The Unexpected Peacemaker: Steven Cook on Turkey's New Tactics
"Erdogan’s bid for regional leadership and his bullying tactics have run their course, and he’s cornered by a faltering economy and soft poll numbers. So he’s looking for a way out."
As much of the world remains focused on the war in Ukraine, one region—the Middle East—has recently experienced an unexpected flurry peacemaking, with longtime enemies holding face-to-face talks for the first time in years. At the center of almost all the activity is an unlikely figure: Turkey’s autocratic and combative president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After years of aggressively trying to dominate the region, Erdogan seems to have changed his mind—or at least his tactics. In recent weeks, he visited Riyadh and effectively dropped the murder trial of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. About a month earlier, he abandoned years of hostility toward Israel and played host to a visit by its president, Isaac Herzog. Erdogan has also traded visits with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates and opened talks with Egypt. To understand what’s motivating Turkey’s charm offensive and how power in the region is shifting, I turned to Steven Cook. A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Cook is an expert on both the Arab world and Turkey, with a deep understanding of the Middle East and relations between its major players. We talked about Erdogan’s motivation, Turkey’s economic crisis, the president’s uncertain health, and more.
Octavian Report: For years, scholars who favor a more restrained U.S. foreign policy have argued that if America withdrew from the Middle East, the players on the ground would be forced to find ways to live with one another. Does that explain what we’re seeing?
Steven Cook: As you say, foreign-policy realists, as they’re called, would argue that what’s happening today is exactly what they’ve long predicted. But I would argue that you need to look deeper into the countries in question to get a sense of what’s really happening. Take Turkey, which is driving a lot of this de-escalation. Erdogan’s bid for regional leadership and his bullying tactics have run their course, and he’s cornered by a faltering economy and soft poll numbers. So he’s looking for a way out. One way he’s doing that is by opening a dialogue with Gulf leaders in the hope that their sovereign wealth funds will then invest in the Turkish economy.
OR: Have Erdogan’s diplomatic maneuvers been backed by real action to address his neighbors complaints? For example, has he dropped his support for Islamist movements in places like Gaza and Egypt and abandoned his dream of becoming a regional hegemon? Or is it al just talk?
Cook: I have to believe that this is tactical maneuvering, not a strategic change—and certainly not permanent. There’s no indication whatsoever that Erdogan has dropped his belief that Turkey is the natural leader of the eastern Mediterranean and the Muslim world at large. But he has suffered setbacks at home, and this is his way of try to deal with those setbacks so that he can live to fight another day.
My sense is the other leaders in the region understand this fact, and are being cautious and only reengaging with Erdogan in order to gain leverage over him. That’s why the Emiratis have made a commitment to invest in Turkey, and why the Saudis have dropped their unofficial boycott of Turkish goods. And its why we haven’t yet seen the kind of flowering of relations that the Turks are hoping for.
OR: What about the Israelis? Israel once had a close strategic partnership with Turkey.
Cook: The Israelis don’t trust Erdogan. And the Turks are less interested in reconciliation with Israel for its own sake than they are in using reconciliation to try to improve their relationship with the United States.
OR: Is the United States also interested in improving the relationship?
Cook: The Turks have gained a reprieve in Washington, but that’s due to the Ukraine crisis. Ankara has sought to maintain relations with both Moscow and Kyiv. But Erdogan has been outspoken in his support for the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the Turks have supplied the Ukrainians with important weapons—especially armed TB2 drones, which have been very effective against Russian armor. That’s helped Turkey in Washington, where there has been a noticeable change in tone. Not so much from the administration, but with important members of Congress, who are now speaking openly about the possibility of selling Turkey new F-16s and upgrade kits for Turkey’s existing F-16s—something that Congress was quite cool to just six or seven months ago.
OR: Let’s talk more about those drones. It seems like every time one hears about a conflict these days—whether it’s Ukraine or the recent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia or the civil wars in Ethiopia or Libya—one inevitably finds that armed Turkish drones have played a starring role. Why is that? Turkey is hardly the world’s only drone exporter.
Cook: True, but the United States won’t sell its drones to certain countries, and Israeli drones are expensive, and Chinese drones aren’t that reliable. Turkish drones, by contrast, are reliable, relatively unexpensive, and lethal. Ever since Erdogan came to power in 2003, the Turks have been investing a lot in the development of their defense-industrial base. The TB2 drones are a manifestation of that investment.
OR: Do the drones represent an economic play, or are they to extend Turkey’s power and influence?
Cook: Both. Turkey has been investing in its domestic defense industry in order to increase its independence and protect itself from the kind of sanctions and embargos the United States and others have imposed on it over the years. Selling these drones around the world also boosts Turkey’s influence. It’s one of the reasons why the Saudis are interested in rapprochement—because the United States won’t sell the Saudis drones, for fear that the Saudis will use them in Yemen. The Turks have no problem with that. That’s another big part of the story here: that the Turks have been able to sell their drones around the world with no real accountability. The United States’ strategic priority right now is Ukraine, and the Turks have made themselves useful there, so Washington seems willing to look the other way.
OR: Russia has always wanted to be a player in the Middle East. And after years of absence, it returned in a big way in 2015, when it effectively became Bashar al-Assad’s air force. What effect is the war in Ukraine having on Russia’s ambitions in the region?
Cook: Putin’s intervention in 2015 to rescue Assad had a major impact on the thinking of local leaders. They thought it stood in stark contrast to the way in which the United States had dealt with Hosni Mubarak, America’s longtime ally in Egypt. As Arab leaders see it, Mubarak had carried American water in the Middle East for 30 years, to some political peril—yet during the Arab Spring, when people turned up in Tahrir Square to demand an end of the regime, it wasn’t long before President Barack Obama began demanding that Mubarak step down. When Assad got into trouble in Syria, on the other hand, Putin stepped in with his military to rescue him. The other leaders in the region may not have liked Assad, but they were impressed by Putin’s decisiveness and apparent competence. That mystique made it easier for the Russians to develop relations with the Gulf countries, with Turkey, and with Israel—which has needed the Russians to cooperate so that the Israelis can use their air force to conduct their shadow war against the Iranians in Syria.
The question now is, will Russia’s lame blitz into Ukraine impact the thinking of Middle Eastern leaders? It will be interesting to see if the Saudis and Emiratis and others begin to have second thoughts about Putin.
OR: American voters are currently very preoccupied with inflation, but the figure in the United States is eight or nine percent. In Turkey, it’s close to 70 percent. The lira has lost half its value in the last year, and unemployment is around 14 percent. Explain what’s caused Turkey’s economic crisis, and how Erdogan keeps making the problems worse.
Cook: Erdogan has sought to keep interest rates low, because he believes that low interest rates fuel growth. Cheap credit has indeed helped the Turkish economy, and it has broadened the middle class that has developed under Erdogan’s rule. The president is determined not to let rising rates affect the ability of his core supporters to live the comfortable lives that they’ve gotten used to. But the problem is that low interest rates tend to fuel inflation, and as inflation has ticked up, Erdogan has put tremendous pressure on the allegedly independent Turkish central bank to keep rates artificially low—which has sent a signal to the markets that Erdogan is not a good steward of the economy. That’s helped create a years-long run on the lira, which has lost significant amounts of its value, which has in turn further fueled inflation. So Erdogan’s efforts to shield Turks from the pain of rising rates has created a disastrous situation in which there’s been such a significant contraction of people’s wealth that a lot of Turks are now food insecure. If you are a low-income Turkish worker earning minimum wage, you’re actually doing less well now than you were when Erdogan came to power 20 years ago.
OR: Erdogan has also tried to blame Turkey’s economic problems on the CIA, Zionists, and George Soros, which hasn’t exactly helped investor confidence either.
Cook: For years now, Erdogan has used the United States, the CIA, Soros, CNN, Zionists, Islamophobes, and the so-called interest rate lobby to deflect attention from the shortcomings of his own economic decision-making. All of these villains get trucked out at moments of crisis, like the one we’re in now.
OR: Turkey’s economy has been in trouble for years, and people have been predicting its collapse for almost as long, yet it’s always muddled through. Will this time be different? Will Turkey’s economy actually collapse this time?
Cook: It’s funny that you ask that, because a few months ago I asked the same question to a Turkish economist, who answered, “It’s already happened—this is the collapse.” When you have this kind of runaway inflation and unemployment and people lining up for bread, those are signs of an economy that is not functioning. And because Erdogan refuses to do the things that are necessary to repair the economy, things are likely to get worse. I think that when people imagined a collapse, they pictured something quicker and more dramatic. But here we are at 70-plus-percent inflation, and people are out of work and food insecure.
OR: Turkey recently launched serious new military offensives against the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. Is Erdogan taking advantage of the fact that everyone is distracted by the war in Ukraine?
Cook: Yes. Turkey’s gotten positive press for its role in supporting Ukraine and for its potential as a mediator, which I think is a real thing—Erdogan does have more credibility with both sides than do other would-be mediators, if only because Erdogan has done business with Putin and refuses to sanction Russia. But at the same time, Erdogan is taking full advantage of that good press, and the fact that everybody’s really focused on Ukraine, to go after the Kurds. Remember that this is beginning of an extended electoral season in Turkey, leading up to the presidential election next year. Erdogan always benefits politically when he takes on the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) and groups linked to it, like the YPG in Syria—which also happens to be allied with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State. In fact, attacking the PKK and the YPG is a two-for-one. Erdogan is seen to take on genuine terrorists and separatists, and at the same time, he gets to take a swipe at the United States, which taps into the vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey.
OR: It’s still early days, but Erdogan currently ranks second in some polls. How serious is the threat to his reign?
Cook: Polls show that in a head-to-head race with Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas or Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Erdogan loses, and he loses to Yavas by a particularly significant margin. These findings are significant, but you’re right, it’s still quite early, and Erdogan has the ability to at least limit the damage of his economic mismanagement before the vote. He’s also shrewd, an excellent politician. Meanwhile, the opposition has a long history of doing stupid things that give the advantage to his Justice and Development Party (AKP). And then there are the intangibles, like will the Kurdish-based People’s Democracy Party (HDP) be closed, and what other kinds of electoral chicanery will the AKP attempt and get away with? It hasn’t been shy in the past about trying to use its domination of the state to get the electoral outcomes that it wants. It wasn’t successful in 2019, when it reran the Istanbul election. But it was successful in 2015, when the president didn’t like the outcome of the general election and Turkey reran the election and the Justice and Development Party got its parliamentary majority back. So there is precedent for interference in the political process.
OR: Rumors of Erdogan’s health problems have swirled for years, and he hasn’t looked well lately. Will he even be healthy enough to run next year?
Cook: I’m not a medical doctor, of course, so I have no real way to judge. But there have been a number of recent videos, most notably a Ramadan greeting broadcast on Turkish television, in which the president has not looked well; in that Ramadan greeting, he trails off and slurs his words. There have been other videos showing him having a very difficult time walking. He’s looked a bit better of late, but he’s had stomach cancer and surgery in the past.
So there’s a real possibility that he won’t be able to stand for re-election, which makes it useful to start thinking now about what happens if he can’t. What are the potential political outcomes if he can’t run or if he dies before the election? Will Turkey revert to normal politics, in which the AKP puts up another candidate to run against one of those other people I just mentioned? Or, after having been in power for 20 years, will the people who make up the AKP and have a vested interest in perpetuating the system Erdogan has engineered use a state of emergency or some other maneuver to prop up another AKP strongman? It’s important to think about all this now, and consider all the possibilities. Before the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, everyone thought he’d be succeeded either by his second son, Gamal Mubarak, or by his longtime intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. But in the end it was neither of them. So we just don’t know what will happen in Turkey, and we have to remember that.