April 9, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Erdogan’s Regional Moves

• President Erdogan has turned himself into a strong ruler with an ambitious vision for Turkey that might be unpopular with some in the region

• Nonetheless, Turkey—along with Iran—is a country with more potential for stabilizing the Middle East than any other regional power

• Erdogan’s visit to Iran on April 7, 2015 was preceded by harsh words and an urgent briefing from the Saudis; it is unclear how well it went

• But however unpalatable to others, an agreement between Turkey and Iran on a way forward in the region could be the best chance for restoring some sense of order.


One of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strengths as a leader is his projection of self-belief. He sees himself as the embodiment of the state, and decides issues of both domestic and foreign policy with absolute conviction; he speaks bluntly and tolerates no disagreement. Criticism of his decisions or actions, or attacks on his probity or that of his family or friends, are treated as attacks on the state and dealt with harshly. This has led to the imprisonment of journalists, the dismissal of prosecutors, the suppression of civil society bodies, and deep concern in business circles that Turkey is becoming more corrupt and less observant of the rule of law, even as it becomes richer. Erdogan may regard himself as a leader on a par with Atatürk, who forced a deeply conservative country into modernity, but his vision harks back to a time before Atatürk, when the Turkish Empire was a world power led by one all-powerful sultan.

Inevitably Erdogan’s ambition has not gone down well with other powers, even though they may regard it as mere hubris. Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbors’ foreign policy has proved incompatible with a parallel policy of telling its neighbors what they should do. Erdogan’s foreign policy is too blatantly self-interested to have attracted much support; and the fact that it is sometimes right has not made it more popular. Nonetheless, Turkey is a power to be reckoned with, given its size, its economic clout, and its intricate relationships exemplified by its membership of both NATO and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Like it or not, it is one of the preeminent regional powers, and as the Middle East collapses, its active engagement has become all the more important as a potentially stabilizing force.

The other regional power with equal capacity to make things better or worse is Iran, and so Erdogan’s visit to Tehran on April 7 was an event of much interest to a wide audience. Prospects for a meeting of minds were not good after Erdogan had criticized Iran on behalf of the region for its expansionist policies, in particular with regard to Yemen, leading the Iranian Foreign Minister to make a caustic comment about the irreparable damage caused by the strategic blunders and over-reaching policies of others. Both comments had the sting of truth. But despite the spat, the visit went ahead and President Rouhani of Iran, who had himself visited Ankara last June, the first such visit since 1996, received Erdogan with his usual smiles. The Iranians will have appreciated the opportunity to deal directly with the man who makes the decisions, however idiosyncratic.

Perhaps the most anxious observer of the visit was Saudi Arabia, which has been trying to draw Erdogan into a closer ‘Sunni alliance’ against Iran. Immediately before Erdogan’s departure, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Interior, flew to Ankara for an unscheduled meeting with Erdogan that lasted over an hour and a half. Prince Mohammed has taken a back seat to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son, in the campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, but as the man in charge of Saudi Arabia’s security, and the most experienced of the Saudi leadership, he will know the regional dynamics as well as anyone. Erdogan also met with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Turkey on April 3; Pakistan is also debating direct involvement in the Yemeni conflict.

Erdogan and Rouhani did not allow questions at the press conference that marked the end of the visit, but they spoke of the need to end the fighting in Yemen. It remains to be seen what initiative they cooked up, if any; but there are no two powers more able to reverse the slide towards a regional war than Turkey and Iran. In particular, they are the two most important players in Syria.

Turkey’s support for Saudi Arabia is not a given. In many ways the countries are rivals, though Turkey would probably not grant Saudi Arabia that status. Differences of opinion over the Muslim Brotherhood have caused problems that are papered over for now but could re-emerge, and Iran remains a crucial trading partner, supplying Turkey with 10bn cubic metres of gas per year—an amount both sides want to increase if they can agree on a price. Turkey’s bilateral trade with Iran is valued at $14B and expected to double within the next 18 months. There are plans to build a new rail link across the border.

If Saudi Arabia is as interested in preventing the situation in the Middle East from further deterioration as it is in reducing Iranian influence there, it should see Erdogan as a means to that end. Saudi Arabia no longer has the option of making a direct approach to the Iranians; to do so would look too much like declaring defeat. But its Yemen policy, based on the dubious premise that the Houthi and Iran are one and the same, has no clear end and looks increasingly like it is moving towards a land war. Erdogan’s powerful and self confident bombast could prove a useful tool in brokering an agreement that recognizes that the chaos in the region, that has so far served the interests only of the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda's affiliates in Syria and Yemen, threatens everyone, and needs everyone to address it.


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