conjurer, he prefers to keep everyone guessing as to what his next move might be. Surely, we won’t have to wait long before the next debacle grabs the media spotlight.