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Will 2021 be the year of thaw in international relations for Turkey?

Commentary: President Erdogan has changed strategy and launched what some observers call a “charm offensive” in an attempt to reopen channels of dialogue with Western countries and the regional powers in the Middle East

In recent years, after the clumsy and misguided coup that attempted to overthrow him in 2016, Turkey’s President Erdogan has adopted increasingly extremist attitudes and internal and international policies that have practically isolated Turkey not only from its traditional NATO allies (of which it has been a partner since NATO’s foundation), but also from almost all of its geopolitical counterparts in the Middle East.

In his attempt to play a leading role in the games underway in the Mediterranean and Near East region, from Syria to Libya, passing through Nagorno-Karabakh, President Erdogan has given his country’s diplomacy an Islamist drift – based, in particular, on support for the fundamentalist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood – which if, on the one hand, has strengthened him internally, on the other has led him to make more enemies than he could reasonably bear.

The peak of Turkey’s international isolation was blatantly shown in October last year when, after the brutal murder in France of Professor Samuel Paty, beheaded in the street by a Muslim extremist of Azeri origin because he was “guilty” of having exposed the infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons on Mohammed in the classroom, President Macron lashed out at those who, “in the shadow of Mohammed”, were fanning the flames of radical Islamism in France with the aim of stirring up young Muslims and encouraging them to convert their anger at social and economic marginalization into religious strife.

On the orders of the French President, the security forces began investigating and conducting carpet searches in the French Salafist circles controlled by some three hundred Turkish Imams who had settled in France.

Macron’s words and the initiatives of the French security forces against Islamic fundamentalism in France unleashed the wrath of the Turkish President who did not hesitate to call his French colleague “a brain-dead” who treated Muslims in France “like Jews were treated in Hitler’s Germany”.

President Erdogan’s words have added fuel to the fire of the already difficult relations between France and the minority of Salafists active in the country: a few days after Erdogan’s public statements, a young Tunisian in Nice killed three people shouting “Alla akhbar” in the cathedral of Nice.

At that juncture, France recalled its Ambassador from Ankara, freezing its relations with a country that for decades had been considered a solid commercial, political and military partner.

At the end of 2020, Turkey’s international relations hit the lowest ebb in recent history.

Even justified claims such as the request to redefine the sea borders with Greece have ceased to be supported by European diplomats, while activism in Libya to support the President of the “Government of National Accord” (GNA), imposed by the United Nations but supported by Islamist militias, has put Ankara on a collision course with Russia and Egypt which, in turn, have sided with the “secular” warlord of Cyrenaica, Khalifa Haftar.

At the end of last year, a country like Turkey which, owing to its pragmatism in foreign policy, had not only been considered worthy of belonging to NATO, but also considered a reliable and credible partner for decades by Europe and the United States, found itself in total isolation at international level and in great difficulties at national level, due to the effects of the pandemic and a creeping economic crisis.

It is probably against this background that, since the beginning of this year, President Erdogan has changed strategy and launched what international observers have called the “charm offensive”, in an attempt to reopen the channels of dialogue between Turkey and Western countries and the regional powers in the Middle East (from Israel to Egypt, from Saudi Arabia to the Emirates) – a dialogue that had been frozen due to the reckless and ill-considered decision to support, always and in any case, the Muslim Brotherhood.

After starting a secret channel of cooperation with Israel in an attempt to find a solution to the small-scale civil war over Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Turkey, with Israel’s “clandestine” support, successfully supported the reasons of the Azerbaijani Muslim Turkmen, to the detriment of the Christian Armenian majority, President Erdogan decided to reopen relations with Egypt.

After eight years of strained or absent relations, Turkey has reopened the door to dialogue with Egypt under the banner of a “Realpolitik” which President Erdogan seemed to have forgotten.

Since 2013, when General Al Sisi overthrew the government of President Morsi – the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the winner of the 2012 elections – President Erdogan had repeatedly called him “a murderer” and “a tyrant”. Relations between the two countries had cooled definitively when the Turkish President had blatantly given refuge and political asylum to all Morsi’s aides and collaborators and to all members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had fled to Turkey to escape repression.

On March 12, 2021, in a surprise statement, President Erdogan admitted at a press conference that he had “taken diplomatic steps” to achieve “reconciliation with Egypt”.

Foreign Minister Melvut Cavusoglu confirmed that change of policy line saying that “after years of hostility and mutual distrust…time had come to gradually restart contacts with Egypt”.

According to diplomatic sources, there are two main reasons that have convinced the Turkish President to change his attitude towards his (probably former) rival Al Sisi.

The first one can be traced back to Turkey’s total and by now suffocating isolation in the entire Mediterranean and Middle East region.

The second one is much more practical and pragmatic: the possibility of discussing with Egypt a new definition of Turkey’s maritime borders in the Mediterranean could enable Turkey to negotiate – from a more solid position – the “12 miles” problem and enable it to extend, within acceptable limits, the borders of territorial waters, currently “strangled” and chocked by the Greek islands’ proximity to the Turkish coast.

According to the Turkish government, a Turkey-Egypt agreement on maritime borders could lead to a further agreement on the same subject with Israel, useful for the joint exploitation of the underwater gas fields off Cyprus, Egypt and Israel.

According to very reliable and qualified sources, the Head of the Turkish Secret Service (MIT), General Hakan Fidan, has received direct orders from President Erdogan to re-establish contacts and relations (interrupted since 2013) with the Egyptian Secret Service, the Mukhabarat Al Amma.

Thanks to the personal commitment of the Emir of Qatar, Tamin Ben Hamad al Thani, who is President Erdogan’s last ally remaining in the region, the MIT has established contacts with Egyptian colleagues in early March this year and, as a gesture of cooperation towards Egypt, Turkish security authorities have placed thirty Egyptian “Muslim Brothers”, who had taken refugees in Turkey, under strict security control in view of their possible extradition.

Meanwhile, Turkish authorities have asked the three Egyptian TV channels “hosted” in Turkey, namely the Al ShaqMekamleen and Watan networks – to tone down their criticism against the Egyptian government and stop insulting Egyptian President Al Sisi. The three channels have abruptly been asked to “revise their editorial policies” if they want to Keep on enjoying Turkish hospitality.

According to Saudi press sources, many members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have taken refuge in Turkey have allegedly been placed under house arrest.

The back bench diplomacy put in place by President Erdogan through the MIT is beginning to bear fruit: the contacts between Fidan and his Egyptian counterpart, General Abbas Kamel, have led to an agreement in Libya that has favored the appointment of Abdelhamid Dabaiba as President of the “Government of National Accord” to replace the now discredited Fayez Al Sarraj.

Also thanks to the behind-the-scenes commitment of the Turkish and Egyptian secret services, under the vigilant supervision of the Israeli Mossad, President Erdogan’s “charm offensive” is beginning to bear fruit and, after years of ill-considered, reckless and adventurist moves, it will probably bring Turkey back to the negotiating table, after relinquishing Muslim fundamentalism, thus contributing to the search for the “thaw” in international relations that the world needs to repair the huge damage caused by the pandemic.

Giancarlo Elia Valori