Turkey’s New Regime under Erdoğan: Implications for the Arab World

In taking the oath of office on July 9, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first Turkish president under the new regime where all duties of the prime minister are transferred to the president, the long-standing parliamentary system is abolished, and increasing authority over the judiciary and military is granted to the presidential office. Erdoğan’s ever strong hand to shape Turkish foreign policy, however, should be analyzed in the context of the rise of Turkish nationalists in the parliament—the key institution to check presidential powers in the new regime. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) has lost the majority in parliament (295 out of 600) while its electoral ally, the Turkish Nationalist Action party (MHP), remarkably has increased its seats to 49 and become a key player. In this new order, the parliament still enjoys constitutional power to influence foreign policy decisions, such as allowing foreign military bases on Turkish territory and sending Turkish troops outside the country’s borders. Erdoğan also gave the signal to allocate ministry positions for MHP leaders in the new cabinet—which would bolster the bureaucratic power of Turkish nationalists in state institutions.

Thus, in the new era, Turkey’s regional policies will be heavily influenced by Erdoğan’s alliance with the Turkish nationalists, who may be expected to accommodate his aspirations to become a regional leader with influence in the Arab world in return for a commitment to continue the war against the Syrian Kurds along Turkey’s borders. Three policy areas are likely to remain of central importance: (1) Turkey’s changing relations with the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition; (2) Turkey’s strategy to seek its financial interests in an era of a deepened Gulf crisis and domestic economic troubles at home; and (3) Erdoğan’s aspirations to be perceived as a leader of Muslim defiance, especially of Turkey’s relations with Israel and Palestine.

1. Turkey’s Syria Conundrum

Although Erdoğan’s AKP and the Turkish nationalist MHP overlap in their belligerent approach toward the Syrian Kurds, their relations with the Syrian opposition have long been a point of divergence. The MHP has repeated its discontent with the AKP’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian jihadi groups, finding such alliances detrimental to Turkey’s national interests. Further, for MHP leaders, the AKP’s regime change efforts in Syria have been unwarranted. The difference between the electoral constituencies of the AKP and MHP is their approach to the Syrian refugee issue. MHP voters perceive the 3.5 million refugees from Syria as cheap foreign labor and allege that this is the cause of rising unemployment among Turkish youth—and thus, blame the AKP for its obsession to change the Syrian regime and the failure of this effort.

Idlib will be The first test to assess the Turkish nationalists’ influence on Turkey’s Syria policy.

Most remarkably, with an understanding of the heightened resentment against the Syrian refugees, Erdoğan’s electoral victory speech reiterated that the refugees would be relocated back to Syria as Turkey’s military operations continue “to liberate” Syrian territories. Erdoğan’s strategy to relocate Syrian refugees, however, may invite serious challenges, especially the Assad regime’s recent advancements in southern Syria, and therefore, Damascus’s increasing demand to claim northern Syrian territories. Sending millions of refugees back to insecure Syria is an impossible mission, unless the Turkish government would be willing to engage militarily with Damascus—with Russian acquiescence—to defend its zones of influence. Although the MHP will likely back Erdoğan’s war on Syrian Kurds, Turkish nationalist support for a direct war with the Assad regime is unlikely to materialize.

The first test to assess the Turkish nationalists’ influence on Turkey’s Syria policy will be the case of Idlib. On July 3, Ankara warned Damascus that Idlib is “the red line” for Turkey and that it would respond in kind to a potential military assault. Erdoğan is primarily concerned about the loss of leverage in shaping northern Syria’s future, especially if the opposition is crushed in Idlib province, where Turkey administers half its territory with 12 observatory posts––created as part of the Astana, Kazakhstan negotiations for establishing de-escalation zones––and aims to separate moderate opposition from the al-Qaeda elements. The Turkish nationalists’ primary concern, rather, focuses on the mass exodus of refugees: if the Assad regime attacks Idlib, a wave of refugees would be pushed inside Turkey’s border cities. The uneasy reality for Erdoğan is that the MHP has been benefiting from public anxiety about Syrian refugees and the deterioration of the Turkish economy, whereas the MHP has offered no substantial policy recommendations. Thus, if Turkey’s plans for Idlib fail and the Turkish economy worsens, Turkish nationalists will only increase their criticism of Erdoğan’s close alliance with the Syrian rebels.

2. Turkey’s Economy and the Gulf

In the new era, Erdoğan’s reassessment of Turkey’s Gulf policy and Ankara-Cairo relations deserves close attention. The June 2017 blockade against Qatar and the ensuing Gulf crisis have strained Turkey’s ability to enjoy good transactional relations with all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. The MHP’s leadership, including party deputy Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu––who earlier served as the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation––called for Turkey’s neutrality in the Gulf crisis and for opening a new chapter with Egypt.

Attracting more investments from the Gulf region could move Erdoğan’s position on the Gulf crisis in a neutral direction.

Erdoğan’s visits to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, before the crisis, had given Ankara hope for receiving financial investment packages from key Gulf states without forfeiting its warm relations with Doha. After the Gulf crisis began, however, Turkey not only provided key support for Qatar but also engaged in regional activism that heightened tensions in Ankara-GCC relations. Turkey’s increasing military involvement in the Red Sea region, for example, has recently become a sensitive issue for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Such steps have also disturbed Turkey’s already soured relations with Egypt.

A potential factor that could move Erdoğan’s position in a neutral direction in the Gulf crisis—reducing Turkish military presence in the Red Sea and opening channels of dialogue with Egypt—is Turkey’s financial need. Attracting more investments from the Gulf region may help Erdoğan to reestablish the confidence of international markets in Turkey. Despite the Turkish government’s attempt to keep growth rates up by pumping cash into the economy, the value of the Turkish lira has plummeted and the inflation rate has reached over 15 percent. The lira’s loss of value (about 20 percent in the past year) and rising unemployment among Turkish youth are alarm bells for the government. Turkey’s banking sector is increasingly fragile; a major fine by the US Treasury—to punish the Turkish state bank, Halkbank, for violating Iran sanctions—hovers over financial quarters. Moreover, Erdoğan has promised to take direct control of the economy in the new presidential system, aiming to keep interest rates lower at the expense of the Turkish Central Bank’s risk-averse decisions. Such statements, as well as the president’s interference in the affairs of the Central Bank, caused further panic for foreign investments and raised major questions about Erdoğan’s ability to grasp the true financial consequences of his decisions.

Another key issue that will shape the future of Turkey-GCC relations is Turkish policy toward Iran. If Ankara, once again, aims to reap economic benefits from US sanctions against the Islamic Republic, Washington may exert punitive measures to change Turkish behavior. This may embitter relations between the GCC countries and Turkey. Following the election victory, Erdoğan’s government vowed to ignore the sanctions regime despite the Trump Administration’s declared intent to impose sanctions against all importers of Iranian oil.

3. Erdoğan and the Question of Palestine

Many citizens in the Arab world view Erdoğan’s electoral victory as bolstering his image as the revolutionary Muslim leader who stands up to the United States and Israel. His initial popularity, due to the fall of the “Turkish model” that combined Islam and liberal democratic values with a free market economy, has waned. In the past few years, however, the Trump Administration’s inconsistent policies over the Palestine question have provided Erdoğan an opportunity to revive his fading image in the Arab world and beyond. By hosting an extraordinary summit in Istanbul—when President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017––to gather Muslim majority nations, and declaring his plan to establish an embassy in East Jerusalem, Erdoğan successfully benefited from Turkey’s self-proclaimed guardian role for Palestine.

Turkey’s regional policy will be predicated on both the ideological and pragmatic calculations of the new alliance between Erdoğan’s AKP and the nationalists’ MHP.

There are strong signs that tense relations between Turkey and Israel will intensify in the near future. A few weeks ago, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv as a response to Israel’s violence against Palestinians in Gaza. On July 6, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu warned Israel not to take retaliatory measures against Turkish citizens who travel to Jerusalem and stated that relations would normalize only “when Israel stops its inhumane policies,” vowing to retaliate if Israel continues arresting Turkish citizens. Israel’s response has not been one of reconciliation; in fact, its National Security Council drafted a list of measures against the operations of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Erdoğan’s leadership role for the Palestinian cause is challenged not only by Israel but also by some Arab leaders. According to a recent report, senior officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have warned Israel on separate occasions about Turkey’s increasing clout in East Jerusalem. The three have different reasons to oppose what they see as Erdoğan’s encroachment in the city. Riyadh would very much like to limit how much leverage the Turkish president could have on a clearly Arab national and Islamic concern, especially since this could boost his popularity in the region. Amman has concerns about competition from Ankara for Jordan’s traditional authority over Jerusalem’s religious sites. And Ramallah would obviously rather not allow Erdoğan, Hamas’s powerful ally, to have a say over East Jerusalem, the PA’s central issue.

How Free is Erdoğan in Determining Turkey’s Foreign Policy?

In this new era, Turkey’s regional policy will be predicated on both the ideological and pragmatic calculations of the new alliance between Erdoğan’s AKP and the nationalists’ MHP. Ideologically, the two are at odds: the AKP wants to hold on to a degree of neo-Ottoman vision with an Islamist background, whereas the MHP has an idiosyncratic combination of Turkish nationalism and Eurasianism––a conscious and strong reversion to Kemalism and secularism. On the pragmatic front, Erdoğan has proved to be a realist policy-maker who deeply cares about domestic economic trends, unlike the rigidity of MHP leaders. Erdoğan’s call for early elections, originally scheduled for November 2019, was meant to hit the opposition off guard and to produce a strong presidency with a parliamentary majority to address the economic situation. However, the election outcome may have further increased Erdoğan’s dependence on the MHP, diminishing the ruling party’s maneuvering ability in parliament.

It remains to be seen how far Erdoğan may act pragmatically in both domestic and foreign policy fronts, while relying on the Turkish nationalist MHP. What is known is that in the past three years, the AKP-MHP alliance has led to the derailment of Turkey’s Kurdish peace process and caused a shift in its foreign policy. Turkey’s pivot to Russia and Iran, and away from its traditional pro-western orientation, indicates a signature policy change. In fact, no one could have imagined that warming relations between Turkey and Iran would quickly turn into a strategic partnership against the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Ankara has signed new major contracts for Iranian oil and gas apparently without giving much thought to its best and lucrative economic partner, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.

Turkey’s coordination with Russia and Iran about the de-escalation zones in Syria is another area that was hardly imaginable three years ago, following Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter in 2015. Erdoğan’s rhetoric critical of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has also almost disappeared. What in fact characterizes Turkish policy in Syria today is a heavy dose of self-protection against the Kurds but a reduced commitment to the Syrian opposition interested in and working for regime change in Damascus.

As for relations with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Erdoğan may fathom a more neutral stance given his efforts to rectify the ills of the Turkish economy. This is likely to affect how Turkey deals with Egypt as well. In both aspects—neutrality in the GCC and in relations with Egypt—Turkish foreign policy may skew more toward what the MHP may prefer. Finally, both Israel’s de facto control over all of Jerusalem and the Arab world’s apprehension of Turkey’s role in Palestinian matters may hinder how successful Erdoğan will be in exploiting a central Arab and Islamic cause for Turkey’s benefit. One thing is clear, however: the MHP will influence and have a say in all of these regional issues in Turkey’s foreign policy.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here