In the movies, similar to what occurs in the newly released HBO miniseries “Catherine the Great,” the Russians repeatedly smack the Turks, the historical enemy of the Russian Empire. We can assume that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose wants to restore the glory of the Ottoman Empire, has not forgiven or forgotten the Russians for their past deeds, or absolved them for intervening in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Bashar Assad, his hated neighbor to the southwest.
But Erdoğan isn’t the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey isn’t as strong and formidable as he would like to believe. He is strong against the weak, specifically the Kurds, and to a certain extent the United States. However, when it comes to the Russians he is quite ready to kneel to power.
Erdoğan had a dream he hoped to realize upon the eruption of the “Arab Spring” close to a decade ago. In his dream he saw himself the ruler, that is to say the sultan, of the entire Middle East. Tunisia, followed by Egypt, fell at the time to the Muslim Brotherhood, the sister movement to Erdoğan’s own political party. In Syria, too, the Islamist movements backed by Turkey had hoped to topple the regime. As is often the case though, dreams are one thing and reality is another. The plan crumbled, and Erdoğan became an enemy in the eyes of numerous countries.
At home, too, Erdoğan’s situation is woeful. After nearly two decades of unchecked power, the public’s support for him appears to be waning, mostly due to the economic crisis. He is even being challenged within his own party.
Now added to the list of his problems is the diplomatic crisis with the United States, which he has genuinely earned. He fueled the crisis with his decision to spurn his NATO partners by purchasing advanced Russian S-400 air-defense systems, and later to invade Syria and bombard the Kurds, Washington’s betrayed ally. Which is why the Americans retaliated by imposing a series of economic sanctions, and last week with a House resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide.
At the root of the crisis, however, is the increasing number of Americans who no longer seem to harbor an affinity for Turkey, their long-time ally. The pivot toward Islamist extremism, the descent into tyranny, together with growing anti-American sentiment, has widened the chasm between the two countries.
Washington has also played a part in the crisis by seeming to forget how a global superpower should conduct itself in the Middle East. It turned the other cheek to Erdoğan’s mud-slinging and was rewarded for it with even more contempt. And yet Washington is still a global power, far stronger and more important than Russia. Turkey needs the United States and its relations with the West, which are key to its economic stability.
U.S. President Donald Trump, well aware of this power dynamic, hurled insults and swung right back at Erdoğan—in atypical American fashion—and consequently is being met with respect.
For the time being, Erdoğan’s foreign policy is suffering one failure after another. Relations with Washington have worsened while dependence on Russia has grown. In the Arab world, no one wants anything to do with him. His invasion of Syria is also destined to end in calamity. Erdoğan may have pummelled the Kurds, but in doing so has pushed them into the arms of Assad, an enemy no less bitter and determined.
Due to his doctrine of “zero problems” Turkey is now a country with zero friends. Like all sultans before him, Erdoğan’s whims and megalomania have put his throne in jeopardy.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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