The limits and detriments of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's one-man rule are becoming increasingly clear. Under Turkey's new executive presidential system, Erdogan has faced a barrage of crises. Turkey's shaky alliance with Russia has shown signs of strain, and its relations with the United States have continued to falter. U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, in fact, stands ready to impose more sanctions on Turkey if Erdogan's government fails to release American detainees by mid-October. For the beleaguered Turkish economy, the additional sanctions could be crippling — though in the meantime, Erdogan continues to pressure the central bank not to raise interest rates, against the recommendations of his economic advisers. The net result of Ankara's posture has been the devaluation of the national currency, the lira, by about half this year.
Given the costs of his foreign and economic policies, Erdogan's recalcitrant stance and obstreperous persona on the international stage seem to run counter to Turkey's interests. But not to Erdogan's. The Turkish president is acting out of little more than a desire to appear strong and to defy perceived opponents, including allies. His objective is to preserve his image at home as a leader who can overcome any problem and thwart any challenge to Turkey's global ambitions.
Diverging Interests in Syria
The Tehran summit, a meeting on Sept. 7 between Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders to discuss the Syrian civil war, revealed the rifts among the three participating countries. As Syrian government forces, with support from Russia and Iran, prepare for an impending military operation on the last rebel stronghold in Idlib, Turkey fears that a fresh wave of refugees will cross its borders to flee the offensive. It is also concerned that the operation will destroy the Free Syrian Army, a rebel outfit Turkey has been supporting in an effort to prevent Kurdish forces from establishing an autonomous region. With these issues in mind, Erdogan proposed a cease-fire in Idlib to halt the attacks on rebel forces. But Russia is eager to end the Syrian civil war by eliminating the insurgent forces and restoring control of all territory in the country to President Bashar al Assad. As a result, Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected and mocked Erdogan's suggestion at the summit, in front of video cameras broadcasting the event live.
Erdogan, in turn, has warned of "consequences" for the Idlib offensive. The threat, however, is an empty one. Turkey will not fight back against Syrian government forces because Russia and Iran support them. In addition, Moscow controls the skies over Idlib. The United States, meanwhile, has signaled that its only red line on the Idlib battle is the use of chemical weapons. Turkey has a lot at stake in Syria, whether in the number of refugees coming across its border, in the threat of Kurdish separatist movements or in the economic opportunities that postwar reconstruction has to offer Turkish companies. But in the drama unfolding around Idlib, Ankara will probably face a scenario where al Assad reasserts his authority over Syria with no guarantee that his government will consider how its actions affect Turkey.
Reacting to these developments, Erdogan has blasted the United States and its support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units, also known by its Kurdish initials as the YPG, which it blames entirely for Turkey's failures in Syria. The move is intended only to satisfy the Turkish public and to portray Erdogan as a principled and steadfast leader. In the process, though, it has ensured that Turkey cannot achieve its desired goals in Syria, while isolating Ankara from the United States and Russia alike.
Room for Reconciliation With Washington?
Turkey may still be able to turn its relationship with the United States around if it heeds the Trump administration's calls to free the Americans Ankara has detained. The case of Andrew Brunson — an American pastor arrested in Turkey nearly two years ago in the wake of the country's failed military coup — is of particular interest to Trump and to his evangelical support base. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for mid-October, at which time Ankara is expected to release Brunson. Judicial officials recently replaced the judge overseeing Brunson's case, suggesting that Erdogan is working to facilitate his release. Brunson, however, is just one of the detained U.S. citizens whose release Washington has demanded. (For that matter, the detainees are but one of several issues straining the U.S.-Turkish alliance, including Ankara's plans to purchase the Russian-made S-400 air defense missile system.)
The U.S. citizens' arrests, with no credible evidence to support them, were political from the start; Erdogan believed that he could use the captives as a bargaining chip against Washington. By holding out so long on the Brunson case, and those of the other American detainees, Erdogan demonstrated his strength against U.S. pressure while also sending domestic audiences the message that the Turkish judiciary remains independent. But now that the Trump administration has threatened unprecedented sanctions on Turkey, Erdogan's back is up against a wall. Ankara is quickly running out of options to maintain its credibility on the global stage and to salvage its domestic economy. Though it has tried palliative measures, such as rhetorical overtures to convince the European Union of its enduring interest in joining the bloc, these are impulsive rather than strategic moves. Erdogan's insistence on noninstitutional, personalistic and norm-defying leadership has come at a heavy cost to Turkey — one that is only getting steeper.