As Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan prepares for his re-election bid in the General Election scheduled for 2023, intimations of just how tough that electoral battle is likely to be for him are now apparent. He faces a united Opposition, the economy is showing unmistakeable signs of tanking, his personal popularity has plummeted, and his project to establish the primacy of the Islamist movement he leads in the country and, indeed, the region, with Ankara as the notional capital of a latter-day Ottoman Empire, is showing signs of coming apart at the seams. This is a far cry from the situation till even a couple of years ago when a politically resurgent Mr Erdogan was lording it over his opponents both domestically and regionally. So, the consummate politician that he is, Mr Erdogan has started changing tack. As a recent op-ed by in the Washington Post by Asli Aydintasbas asks: “Why is Erdogan suddenly making nice to his enemies?”
The ruthless strongman of previous years, writes the commentator, had positioned himself at the head of Turkey as a regional hegemon, establishing military bases across West Asia, muscling into the Mediterranean, and deploying troops in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Turkey and its closest ally Qatar had upended the regional power balance as they feuded with Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf and actively supported like-minded populist Islamist movements across geographies spanning from South Asia to the borders of Europe. Mr Erdogan’s moves were causing consternation in the West too ~ Turkey is, after all, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member-state. “Now, all that seems to be changing,” writes Aydintasbas. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the revival of great power competition, and American retrenchment in the region, Mr Erdogan is focussed on doing what it takes to consolidate his regime before next year’s election.
To this end, he has begun offering to normalise relations with former foes, especially where it is in Turkey’s economic interest to do so. Turkey and Israel recently announced they are reappointing ambassadors after more than a decade of rocky relations. Mr Erdogan earlier this year met Crown Prince Mohamad bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates despite the narrative in Turkey which identified him as the prime mover behind the coup attempt of 2016. Meanwhile, the office of the prosecutor in Turkey probing the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi transferred the case to Saudi Arabia thereby burying it. Turkey is also attempting to mend ties with Egypt ruptured due to Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr Erdogan’s emissaries are even hinting that they are ready to engage with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria after years of working for a regime change in Damascus, to assuage growing anger among the Turkish population at the influx of millions of Syrian refugees. The cost of this influx is hurting Turks already reeling under high inflation. It would be naïve for the region and the wider world, however, to ascribe any other motive than the purely utilitarian to this change in tack by President Erdogan.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the September 10, 2022, issue.