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The triumph of Turkey’s Erdoğan

“Unpredictable” is an understatement when describing Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan. His country is a member of NATO, yet he has acquired the Russian S-400 air defense system that can shoot down NATO aircraft. Moreover, when Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership, a move that would strengthen the alliance vis-à-vis Russia, Erdoğan announced his opposition unless the two countries complied with his demands that they hand over Kurds, who he claimed were supporters of the terrorist PKK organization. Although he finally relented at the Madrid NATO summit — having obtained concessions from both countries — he subsequently backtracked, asserting that the Turkish parliament would not ratify their membership unless they first acted upon their promises.

Erdoğan’s Middle East policy is no more consistent. He long has been a supporter of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood with which it is affiliated, yet in March he welcomed Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Turkey while overseeing a rapprochement between his country and Israel. In April, Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia, whose government he had attacked for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying the murder was carried out by a “shadow state.” Two months later, Erdoğan welcomed to Ankara Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have been behind Khashoggi’s murder, which took place in Istanbul.  

Moreover, even as Turkish drones continue to kill Russian troops in both the Ukrainian and Libyan conflicts, Erdoğan still held hands with Vladimir Putin — and with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi — in a victory pose during his mid-July visit to Tehran. The fact that Iran is Israel’s most intractable enemy, and remains hostile to the United States, does not seem to have fazed Erdoğan at all.

At their summit, the three presidents pledged to fight “terrorism,” though it is not at all clear that each of them applied the same meaning to that term. For Iran, “terrorism” connotes any activities by dissidents opposed to the regime. Putin may have the same definition, but many consider Putin’s Russia itself to be a terrorist state. For Erdoğan, “terrorism” defines the operations of not only the Kurdish PKK, which Washington also considers to be a terrorist organization, but also of the Syrian YPG, which is allied to the United States in its ongoing fight against ISIS.

Despite having advocated for many years a policy of “zero problems with our neighbors,” in his war with the PKK, Erdoğan has not hesitated to invade the territory of those very neighbors.  Seeking to destroy the PKK once and for all, Erdoğan’s troops have operated inside northern Iraq for years. Turkey’s latest incursion, called Operation Claw-Lock, began on April 18 and its troops have not been withdrawn despite Iraqi protests. Moreover, it is estimated that Turkey has at least 5,000 troops permanently deployed in Iraq, much to the discomfiture of the government in Baghdad and to a lesser extent, Iran, which is increasingly the dominant force in Iraq.

Because Turkey also claims that the Syrian Kurdish YPG is an offshoot of the PKK, its forces occupy areas of northern Syria from which they launch their attacks on YPG forces. In May, Erdoğan announced that Turkey would initiate a new operation in Syria, which might result in an expansion of the ongoing Turkish presence there. In a somewhat puzzling move, however, Turkey has closed its airspace to Russian planes flying to and from Syria, although Russia supports the Assad regime, which the Kurds oppose.

Despite his conducting what appears to be a most confusing foreign policy — and maybe in some respects, because of it — Erdoğan, working alongside the United Nations, was able to broker a deal between Russia and Ukraine that would allow the shipment of grain from Ukrainian ports through the Black Sea. Russia had blockaded shipments from Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny, with the result that some 22 million tons of grain had not moved from the port’s silos. Moscow argued that it would lift the blockade only if Ukraine cleared all the mines it laid in the Black Sea. Kyiv retorted that were it to do so, Russia would launch sea-based attacks on Ukraine. As a result of the impasse, international food prices skyrocketed and millions were threatened with starvation, creating the prospect of another mass migration to Europe.

The agreement is literally a lifesaver. As Erdoğan put it, “We are proud to be instrumental in an initiative that will play a major role in solving the global food crisis that has been on the agenda for a long time.” In addition to enabling grain shipments for the three ports, the deal would allow Russia to export food and fertilizers. To enable ships to pass through the heavily mined Black Sea, Ukrainian pilots would guide them through what are being termed “safe channels.” The deal also provides for the establishment of a coordination center in Istanbul, manned by U.N., Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian personnel who would oversee the entire process.  

There can be little doubt that the grain agreement represents a major triumph for the Turkish president. Erdoğan oversaw the signing of the agreement, which took place in Ankara, and received high praise from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Erdoğan’s foreign policies may be aggressive and inconsistent, but it was only because he managed to maintain good relations with the two warring parties that the deal was at all possible. His authoritarian domestic policies render it unlikely that the liberal Norwegian Nobel Committee would give him much in the way of consideration, but surely Erdoğan deserves at least to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Jamal Khashoggi Mohammed bin Salman NATO Russia Turkey Ukraine grain Ukraine invasion

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