How underestimating Erdoğan’s policies lead to misreading Macron's response

Messages are made clear to Ankara: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is given a deadline to reconsider Turkey's seismic research activities that Greece considers trespasses on its maritime territory and to discontinue military actions in the eastern Mediterranean until September 23, when the European Union has its regular summit.

It has also become clear that the EU is preparing a draft of sanctions should Turkey continue its current patterns which escalate tensions with Greece.

Washington seems to agree. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo conveyed a message that the only way to start any de-escalation talks between the two countries is if Turkish ships pulled back in the sub-region and Greece followed suit. Both their navies navigating the area in this dispute waste energy and money; it costs Greece around 3-4 million euros per day, according to a Greek colleague.

But, it is Turkey that is feeling the heat. Erdoğan’s is a profound solitude now; even the entire Arab League left his government to its own devices, accusing the Erdoğan administration as expansionist and divisionist in the Middle East and demanding his troops pull out from Syria, Iraq and Libya.

With Israel, there is not anything left in terms of civilised dialogue.

The current power structure in Ankara – a curious blend of Islamists, disguised jihadists, hard-line Eurasianists, ultra-nationalists, a bulk of military adventurists and political opportunists – is experiencing a strange lesson: The more they challenge the international law and global order, the more isolated they become.

Turkey’s troubles stem from Erdoğan’s method for conducting policy. His overall choreography has been based on taking all the state institutions under his personal control, by way of purging staff – much of it qualified – and replacing them with highly partisan, loyal and disqualified personnel. Most damaged is the bastion of the traditionally respected Turkish Foreign Ministry, where the institutional rationale, civilised modus operandi and a memory of nearly 160 years of rhythmic diplomatic activity have nearly evaporated. Nowadays, the ministry's communiques and statements are nothing more than texts of impolite, raucous, threatful, thuggish rants and demonisation of governments which disagree with Erdoğan’s Turkey.

The question on everyone’s mind is a hard one, especially within the EU: Will Erdoğan’s government “back down” on the eastern Mediterranean dispute?

So far, the tactical game set by the Turkish president was to drive as large a wedge as possible within the EU, as well as NATO. He tested the grounds with Libya – but without tangible success. Italy acted wobbly, Malta seemed to zigzag, but when MED7 met recently in Corsica, all seemed unified again in a common understanding that Turkey’s assertive actions in the eastern Mediterranean was unacceptable and must be met with resolve.

Now, Erdoğan can only hope for Germany’s mediating efforts to end the dispute with Greece. But it has become clear that in order not to set a dangerous precedent for Russia – whose eyes are set on Baltic states – Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to respect the Lisbon Treaty which commands a joint defence of the EU’s borders and territory.

This puts Erdoğan in a most precarious position. He may have understood that he cannot stretch his divisive tactics any longer with the EU, especially given the fact that Paris seems to have decided on a new strategy for Turkey: uniting members within the EU and NATO against a threat to the stability of the region.

There is some confusion on the French position here, with some anti-Macron spin and some deliberate diversion from what it is all about at the heart of the issue. Some foreign pundits are allergic to Macron’s assertive stand vis-a-vis Erdoğan, apparently missing the point that, in the absence of U.S. leadership in the region, what matters is which other power fills the vacuum – Russia or another NATO member (everyone knows that Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean do not have the luxury of any void). Objectively, this is what France is doing, however risky it may be. It is astonishing that Macron's current critics do fail to see the main fault in the utterly erratic choices of America's president, Donald Trump.

In the case of any rational cause-and-effect analysis on the region, there is no doubt of who the elephant in the room is: Turkey, or rather its power centre, Erdoğan himself. Most Western Europeans know it, but speak only “around it”.

Except, perhaps, the French. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour highlights this in a recently published news analysis, in which he quotes Jacques Attali, adviser to the former French President François Mitterrand, who said:

“We have to hear what Turkey says, take it very seriously and be prepared to act by all means. If our predecessors had taken the Führer’s speeches seriously from 1933 to 1936, they could have prevented this monster from the accumulating the means to do what he did.”

Wintour also cites French U.N. envoy Gérard Araud, who recently placed Turkey’s regional power patterns in a historical context: “Russia, China and Turkey are revisionist powers which don’t accept a status quo based on a world order largely defined by the West in 1945 and 1991. They feel emboldened by a new global balance of power and by U.S. policy. Where will they stop? What should the Europeans do?”

The final question Araud asks is actually one that goes right into the heart of the dilemma. If Erdoğan managed to transform Turkey – with its institutional ruin in plain sight and thuggish behaviour as its style – into a rogue state and under the motto of Turco-Islamist “greatness”, what lessons learned from the 1930s should we apply to such a scenario? Do we need another Frankenstein, some people ask, demolishing the fragile democratic and legal structures of the EU and beyond by exporting jihadism within Turkish immigrant segments and discreetly mobilising a destructive streak against Europe?

France seems to have found an answer; others are either struggling or choose to remain in a dangerous indifference. Or, like Spain and Italy, remain stuck in the old-fashioned thinking that the interests of financial, defence and energy companies will have to take priority, no matter how threatening Erdoğan’s despotism becomes.

But, one would ask, are we really that close to war?

Yes and no. What we see in the Mediterranean is a confrontation between a group of democracies and non-democracies – with Turkey at the lead of the escalation, followed by Egypt, Greece and France as reactive forces. This view doesn’t offer much hope for de-escalation.

As opposed to what is claimed in The Economist's latest issue, Erdoğan is no longer highly regarded, not even within the Islamic world because it has become clear that “greatness” can never be achieved with a failing economy. He is at his loneliest. In terms of “external” support, or even understanding, his hands are tied.

This, observers correctly argue, is very dangerous per se. Cornered, Erdoğan switches now to a different phase: hoping for an impulsive military move by Greece – an incident with Turkish ships, for example – that will create a pretext for him to unleash a military response.

Erdoğan calculates this will be beneficiary for his fading domestic image, accumulate power anew around his persona as the commander-in-chief, help thrive on the support of the main opposition (which already declared it is “behind the government”) and reinsert his deeper control of the military. Therefore, it is logical that he should not ease the tensions on the open seas.

However, “controlling the army” is a tricky dimension. It is well known that Erdoğan’s weakest spot is his distorted perception of world affairs, intricate international relations and how Turkey’s foreign policy will achieve “greatness”. He sees all these issues as a simple wrestling game, a sort of battle for “the survival of the fittest”.

Given the chronology of how the Greece-Turkey dispute suddenly flared up, there is enough data and strong reason to believe that Erdoğan was heavily “persuaded” by a group of anti-NATO, anti-West admirals on their daredevil project, the “Blue Homeland” naval doctrine.

Domestically weakening and badly bruised by his erratic moves in Syria, and arguably also in Libya, he decided to bet on the doctrine, neglecting the dimension of continued negotiations with Athens. The deeper Erdoğan was dragged into the stormy waters of “Blue Homeland”, he may have found himself caught in a current which he has less and less control over. It could simply be because the president may have been tricked by a segment of the Turkish military that deeply resents his Islamist policies, and brought to a point where he has almost no manoeuvring room to “back down”.

Should he do that now, he would lose even further at home. Like a cyclist, he must now pedal in order not to fumble, but the path is very risky and extremely dangerous for Turkey. In case of a major failure, Erdoğan may not have anyone around to pin the blame on. The current impasse is telling: Erdoğan is approaching the edge of the abyss and dragging the entire country along with him.

Meanwhile, all the (former?) allies of Turkey in the West, including France, are taking precautions and choose to wait beyond the deadline of September 23-24. They all know that the real game changer may come if Joe Biden wins the upcoming U.S. elections.

But what if he doesn’t? Well, given the West’s fear of Russia, beyond Turkey, the current “precautions” in the eastern Mediterranean are self-explanatory, are they not?

(Updates with headline fix)

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.