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Erdogan's strong showing signals ‘business as usual’ for Mideast

May 15, 2023 at 7:52 pm

Turkish President and Leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets public during his party’s rally in Beyoglu district of Istanbul, Turkiye on May 13, 2023 [Arif Hüdaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency]

The prospect of Tayip Erdogan winning another presidential term in Turkiye would once have rung alarms around the Middle East, but after taking a more conciliatory stance in recent years his strong election showing on Sunday has caused few flutters, Reuters reports.

Erdogan secured just under half the votes and looks well placed for the 28 May runoff against opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, defying some predictions he might lose outright.

Over 20 years, Erdogan championed a muscular regional policy, sending troops to fight Kurds in Iraq, seize border enclaves in Syria and back government forces in Libya while challenging other Middle East powers.

But as Turkiye’s economy faltered, Erdogan changed his approach, reaching accommodations with rivals such as the United Arab Emirates, but without pulling back Turkish forces on the ground.

While some Kurdish groups still see Erdogan as an implacable foe, most Middle East governments have come to regard the Turkish leader as part of an acceptable status quo in a tumultuous region.

“Gulf countries prefer continuity over change … the person we know is better than the person we don’t know,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political commentator in the UAE.

Erdogan fell out with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt over his backing of Islamists after the Arab Spring. But, with the revolts mostly over and the Muslim Brotherhood weakened around the region, they largely patched up their quarrel.

He repaired relations with the UAE in 2021 and with Riyadh last year, securing investment and economic help in return.

That conciliatory approach has also helped cool the conflict in Libya, where the UAE and Egypt had backed eastern forces against a Tripoli government supported by Turkiye. In the uneasy peace since its troops ended an eastern assault in 2020, Ankara now has ties across the old front lines.

“It’s business as usual (after the election) and Turkiye will remain the influential power that everyone looks to work with,” said Tarek Megerisi, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Syria and Iraq 

When Syria’s civil war began, Erdogan backed the rebels against President Bashar Al-Assad. But as millions of Syrian refugees crossed into Turkiye and after Kurdish fighters established a border presence, he changed focus.

He worked with Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran, to contain the conflict, at times, while sending troops into Syria alongside rebels to seize territory from Kurdish groups.

In rebel areas where Turkish backing has helped ward off Syrian government attacks, some voiced support for Erdogan, fearing Kilicdaroglu would end its military support and send refugees back into Syria.

But in majority Kurdish areas some still hoped for an opposition victory in the second round.

“We would like the next president to be Kilicdoroglu, not because he is better than Erdogan, but there is bad and there is worse,” said Aziz Suleiman, a Kurdish politician in northern Syria, describing the Turkish President as a “scourge”.

That view was echoed in northern Iraq, where Turkiye has sent troops against Kurdish militants, while maintaining a working relationship with Kurdish authorities in Erbil.

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“He’s always bombing the broader region. If he leaves, maybe the situation will change,” said Raber Mahmoud Ahmed, 30, a driver in Erbil.

Kamaran Othman, who documents casualties of Turkish operations in Iraq, said he had had little hope that an opposition victory in Turkiye would have changed things in the long term, but feared an Erdogan win would spell more strife.

“If Erdogan is re-elected, he will come back even more powerful and will be heavy-handed in terms of security in the region. It will be very bad,” he said.

In Baghdad, however, some politicians would “prefer to deal with the devil they know”, said Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

One impact of an Erdogan win for Iraq could be on oil exports. To Baghdad’s chagrin, Turkiye closed a pipeline in March over a dispute about oil exported by the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

“If Erdogan wins he might feel more confident in his dealings with Iraq and … demand more concessions from Baghdad and Erbil” to open the pipeline, Wahab said.