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From Zero Problems with Neighbors to Zero Friends

How Turkey’s foreign policy failed.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Barack Obama David Cameron
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, President Barack Obama of the United States and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom observe a moment of silence during the G20 summit in Antalya, November 15, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

Ten years ago, Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy was all the rage. I went so far as to predict Ahmet Davutoğlu, the foreign minister at the time, could be remembered as the architect of Turkey’s return to preeminence in the Middle East.

Miguel Nunes Silva saw things more clearly, writing for the Atlantic Sentinel in 2012 that Turkey’s policy of antagonizing its allies and befriending its rivals merited little praise.

Turkish appeasement of Bashar Assad and Muammar Gaddafi meant little when those dictators turned their guns on their own people. Turkish appeasement of Iran was rewarded by unwavering Iranian support for Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Assad in Syria, two strongmen Turkey opposed.

Silva also recognized the on-again, off-again nature of Turkish diplomacy with Russia, which has only grown worse. Turkey and Russia back opposite sides in the Syrian War. Turkey even shot down a Russian attack aircraft near its border in 2015. Yet Turkey has also bought missile defense systems from Russia and is helping Russia build a natural gas pipeline into Europe that circumvents Ukraine. Both decisions were strongly opposed by Turkey’s nominal NATO allies. The United States kicked Turkey out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

To form, Turkey has also allowed the construction of a competing European pipeline from Azerbaijan to Greece. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan still — somehow — convinced his American counterpart, Donald Trump, to withdraw from Syria, clearing the way for him to invade and attack the Kurds.

Trump’s memory may be short. He responded with sanctions on Turkish officials and tariffs on steel, which he respectively lifted and halved only a week later. But not everyone is so forgiving. Turkey’s tendency to play all sides, far from giving it more freedom in foreign policy, has hamstrung its diplomacy. It now has to use force to get its way.

Arab world

Turkey saw the so-called Arab Spring as an opportunity. At the time the country was still a genuine democracy and it seemed to have found a way to marry it with Islam.

But Erdoğan wasn’t content for Turkey to be an inspiration. He wanted leadership. He sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt when it took power from the military-backed Hosni Mubarak. He deliberately dialed down Turkish relations with Israel in an attempt to win legitimacy in the Arab world. He threw his support behind the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in the 2008-09 Gaza War.

These all turned out to be strategic miscalculations.

Egypt’s generals only allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power so it could fail. The Islamists, suppressed for decades, predictably overreached, alarming secular Egyptians, liberals and Copts. Inexperienced, they were unable to prevent an economic collapse. Within a year, the military was back in charge, supported by the wealthy monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

The same alliance plus Russia is aligned against Turkey in Libya, where the former support the warlord Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of the country and its oil industry. Erdoğan has sent pro-Turkish Syrian fighters to North Africa in a last-ditch attempt to save the coalition government in Tripoli, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood. He and Russian president Vladimir Putin have agreed a truce, but it remains to be seen if their allies and proxies in Libya will obey it.

Greece and Israel

In return for Turkey’s support, the Tripoli government has agreed to a maritime border treaty that cedes a swath of the Mediterranean to Ankara. It ignores Cypriot and Greek claims and doesn’t have the support of any other power in the region nor Turkey’s Western allies.

This looks like another desperate attempt, in this case to stop Cyprus, Greece and Israel from developing newly-found natural gasfields in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish diplomacy failed to prevent a deal between the three countries, so Erdoğan is resorting to strong-arm tactics.

Greece and Turkey have had hostile relations going back to the Ottoman era. Turkey invaded majority-Greek Cyprus in 1974 to prop up the Turkish minority on the island, which has been divided ever since. Border disputes in the Aegean Sea remain unresolved.

But Turkey had good relations with Israel until Erdoğan ruined them. He used an incident at sea in 2010 as a pretext for breaking off diplomatic relations. Nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos that year when they tried to break the Gaza blockade. Despite a formal reconciliation in 2016, Erdoğan had kept up the anti-Israel rhetoric.

His offensive against the Kurds in Syria, with whom the Israelis sympathize, hasn’t helped.


Erdoğan’s scapegoating of Turkey’s own Kurds has been the final straw for many Europeans, who were skeptical of his “Muslim democracy” from the start.

When his party lost its majority in the 2015 election, in part because a Kurdish-led left-wing party cleared the 10 percent electoral threshold for the first time, far from accepting the need for compromise, Erdoğan pulled out of ceasefire talks with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party and launched a wide-scale repression of all Kurdish nationalists. Political leaders were jailed. Militant leaders were killed. In reelections five months later, Erdoğan restored his absolute majority in the National Assembly.

When soldiers attempted to overthrow Erdoğan a year later, still he refused to recognize he had pushed Turkey to the brink. Rather, Erdoğan used the failed coup as an excuse to jail remaining critics in the armed forces and the media.

Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country. A correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper was jailed for a year but never charged with a crime. He claims to have been tortured.

Turkish intelligence is believed to have thousands of informants in Germany alone, which has close to 1.5 million dual German-Turkish citizens. Its attempts to influence ethnic Turks in Germany as well as the Netherlands have aggravated those governments. Erdoğan called them “Nazis” when they refused to allow him and members of his party to campaign in the Turkish diaspora. He has repeatedly threatened to blow up a migrant deal with Europe, under which Turkey prevents refugees from crossing the Aegean Sea. Erdoğan refused to help his allies defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, whose rise Turkey abetted by allowing foreign fighters and weapons to cross its border into Syria between 2012 and 2014, when Erdoğan’s hope was to topple Assad, and whose atrocities contributed to the 2015-16 refugee crisis.

European politicians now openly question Turkey’s membership of NATO. Membership of the EU, formally still on the table, is out of the question so long as Erdoğan remains in power.

Enemies everywhere

Erdoğan has been fighting Turkey’s secular deep state all his career, from when he was forced out as mayor of Istanbul and imprisoned for four months in 1999 to an alleged military coup plot, codenamed Sledgehammer, in the early 2000s to an actual putsch in 2016.

Combine a persecution complex with Erdoğan’s desire to make Turkey great again and you get a bully who trusts no one. Treat everyone as an enemy and you’re bound to make some.