Returning empty-handed from UN, Erdogan needs victory abroad

The visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the UN General Assembly, highly anticipated because of a potential face-to-face meeting with US President Donald Trump, resulted in an anti-climax.

As Turkey continues to be set apart from the West, Ankara is in limbo with several major foreign policy issues as key Turkish institutions, especially the Foreign Ministry, seem to be suffering from a lack of lucid strategic thinking.

Prior to his visit to New York, Erdogan raised the stakes about a possible incursion into Syria, setting a time limit of “until the end of September” for a military action onto the “east of the Euphrates,” whose large areas are controlled by Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

His condition, made to Trump, was the setting of a 32km-wide “safe zone” jointly with the US military for Turkish authorities to settle at least 1 million Syrian refugees along the Turkish-Syrian border. Or else, Erdogan said, Turkey would do it alone.

After much rhetoric, Erdogan returned to Turkey essentially empty-handed. Certainly, he had had enough time to roar about his plans at the General Assembly but his speech raised more concerns — as he revealed plans of settlement and construction in foreign soil, without permission of the government of the country in question — or only ridicule as a piece of cunning irredentism.

It must be added that Erdogan’s pompous rhetoric once more led to further isolation on the world stage. The rather un-nuanced mention of Kashmir, which the Modi-led Indian government perceived as exclusively pro-Pakistan, may cause damage in bilateral issues between Turkey and India.

“Erdogan’s speech also betrays Turkey’s deep-seated distrust of multilateral institutions and rules,” wrote Dimitar Bechev, a columnist with Ahval News Online. “There is no better illustration of the lone-wolf mindset that informs Turkey’s actions on the world stage. Turkey’s dealings with regional organisations follow a similar pattern. Few would disagree that Turkey’s approach to NATO is highly transactional. The alliance is called upon when it suits national interests, yet ignored when the government — or better put, the Presidential Palace — thinks it is better to go it alone.”

More important, however, was Erdogan’s failure to talk with Trump, the Turkish leader’s one and only liaison figure in Washington. It seemed the American president — facing pressure because of an impeachment issue at home — has become weary of Erdogan.

Trump reportedly sent a pro-Turkish Republican US senator, Lindsey Graham, to Erdogan’s hotel to check whether the latter had anything new to say about his Syria plans and ignored the rest.

Remarkable, too, was the fact that Trump in his news conference while lining up the countries whose leaders he had met with in New York did not mention Turkey.

Back home, Erdogan is in limbo, leaving a big question hanging over his next steps. At this stage, he remains slightly cautious, blending the statements about continued preparation with the US troops over the establishment of the safe zone with sharp determination to conduct a solo Turkish offensive.

Meanwhile, the American side offered a new deal on F-35 fighter jets and Patriot missile systems, as well as lower tariffs on steel and aluminium and a trade deal package that would help the two countries boost trade volume to $100 billion from the current $20 billion.

Will this carrot work? It may or may not.

Erdogan remains under severe pressure from the minor partner of his shaky alliance, the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party, as well as the hawks in Ankara, some officers on duty and the militarist flanks of the political spectrum. The key issue will be the development of the American side’s choreography on north-eastern Syria because ties between the US forces on the ground and the local Kurdish commanders are strategically solid.

Rumours stemming from Erdogan’s palace say an incursion is more likely than not, that Washington would overlook a very limited Turkish operation. A major ground offensive, however, would be kerosene on the fire developing between Ankara and Washington and, because of the latter’s insistence on remaining on Syrian ground, maybe the final straw, demolishing much of the 70-year alliance between Washington and Ankara.

Erdogan, a rough political gambler, desperately needs a victory of some sort to restore his tarnished image at home. As always, he is calculating the major shifts in the world power arena. Given his despair, he remains capable of going to major lengths to keep politically alive.