As we continue our cycle of interviews, we had the pleasure of talking to İlkan Dalkuç, Turkish journalist and political commentator about the Middle East, Europe and Turkish policies after the reelection of Erdoğan. The interview was conducted by Denys Kolesnyk, a French Consultant and Analyst.
How would you characterize the developments and dynamics in the Middle East from the Turkish perspective?
As for Turkish foreign policy, there are a lot of serious issues and several challenges. For example, Türkiye is mainly a middle power with big ambitions. And in the end, as everybody talks about Türkiye, stresses a point that Türkiye is some sort of a bridge country, some sort of a middle ground, stuck in purgatory, an ambiguous ground from the foreign policy perspective, of course. But at the end of the day, Ankara wants to establish itself a role in the Middle East, Balkans and Caucasus.
But when we focus on the Middle East, it is worth highlighting that Türkiye is a nation-state. And since its nation-state identity, there are some obstacles and limitations with that identity because the Turkish state is essentially based on the identity of “Turkishness”. Contrary to the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish identity cannot easily comprehend and comprise the diverse identities of the Middle East.
Therefore, Ankara must find a ground to communicate and establish its policies and strategic values in the Middle East. For instance, when it is necessary to establish a connection between Türkiye and Israel, the connector so to say would be a secular identity and the threat of Islamism. The adoption of such a stance can help to find a common ground with Israel.
At the same time, when it is about finding common ground with Arab states, Türkiye should use its Islamic identity. When it comes to Iran, the Turkish state ought to rely more on its imperial identity to mimic the Iranian imperial identity. For instance, we can compare Rome to the Persians. But in the end, there are limitations and challenges to such a stance, because they have contradictions.
There are also structural issues in the Middle East for Türkiye, for instance, the Kurdish issue, which is an inter-state issue. The Kurdish issue is not an issue of Türkiye alone, since it also concerns Iran, Iraq, and Syria of course, and it’s an issue for Europe and the United States as well. Kurds today are a strategic factor in the Middle East and Türkiye is the state that has the most Kurdish population, therefore Ankara must find a way to comprehend and connect the Kurdish population, and that is the real challenge.
The challenge of the Kurdish issue is a classical issue of Turkish politics. In the last 10 years, we’ve been facing mainly two issues: the rising Islamic policies of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and those politics did not end up well. Actually, in the Syrian civil war, the AKP had great ambitions about its Islamic identity and its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood. The second issue is the immigration. For instance, 10 or 15 years ago, nobody would talk about the immigration issue in Türkiye. Unlike in Europe, this was not a hard topic in Türkiye in the 2000s.
Immigration has become a very serious issue since it is a problem of community, it’s a problem of racism, it’s a problem of identity, it’s a problem of economy, it’s a problem of housing prices, it’s a problem of food prices as well. Today it is also an issue of foreign policy since we have faced a similar border crisis as in Poland or Italy for example. Or even in Bulgaria and in Greece. Recently, Turkish opposition MPs showed how they could illegally bypass the Turkish border with Iran. They went in and out completely illegally and without any consequences to highlight that the border is only drawn on paper and anybody can cross it since it is virtually non-existent. And that’s something new for Türkiye.
To summarize, I would say that there are finally three key problems. Primero, is the Kurdish problem I have already touched upon. Secundo, is immigration, which is a new challenge. Tercero, is our problematic relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in the Middle East. I would probably add a fourth issue that is related to Turkish involvement in Syria and Iraq, but those involvements are also interconnected with the Kurdish issue.
Indeed, different problems your country faces. But, I wonder, will the Turkish policies evolve after the reelection of Erdoğan? Will it affect the issues you’ve talked about?
Erdoğan won the elections as you have rightly said, but to win those elections, he somehow lost as well, since he significantly diminished the resources Türkiye has at its disposal. And, for instance, it is not a secret that Türkiye is facing serious economic challenges.
But I’d like to stress an important thing, is that Erdoğan limits his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood. By doing so, he is getting closer with his former enemies, for instance, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which are the main targets and main enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and were against Erdoğan two or three years ago.
Even though he won the elections, he gained nothing for Türkiye, since the economy was crumbling, any significant advantage or leverage against Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates was obtained. He gained nothing.
But, those two Arab states I’ve just mentioned cannot gain any ground against Erdoğan either. It is some kind of a draw situation for both parties. And here we can also add Egypt, which has been against Erdoğan since the _coup d’état _in that country. And since Erdoğan came to his limits in the Middle East, agreed with those three states. And he made some concessions about the Muslim Brotherhood.
For example, there are a lot of members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were exiled from Egypt after the _coup d’état_ of Sisi against Morsi, against the Muslim Brotherhood. A lot of them have gained Turkish citizenship since. Hence, they are Turkish citizens with full rights, and they live in the Arab states with this Turkish identity.
But after those concessions, those agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, Erdoğan doesn’t stand behind the Muslim Brotherhood as enthusiastically as he did before, even though he still has sympathy for them. I am pretty sure he did not change his views, but in practice, he gave up most of his support of the Muslim Brotherhood. For instance, Muslim Brotherhood channels located in Istanbul lost their financial support and became subject to Erdoğan’s pressure.
After he was reelected, he gave up on some of his ambitions about Islamism in the Middle East. He gave up some of his support of the Muslim Brotherhood to improve the economic balance in Türkiye, Since there is huge inflation and a currency crisis, the economy is in very bad shape, to be honest.
Another important aspect I’d like to highlight about Erdoğan’s policies after his reelection is that he came to some moderate way and started certain transformations, even improving the relations with the West. The transformation of his policies in the Middle East also reflects his economic policies and his policies regarding Ukraine and Europe.
We can see a shift, not a radical one though, to the West. A certain leaning tendency. For instance, around six months ago, he became much closer to Western positions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I can easily say that. And it is not a small part of the picture, but a general one.
Erdoğan changed his position and he became more aligned with the West. And several appointments he made in his cabinet can also confirm what I say. For instance, Erdoğan appointed a pro-Western Mehmet Şimşek as a Minister of Treasury and Finance. He appointed a female central bank governor, Hafize Gaye Erkan, who came from a United States bank to Türkiye. And since we talk about strategic issues, he also appointed his intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, as a Foreign minister. And he has a very good grasp of how the West functions. Here we can add Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s spokesman, who was appointed to the National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Worth noting that Ibrahim Kalin is the US-educated and most pro-Western person in Erdoğan’s cabinet.
And when you see the general picture of his approach to the Middle East, to Ukraine, and also when we look at his new cabinet, there is an obvious shift from the Russian side to the Western side. Not an alliance, not a full commitment, but a shift, since Türkiye will never fully commit to the Western positions. But Ankara is much more pro-Western than a year ago, that’s what I can say for sure.
And it leads me to another question about the reintegration of Syria. How could you explain the reintegration of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria back into the Arab League? And what was the Turkish position and view on it?
That’s a very good question because Erdoğan’s repositioning doesn’t include Syria, since his main connection to Syria is the Russian regime. And since Russia is losing its ground, there is no power to force Erdoğan to a table with Bashar al-Assad. When Putin was more powerful, there was a chance to push Erdoğan to a table with Assad, maybe.
But today, I don’t see a real chance in Syria, because Erdoğan is repairing its relations with the United States. There is the US presence in Syria as we all know that. And here I mean the North-Eastern part of Syria, the Kurdish part of Syria is connected with the United States, while Erdoğan and Assad regimes are also connected with Russia. And since Moscow is losing its power, there is nothing to force Erdoğan to get closer to Bashar al-Assad. Besides, I am not very optimistic about a solution in Syria.
In other words, you don’t see any possibility or any driver to allow Türkiye to normalize its ties with Syria. At the same time, we all see that Saudi Arabia and the Middle Eastern countries started the normalization with Syria. But will Türkiye stay aside?
There are Middle Eastern powers who are normalizing with Syria. If the United States reach an understanding with Syria, there may be a way to force Erdoğan to normalize relations with Damascus. Without the support and pressure of the United States, even if Erdoğan diminishes its support to the Muslim Brotherhood, the normalization with Syria is very difficult. A lot of issues are crucial for Türkiye’s security there. We can talk about the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, and Iran, and the People’s Defense Units (YPG) position in Syria, which are perceived as a threat by the Turkish state. And I can easily say that the Erdoğan government won’t ever recognize the YPG’s sovereignty or suzerainty over certain parts of Syria.
Let’s talk about partnerships. How could you characterize the main economic and political partners of Türkiye in the Middle East and Europe?
Concerning the European Union (EU), Türkiye lost its main ally there after Brexit — the United Kingdom. Türkiye is a rival to France in many areas in Africa, including Mali, Niger, Libya, and Syria. While Germany is the main economic partner of Türkiye. And after the Covid crisis and the issues with China, Türkiye and Europe should form stronger economic ties, because they need each other in the de-globalization era. Eventually, Germany will remain the main partner for Ankara and it seems that the economic ties will even improve.
As for security issues, there are also challenges between Türkiye and the European countries. But since there is a common threat — Russia, a way can be found to come together and form better ties because even if there are differences, Türkiye and European states can talk in the same language, and they are a part of the same club. And we also share the same values to a certain extent. Here we also add strong people-to-people connections between the Turks and the Europeans. And we are much more connected today than 10 or 15 years ago.
We also have to say that there is a similarity between Russia and Türkiye — both have important ambitions. Russian ambitions, however, put this country in a difficult, I’d even say, fragile or even disastrous position. While Türkiye isn’t pushing an agenda providing for the invasion and occupation of a foreign country. Ankara wants to be in a system, to play according to the rules that exist in the world, not to be a rogue state Russia is. Türkiye is not a state like Iran or Russia which is challenging Western ideals, institutions and order directly. The point for Ankara is to challenge the system within the system.
Speaking of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, how did it influence Türkiye?
It is very sad to say that the Russian invasion of Ukraine benefited Erdoğan’s government. Because before the invasion we were talking about, for instance, human rights issues or that there are 300,000 people in jail in Türkiye, which is a huge number. For example, in Germany, there are four times fewer.
But when people are under bombardment, when people are dying under those bombs, the human rights issues in Türkiye are a secondary issue. No one is caring about those human rights issues right now and I cannot blame them. And, before this invasion, Erdoğan was cast aside from the Western Club, he was a lonely man in that club.
But after the invasion, even though Türkiye had problems, its economy was crumbling, etc., Türkiye had a significant army, a significant population, and still a significant economy. In other words, if you are facing Russia, you need the support of Türkiye. Hence, Erdoğan became an important leader and a significant partner of the West. In other words, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has significantly improved Erdoğan’s status and standing in the eyes of the West.
It made Erdoğan a partner of the West, it made him a more legitimate, more stable, more trustworthy partner. If see the whole picture from a historical point of view, Putin promised to be a stable and reliable leader of Russia, but he started to invade countries, he broke his promises on multiple occasions, but Erdoğan more or less keeps his promises, he is a strong leader, not a human rights activist for sure, but he is a stable leader in Türkiye. And from the foreign policy perspective, a stable leader in Türkiye is more than okay for the West.
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