Support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has decreased significantly, initially due to millions of Turks struggling with poverty as a result of high inflation, and later from earthquake victims questioning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over its poor response to the disaster. Despite his declining popularity among Turkish citizens, Erdoğan appears unfazed, continuing to establish one-man rule in the country and forging complex relationships with leaders from powerful nations such as England, Germany, Russia, Qatar and Israel.
Ironically, the Turkish government has faced global isolation since Erdoğan began pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. He is the first Turkish leader to deviate from the approach of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey who advocated a “Peace at home, peace in the world” foreign policy. In stark contrast, Erdoğan has ordered the Turkish army to engage in combat operations in conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region as well as establishing permanent military bases in Qatar and Somalia. Erdoğan’s military activities and serious human rights violations, particularly since a coup attempt on July 15, 2016, have isolated Turkey from the democratic world. Middle Eastern countries have opposed Erdoğan’s expansionist and aggressive foreign policy. However, other major powers and international organizations have either supported Erdoğan’s anti-democratic practices or remained silent for the past decade.
Despite Turkey’s turbulent relations with the European Union, Angela Merkel, who served as Germany’s chancellor from November 2005 to December 2021, worked closely with Erdoğan. “I have always said that our collaboration was very good in the years that I worked with Mr. Erdoğan. … The relationship between Turkey and Germany, with its negative and positive sides, will go on. It will be recognized by the next government,” Merkel told reporters during her last visit to Erdoğan in İstanbul in October 2021. Additionally, Merkel helped resolve some issues between Erdoğan and Washington as well as between Erdoğan and French President Emmanuel Macron, according to Arab News.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz continued his predecessor Merkel’s Ankara policy by visiting the Turkish capital in March 2022, just a few months after taking office. Although the German government remains critical of Erdoğan’s human rights violations, Europe’s largest economy aims to maintain strong bilateral trade with Turkey and is grateful to Erdoğan for hosting nearly 4 million Syrian refugees. Thousands of Syrians attempt to enter Europe from Turkey, but Erdoğan has managed the migration influx to the continent. Furthermore, Germany views Turkey as an important NATO member.
In an unusual series of events, Russian President Vladimir Putin became a key supporter of Erdoğan after Turkey downed a Russian jet on the border with Syria in 2015. At the time Putin stated that Russian pilots posed no threat to Turkey and called the incident “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists,” referring to Turkey’s support for Syrian rebel groups. The Russian government vowed to expose the Erdoğan family’s alleged oil trade with ISIS in retaliation, but such threats never materialized. Surprisingly, even the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, in December 2016 by Mevlut Mert Altintas, a young Turkish policeman who had close ties to Erdoğan’s Islamist circle, did not prevent Erdoğan and Putin from developing a close relationship.
It seems that Putin shifted his strategy from punishing Erdoğan to keeping him close. Despite strong opposition from the US and the threat of military sanctions due to the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO, the Turkish government purchased Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. Soon after the ambassador’s assassination, Turkey began conducting joint patrols with Russia in Syria. Although Erdoğan had supported rebels and jihadists since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, Putin convinced him to seek peace with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Erdoğan government has been extending an olive branch to Assad since last year.
Furthermore, the Erdoğan government did not join Western sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. According to recent statistics, Turkey has led the world in exports to Russia since the beginning of the conflict in February 2022. Russian oligarchs and anti-war Russians began moving to Turkey just after the start of the war since Turkey has refused to enforce sanctions on Russia.
Erdoğan has also established close ties with the United Kingdom. The UK government remains the only major Western power that has not criticized Erdoğan’s human rights violations following the 2016 coup attempt and has, in fact, made statements supporting the Erdoğan government. Erdoğan’s rule is important for the UK in the MENA region. The UK government thanked Erdoğan for a grain export deal with Russia, and the UK does not oppose Turkey’s direct military operations in Syria since Turkish forces are limiting the movement of Russian and Assad forces in northwestern Syria. The UK sees Turkey as a reliable military force from the Black Sea to Somalia. During a telephone conversation Erdoğan assured Britain’s King Charles III that Turkey and the UK would continue to develop a strategic partnership and strengthen cooperation in various fields.
Israel is another strategic country that values its relations with Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s AKP withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv following the Mavi Marmara incident, in which eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed by Israeli commandos on board a ship that was part of an aid flotilla attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza on May 31, 2010. However, Turkey restored relations with Israel in March 2016. Tensions over Jerusalem in 2017 and the Land Day protests in 2018 resulted in at least 32 Palestinians killed and thousands injured. Despite these events, Turkey and Israel managed to re-establish ties. Israel’s President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey in March 2022, and both countries reappointed their ambassadors in August of the previous year. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s visit to Turkey in October 2022 marked the final stage in the normalization between the two nations before they signed several defense agreements. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel views Turkey as an increasingly important military power and key energy partner in the Mediterranean.
The United States, the world’s most powerful nation, has also displayed an opportunistic approach towards Erdoğan, which has contributed to the extended rule of the AKP. Former President Donald Trump maintained a close relationship with Erdoğan, largely due to his business interests in Turkey. Trump allowed Erdoğan to target Kurdish forces in Syria in 2019. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has remained relatively silent regarding Erdoğan’s human rights violations in Turkey and Turkey’s attacks in Syria, possibly to avoid provoking Erdoğan during this critical period since Erdoğan is hindering Sweden’s NATO accession process.
Qatar is another country that has been heavily investing in Turkey and hosts a Turkish military base in Doha. Rumors suggest that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has been funding Turkey’s military operations in Syria and Libya and providing financial assistance to Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s AKP has been responsible for serious human rights violations both inside Turkey and in various parts of the world since 2011. The AKP unlawfully purged over 100,000 civil servants from key state institutions, took control of the judiciary and imprisoned pregnant women, children and the sick elderly as part of a post-coup purge. The Erdoğan government also shut down critical media outlets and workers unions, effectively silencing opposition voices in recent years. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN have reported extensively on the activities during Erdoğan’s anti-democratic rule. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has refused to recognize Turkish elections as free and fair since 2015. Turkish journalists living in exile such as Cevheri Güven have detailed in YouTube videos how Erdoğan is preparing for potential vote rigging in the upcoming May 14 elections.
Turkey is no longer regarded as a role model for the MENA region due to Erdoğan’s iron-fisted rule. However, major European powers, along with Putin, seem to prefer Erdoğan’s one-man rule for their national interests. Despite diminishing popularity and support at home, Erdoğan may manage to remain in power thanks to international backing.