It has been a week of mixed blessings for Western leaders as Turkiye’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again confounded his critics at the ballot box. Sporting more faces than the Big Ben clock in Westminster, servile Western leaders rushed to congratulate the Turkish president on his election victory last weekend.
US President Joe Biden and his equally obsequious French counterpart Emmanuel Macron headed the line-up. Despite their frequent, blistering criticism of Erdogan, they quickly put the past behind them to offer their congratulations.
It must have been a particularly satisfying moment for Turkiye’s leader who has given the world a masterclass in global politics set against the savage backdrop of the war in Ukraine, because it is not so long ago that Macron and Erdogan were lobbing insults at each other after governments across Europe gave the French president their support as calls to boycott France intensified across the Muslim world.
That all started back in September 2020, when several EU officials lambasted Erdogan and accused him of trying to derail Europe’s attempts to reopen dialogue with Ankara. President Erdogan called for the boycott of French products and even questioned Macron’s mental health during a very public diplomatic tussle in response to Islamophobic statements that the French leader made about problems created by radical Muslims in France who practice what Macron called “Islamist separatism”. Erdogan also railed against France for condoning caricatures of Prophet Muhammad — peace be upon him — which prompted Macron to recall his ambassador from Ankara.
Moreover, by October 2021, tension between Erdogan and Biden was escalating at the G20 summit in Rome. The context was created by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, whose administration expelled Turkiye from its F-35 fighter jet programme in 2019 because Erdogan had bought a Russian S-400 air defence system. US lawmakers urged Biden not to sell the F-16 warplane to Turkiye, saying that Ankara “behaved like an adversary.”
Undeterred, Erdogan continued with his strategic foreign policy, and by last weekend it appeared as if the wily Turkish leader had his French and American counterparts eating out of the palm of his hand. Both would no doubt have been peeved to discover that their congratulatory messages arrived after a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who didn’t even bother to wait for the official results of the vote before praising Erdogan’s “independent foreign policy” as the reason for his victory.
Throughout what has proved to be a challenging year for Ukraine and its allies, Erdogan has refused to ostracise the Kremlin following Putin’s full-scale invasion of Russia’s neighbour. His unwillingness to criticise Moscow attracted enormous pressure from Turkiye’s European allies within NATO who imposed sanctions and reduced their energy reliance on Russia dramatically. Cranking up the pressure as they did, Erdogan not only continued to trade with Russia, but also increased it significantly.
Erdogan has shown that he will not tolerate bullying from his NATO colleagues, while ensuring that Ankara remains a key member of the military alliance. Turkiye’s armed forces take part in all NATO missions, and its Incirlik Air Base plays a vital role in the organisation’s defence strategy.
Maintaining close ties with Russia has, if anything, emboldened Erdogan and made him stronger as he keeps a foot in both camps. The balancing act is a testament to his ability to understand global politics. While keeping Russia close he has still given military aid to Ukraine and played a crucial role in brokering the deal to lift the Russian blockade on war-torn Ukraine’s grain supplies.
Most leaders would have impaled themselves while sitting on the fence, but Erdogan has played both sides with the dexterity of a high wire act. It’s a far cry from the days when he was hopeful of joining the European Union. Now his focus seems to be on turning his country into a major influence on the world stage.
Playing on European fears of mass migration from war zones, Erdogan knew his enemies’ Achilles heel during the 2015 migration crisis. More than a million refugees and asylum seekers — mainly from Syria — made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to the EU in people-smugglers’ boats. Brussels made a multi-million Euro deal with Turkiye, which included visa-free travel for Turks if the Turkish president would continue to do his best to prevent migrants without papers from leaving his country’s territorial waters.
Now we can only guess what price Erdogan will demand in order to approve Sweden’s application for NATO membership, which could provide important Baltic Sea cover against Russia for the alliance. The US is said to be increasingly impatient with Turkiye over the deal, which requires the approval of all NATO member states. I’ve no doubt that a newly emboldened Erdogan will exact a good price to allow Sweden to join the club.
Erdogan is now about to embark on his third decade in power and it’s easy to see why millions of Muslims around the world are cheering on the man they liken to Sultan Muhammad Al-Fatih, who conquered Constantinople on 29 May, 1453. There can be no doubt that the Turkish president, a man with an impeccable knowledge of Islamic history, will have circled the 570th anniversary of the conquest by the Sultan and the Ottoman army of the last major centre and capital of the Byzantine Empire. Some things are too great and strong to be coincidences, but I do believe in calculated moves of the kind performed by Erdogan that are way beyond the comprehension of most greedy Western leaders.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.