Erdogan backs down

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 4 Oct 2018

Once again, Turkey’s president proves that pragmatism to maintain power is his baseline

Demonstrators protesting against Erdogan during his meeting with Merkel (Photo: Reuters)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “does not object” to a request to meet Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings, reads the headline editorial of AhvalNews Arabic Website Sunday, 23 September.

The editorial referred to a statement by Ömer Çelik, a spokesperson for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), saying that, “if President Trump wishes to meet our president, we will look at their request and evaluate how to respond to it.”

The questions that quickly circulated across Turkish social networking sites were, “is Erdogan just playing coy? Does he need this meeting more than Trump?”

According to the article, as the twists and turns of his policies have shown, the Turkish president is ultimately a pragmatist who pushes Ankara’s relations with other countries to the brink and then retreats and asks for forgiveness.

Over and over again, he has dug in his heels on hardline stances in his disputes with foreign capitals, only to be ultimately forced back down and then have Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu clean up the mess and sort out the confusion.

The examples are many, but the most dramatic was his about-face over Turkey’s downing of the Russian Sukhoi fighter jet over Syria.

He also back-peddled on stances related to the Mavi Marmara incident, which precipitated a diplomatic freeze with Israel. While relations with Israel have remained rocky, there has been a thaw and recent reports in the Turkish press indicating that the Turkish ambassador will soon return to Tel Aviv.

Erdogan had decided to attend the opening ceremonies of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, the Ahval editorial continues.

He could have sent Cavusoglu or Vice President Fuat Oktay to deliver Turkey’s address in his stead but, according to diplomatic and journalist reports, diplomatic efforts had picked up behind the scenes to resolve the crisis between Ankara and Washington and part of these efforts entailed arranging a meeting between Erdogan and Trump.

In other words, Erdogan’s more subdued attitudes towards the US during the past two months were no coincidence. It was a key to halting the dangerous escalation, among the repercussions of which was the sharp escalation in the fiscal and economic crisis that continues to rock Anatolia.

In the end, Erdogan and Trump did meet, briefly, and shook hands backstage at the UN General Assembly.

The Communications Director of the Turkish Presidency, Fahrettin Altun, reported on his Twitter account that the two heads-of-state had a “brief conversation” which led observers to expect a breakthrough in the dispute over Andrew Brunson, the American pastor detained in Turkey and now under house arrest in Izmir.

After all, it was unlikely that the “cordial” exchange in New York could have taken place if Trump did not have some good news about the pastor who is due to appear again in court 12 October.

Erdogan suddenly changed his tone towards Europe, as well, shelving the type of “Nazi” and “crusader” slurs he often hurls, at least for the duration of his visit to Germany where another handshake awaited him, this time from German counterpart Angela Merkel.

Following his three-hour meeting with her, the pro-government press in Turkey hailed the visit as “very fruitful and successful”. No mention was made of the large anti-Erdogan demonstrations in Berlin, Cologne and elsewhere before and during his visit, protesting his repressive antidemocratic policies.

Nor were the talks, dinners and other occasions as convivial and productive as the AKP media machine suggested. There were exchanges of barbs and reproaches, continued impasses on a number of issues and instances that were noticeable more for those who refused to attend than for those who did.

However, some change has occurred reflecting new developments that have altered the calculations of European leaders.

In attempt to interpret the nature of the changes, the Middle East Policies Institute observes that European countries are responding to signals from Ankara indicating a desire to turn over a new leaf in their relationship with Turkey, and that their primary motive is their fear of the fallout of a potential collapse of the Turkish economy on the EU.

Erdogan, for his part, has worked to reduce tensions with Holland and soften his criticisms of Europe, in general, and he has released most of the German detainees in Turkish jails, with the purpose of securing economic assistance in order to forestall a total collapse of his country’s economy.

According to a report from this institute, Merkel had given Erdogan cause for hope before he arrived in Berlin, when she criticised US sanctions against Turkey and warned that the collapse of the Turkish economy would be in no one’s interest.

European leaders, whenever reaching out a hand with financial assistance, naturally make conditions having to do with the need for Turkey to improve its human rights situation.

Erdogan, now ready to put up with this, has his response down pat: “Let’s put our differences behind us and focus on our common interests.”

As for Erdogan’s relations with Putin, they also waver but reveal something of a different calibre: a mutual repulsion that can poison the climate between their two countries and that is largely fed by differences on Syria.

While the two sides have agreed on the new 15 to 20 kilometres wide demilitarised zone separating Syrian government forces and insurgent militias, the gap between Moscow and Ankara has become visible and is likely to broaden against the backdrop of their conflicting stances on the question of Idlib, which Damascus and the Kremlin hope to make the concluding chapter of the Syrian Civil War.

According to the buffer zone agreement, which is to go into effect 15 October, Turkish-backed militant and jihadist groups, such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, AKA Al-Qaeda in Syria, and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, are to leave that zone and hand over all heavy weapons by no later than 20 October.

Turkey, for its part, has pledged to guarantee that they will not undertake any provocative activities.

According to Geoffrey Aronson, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Turkey’s failure to isolate jihadist forces from the legitimate opposition has angered the Russians.

That they also believe that Turkey will continue to drag its feet on that score has led them to suggest that the agreement is only a temporary device, to force the Turks to make a choice: either fulfil your end of the bargain quickly, or deal with an immanent attack against Idlib.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erdogan backs down

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