“Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”, as the saying goes. As Turkey seeks its new geopolitical balance, following the defeat of Donald Trump in the United States, the Erdoğan regime weighs in on its allies and enemies, testing the limits of their intentions and their resilience.
It is not just the choppy alternation between conciliatory tones and crude challenges against the EU, an attitude that analysts almost unanimously attribute to the visible prospect of sanctions imposed on Ankara (already “on its knees” economically), at the summit on 10-11 December. According to anonymous sources quoted by the Reuters agency, a deep disagreement arose between Turkey and Russia, on the occasion of Ankara’s demands to establish its own, separate observatory in the territories of Azerbaijan, “officially” now a Turkish “satellite” in the south Caucasus.
This is not provided for in the Russian-Turkish memorandum for the establishment of a joint centre, on Azerbaijani territory, for the monitoring of the ceasefire signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia for Nagorno-Karabakh. Elsewhere, the Ahval website writes, “it has long been rumoured that there is already a Turkish base in Nakhichevan,” in the cut off Azeri enclave, in the west of Armenia. Something that “both Turkey and Azerbaijan deny.” In the meantime:
(a) Turkish provocation is reaching a “boiling point” once again off the coast of Libya, causing inconvenience even to NATO ally Germany (which has up to now been overly tolerant of Ankara’s maximalism).
(b) According to the British NGO Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkey is sending additional military reinforcements – the most in recent months – to Idlib, in northwestern Syria, where its strategic cooperation with Russia is also being tested.
(c) A new piece in the “puzzle” of Turkish tactics is now being added in the form of an attempt to improve Ankara’s bilateral relations with another diplomatic “orphan” of the chaotic Trump presidency: Saudi Arabia.
Breaking the “ice” between Riyadh and Ankara, which was created after the horrific assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a telephone conversation with Saudi King Salman, a week ago, on the eve of the G20 teleconference, where the Arabian Gulf monarchy holds the rotating presidency this period.
“Senior Saudi officials”, including the foreign minister, have stated that “there is no problem with Turkey'” the Arab Weekly writes, “and there is already a lot of talk of an ongoing dialogue between the two countries.”
Cairo – a significant Arab counterweight to Ankara’s expansionist policy in the eastern Mediterranean and especially in Libya – “is standing by” these developments, the article notes, citing differences on the agenda between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on a wide range of issues: from the wars in Syria and Yemen to the rivalry with Iran and the “hot” issue of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Turkey and Qatar actively support.
According to the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, his country continues to seek, along with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, a way to end the conflict with Qatar, upon which the Arabian Gulf monarchies imposed an embargo three years ago.
“Observers do not rule out a sudden change in Egyptian calculations regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the election of Democratic President Joe Biden to the White House,” writes the Arab Weekly. “The dilemma and solution at the same time,” it reports, “is that some western countries may decide to label the Muslim Brotherhood a ‘terrorist group’ in the shadow of the recent bloody terrorist attacks in France and Austria” and the brutal instrumentalisation of Islam by a politically cynical Erdoğan.
EU and Gray Wolves
For the time being, however, Paris and Berlin seem to be focusing on the infamous Gray Wolves, who via the nationalist MHP – a necessary parliamentary partner for the long-term conservative AKP government – are practically holding the Turkish president “politically” hostage…
“Erdoğan fears the potential escalation of the anti-Erdoğan campaign in Europe to such an extent that it will push Joe Biden to support it enthusiastically,” said Mohammed Obaidalla, a Turkey analyst based in Cairo. The composition of the 46th US President-elect’s foreign policy group already suggests such an approach.
At the helm of the State Department Antony Blinken was selected. A former secretary of state under Obama’s presidency, with deep knowledge of Greek-Turkish relations and the Cypriot dispute, who has openly expressed his objection to Erdoğan’s schemes in the eastern Mediterranean, has denounced the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and has openly criticised the policy of appeasement that Donald Trump has pursued over the last four years towards the aspiring “Sultan”, especially in the Syrian crisis.
For the equally crucial position of US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan has been nominated, who has consistently advocated for years for a clearer, but at the same time transactional, approach to Turkey, which must, in accordance with Washington’s long-standing wishes – irrespective of who is in office – remain, at all costs, within NATO.
“A longstanding tendency to treat Turkey gingerly, has convinced Erdoğan that Washington sees its relationship with Ankara as too important to fail,” Sullivan noted in an article that he co-wrote for Politico in February 2018 with Former US Ambassador to Ankara Eric Edelman.
“This only increases [the Turkish President’s] appetite for risk—and thus the potential for conflict” they noted, both in favour of a strong US stance on Turkish intransigence. How? Through the prospect of sanctions, in various areas, that would discourage further aggression by Ankara.
The imminent arrival of Blinken at the State Department and Sullivan at the White House – which, it should be noted, required congressional approval – is already a clear signal to Turkey. Which seems to be receiving it…
In his (albeit belated) congratulatory letter to Biden on his election victory, Erdoğan did not fail to stress their cooperation during the vice presidency of the former next to Barack Obama. He stressed, in essence, his deep, empirically settled belief that Biden understands the “strategic quality” of US-Turkish relations.
However, before these can be tested, after the official inauguration of the 46th President of the United States on 20 January, it remains to be seen whether, and with how much force, the “die” will be cast in Ankara’s relations with the EU, at the forthcoming summit of the 27 in early December. A summit that Moscow will be monitoring closely.