Western capitals remained silent through Turkey’s presidential campaign – privately hoping Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s erratic 20-year rule would come to a surprise close – but now he has been handed a decisive mandate to serve a third term, the west is caught between fear and hope.
It fears he will exploit the result to take this Nato founder member further from the liberal secular west, but hopes against hope that, not being eligible to run again and thus freed from the need to pander to a nationalist electorate for the rest of his political life, he may at least be open to persuasion and base his foreign policy on something other than self-preservation.
Either way, the choices Erdoğan unbound makes matter not just for Turkey, Nato, and whatever order that emerges at the end of the war in Ukraine.
The immediate issue is to prevent him falling into the lap of Vladimir Putin. Few western diplomats are optimistic. One said: “In the past he had turned transactionalism almost into an art form and then almost an ideology. But recently it has grown into a real antipathy towards western values and arrogance.” Erdoğan’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, during the campaign said that anyone who displayed pro-western tendencies was a traitor. Perhaps it was merely campaign rhetoric, but it reflects a mindset in Turkey and potentially in other countries.
Erdoğan’s first test will come at the Nato summit in Vilnius where he will be asked to lift Turkey’s veto on the Nato membership of Sweden. He has already lifted his block on Finland’s membership but has left Sweden in limbo and in a potentially dangerous grey zone.
Sweden, which has a larger Kurdish population than Finland, says it is struggling to rationalise some of Erdoğan’s demands, including for the extradition of 140 Kurds, whose names have never been definitively passed to the Swedish government. Stockholm is toughening its anti-terror laws to please Ankara and is willing to study evidence that the Kurdish community in Sweden has become a large source of funding for the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the EU and Turkey. But the rightwing Swedish government cannot order its judges to extradite Kurds.
Officials pretend Sweden’s Nato membership is a self-standing issue but in practice most see it as linked to the blocked US arms sales to Turkey, not to mention the future status of the battery of S-400 missiles bought by Ankara from Russia.
Joe Biden, despite calling Erdoğan an autocrat, is willing to lift the block, endorse the $20bn sale of F16 jets and open a new chapter with Turkey.
But the US president first has to persuade the leaders of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees to endorse the sale. Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House foreign affairs committee, recently hinted at flexibility, saying he was willing to endorse the sale so long as the Swedish Nato issue was resolved.
McCaul said: “We’ve been assured that after the election, regardless of the winner, that Sweden will be recognised as a Nato ally.” Democrats in Congress still want wider assurances about Turkey stopping its threats to Greece, so talks of a moratorium on military exercises in the Aegean is promising.
But even a sale of arms would not in itself end Erdoğan’s resistance to western efforts to detach him from Putin. In the campaign he said Turkey and Russia had a special relationship, and reflected on his personal ties with Putin, saying it put him in a good position to act as a broker over the war in Ukraine. In April Erdoğan launched the first Turkish nuclear power plant built with Russian financial support and technology. More implausibly Putin has talked of Turkey becoming a European hub for Russian gas.
All of this has made it harder for the US officials that have travelled to Ankara to urge Erdoğan to clamp down on Turkish businesses acting as a conduit to bypass western sanctions on Russia in support of Ukraine. Turkish deals with penalised Russian companies, trade with Russia in western-made products and the export to Russia of so-called dual-use goods such as plastics, rubber and electronics have all been raised by the US with little effect.
Turkey is simply not willing to impose sanctions on Russia, and Washington is not willing to impose secondary sanctions on Turkey, fearing it would drive Erdoğan into Putin’s arms.
More broadly the west favours Erdoğan’s plans to lower tensions with his neighbours including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Armenia. In some specific respects even Erdoğan’s re-election is a boon to the west. With his human rights record, his request for EU membership, suspended since 2018, can continue to gather dust in the pending tray, something that would have been less easy if Erdoğan’s opponent Kemal Kiliçdaroglu had been elected. Second, Kiliçdaroglu’s increasingly strident vow to force millions of Syrian refugees back over the border into Syria sounded like vote grubbing without a plan.
Erdoğan by contrast sounds more plausible when he says he has a plan to rehouse 1 million Syrians in northern Turkey back over the border. His connections with Putin, and hence the Syrian president, Bashir al-Assad, make that plan the more plausible of the two.