Even tough guys have to say sorry sometimes, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no exception. But the regrets expressed this week by Turkey’s famously stubborn president over last November’s shooting down of a Russian military plane have an ulterior purpose. Erdoğan boxed Turkey into a diplomatic corner in recent years. Now he’s on the ropes and he badly needs a wet towel and a breather.
Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister sacked by Erdoğan in May, might be forgiven a wry smile. As chief adviser and foreign minister after 2002, when the ruling Justice and Development party first took power, Davutoğlu championed a policy of “zero problems with neighbours”.
He sought to rebuild Turkey’s regional and global influence by reviving Ottoman empire-era ties – an approach dubbed “neo-Ottomanism”. Country by country, Erdoğan’s headstrong behaviour wrecked Davutoğlu’s bold attempt at friendly outreach.
To be fair, the unrest that followed the so-called Arab spring upset calculations, too. Davutoğlu went to Damascus in 2011, personally pleading with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, to compromise before the war really took hold. When Assad refused, Erdoğan turned on him and demanded his removal, an aim he still cherishes.
Erdoğan, a devout Sunni Muslim, fell out seriously with Egypt, the Arab world’s leading power, after the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, was toppled in an army coup. Erdoğan is also at daggers drawn with the neighbours in Baghdad. He accuses Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shia Muslim leadership, like Syria’s Alawites, of conniving with the “enemy” – Turkey’s separatist-minded Kurds.
Ties with Russia were already under strain before last autumn’s clash, in part over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s support for Assad, in part over tensions between Armenia, Turkey’s old foe and Russia’s friend, and Azerbaijan. Like western leaders in Nato, to which Turkey belongs, Erdoğan opposed Russia’s Ukraine intervention and annexation of Crimea – an unsettling precedent for a country with its own memories of Russian invasion.
The rupture with Moscow was rendered complete by the border incident, in which two Russian airmen died after their plane allegedly strayed into Turkish airspace. Putin decried what he called a “treacherous stab in the back”. He imposed punitive trade and other sanctions, and deployed advanced ground-to-air missiles batteries to its base in Syria. He also halted Russian tourism to Turkey, a lucrative source of income for Turkey’s faltering economy.
Erdoğan’s need to kiss and make up with Russia has been exacerbated by his increasingly bad-tempered relationship with over the Mediterranean migrant crisis, his evident disdain for Barack Obama’s hands-off Middle East policies, and his conviction that the US, Nato and the EU are not doing enough to help Turkey confront armed Kurdish militants and Islamist terrorism – he readily conflates the two. Erdoğan also deeply resents western criticism of his perceived, creeping authoritarianism and his crackdown on independent media, academics and journalists.
His attempts to offset these diplomatic losses by deepening ties with states such as Saudi Arabia, where democratic values are held cheap, have had limited success.
Erdoğan has always refused to apologise for the shooting down of the Russian plane, which reportedly took place on his express orders, but in a bid to break the ice, he sent a letter to Moscow this week expressing sorrow and regret over the loss of life. Now Putin is expected to call Erdoğan on Wednesday to re-start the bilateral dialogue, while Turkey’s foreign minister has been invited to an upcoming regional summit in Sochi.
Whether Turkey will pay compensation to the bereaved families remains uncertain. Earlier reports that it would do so have since been denied in Ankara.
Erdoğan has been making conciliatory moves in other directions, too. On Tuesday Turkey and Israel signed an agreement restoring diplomatic relations after six-year gap. The deal includes permission for resumed Turkish aid deliveries to Palestinians in the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip – the issue that caused the stand-off in the first place.
Erdoğan’s ministers have meanwhile begun talking in more amicable terms about the prospects for improved cooperation with the EU in the wake of the Brexit vote. It was also announced on Tuesday that Turkey has adjusted its military rules of engagement to allow Nato allies to carry out more patrol flights along its border with northern Syria – a move apparently designed to ease friction within the alliance.
Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s hardline spokesman, denied on Tuesday that Turkey was embarking on a foreign policy reset. Differences with Russia over Ukraine and Syria remained, Kalin said. The simultaneous rapprochement with Israel was merely coincidental, he claimed.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, also cautioned that ties between the two countries would not suddenly return to normal. “One shouldn’t think that everything will be mended overnight. We will keep up our work in that direction,” he said.
Turkey’s reliability as a military ally, and its continued status as a moderate, secular, democratic Middle Eastern power matter a lot to Europe and the US in strategic and security terms. If only to neutralise such links, Russia would like to have Turkey in its camp. The political benefits for Erdoğan, for Turkey’s security, and for the Turkish economy of reversing its drift towards isolationism are obvious.
And there may be more to come. The latest speculation in Istanbul is that following Russia and Israel, Erdoğan may further the bid to bring Turkey in from the cold through tentative rapprochement with Egypt’s US-backed regime and increased flexibility over the Cyprus dispute. A breakthrough on the protracted Cyprus issue would be a rare bit of good news for the EU.