Crisis or opportunity? A pivotal year ahead for Turkey
Since 2003, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led Turkey towards a much more active role in the Middle East and beyond. In the next six months, his failings or victories abroad will determine his hold on power.
At home, Erdogan is currently dealing with a dismal economic situation as a general election approaches in June 2023. Recent polling suggests that the political opposition in Turkey might finally have a shot at bringing Erdogan’s rule to an end.
Ankara has to navigate a number of complicated conflicts in a multipolar world that will test the bonds of its relations with the key countries in the region; Iran, Israel, Russia, and the United States.
"This is the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Turkish republic. This is a critical, symbolic moment for the AKP (ruling party) and Erdogan"
Within Turkey’s political scene, 2023 is going to be viewed with great importance.
“This is the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Turkish republic. This is a critical, symbolic moment for the AKP (ruling party) and Erdogan,” Iain MacGillivray, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Washington DC who focuses on Turkey and the Middle East, told The New Arab.
MacGillivray noted that the next six months will revolve around the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey. For Erdogan, this year would allow him to achieve “the Turkish century,” MacGillivray said, adding that Erdogan sees himself as a new Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkey.
Turkey and Iran's delicate regional balance
Hamidreza Azizi, a CATS fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told The New Arab, “Iran-Turkey relations have always been a mixture of cooperation and competition. The two countries are neighbours, which means maintaining a stable relationship, on the other hand, both consider themselves as regional powers, which means there’s quite a few areas of competing interests, especially in the south Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Arab Middle East”.
He added, “The two sides are still trying to manage the relationship, not to let their competition get out of hand and create conflicts. That is becoming more and more difficult.”
Both Turkey and Iran have carried out an increasing number of air strikes on Kurdish militant groups based in northern Iraq this past year. However, Turkey is still working to build support for an expanded intervention against the Kurdish groups in Syria.
“Now that Iran is struggling with these different crises at home and abroad, plus the confrontations with world powers. The more Iran is under pressure, the more threatened it will feel and this will create responses that could result in tensions with neighbours, Turkey included,” Azizi remarked.
“Iran has also been worried about the potential for a new Turkish military operation in Syria, because this would endanger Iranian-backed positions in the country,” he remarked.
However, he went on to note that, if Turkey did normalise relations with Assad, it would help the Syrian regime’s economic sector and “this would give Assad more room to manoeuvre between actors and become less loyal to Iran and Iranian interests”.
Turkey and Israel's reset
Turkey and Israel have repaired ties after several years of tensions. In March 2022, Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara and by December, an Israeli ambassador was once again presenting her credentials to Erdogan.
“The primary motivation between their rapprochement is security. Geopolitically, the Middle East and by extension the Eastern Mediterranean have come back to the world stage, after a brief setback in the mid 2000s to 2010s, with the regional reset,” Suha Cubukcuoglu, a geopolitical strategist at Trends Research and Advisory based in Abu Dhabi, told TNA.
“The regional reset after the Abraham Accords completely changed the calculus in the minds of policy makers in the region,” Cubukcuoglu said. “Turkey sees more benefit in closer ties not just with Israel but also with Gulf Monarchies and Egypt than to remain isolated.”
In 2023, realpolitik will be the order of the day in the region.
"Turkey sees more benefit in closer ties not just with Israel but also with Gulf Monarchies and Egypt than to remain isolated"
“The main opportunity between Turkey and Israel is in energy trade. As Israel expands its offshore gas development, Turkey can buy more Israeli LNG and further decrease its dependence on Russia and Iran, which would provide a more reliable and sustainable supply line for Turkey’s energy security,” Cubukcuoglu said.
Although many Turks support the Palestinian cause, Ankara is likely to move forward will maintaining its relationship with Israel, despite the incoming far-right Israeli government.
“To the contrary, Erdogan might reciprocate Herzog’s visit and travel to Tel Aviv/Jerusalem to meet with his counterpart before the elections in Turkey,” Cubukcuoglu remarked.
Erdogan prepares to show his cards in Syria
Throughout 2022, Ankara indicated a desire to enter into direct negotiations with the Assad regime and work with Russia to resolve the Syrian crisis. However, Turkey is not likely to engage in a new military offensive into northern Syria without Moscow’s consent.
“Despite the rhetoric in Turkey, the US, Russia, and Iran are all strictly against another Turkish land incursion into Syria for their own reasons,” Cubukcuoglu added.
“If, by surprise, Turkey suddenly launches an operation into YPG-PKK controlled areas in the north without coordination with the US and Russia, it would risk military clashes with both countries and would put Ankara in a precarious situation,” he said.
Assad wishes for the United States to end its cooperation with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and leave Syria so his regime can consolidate its control over the country’s east. In early December, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin voiced opposition to a new Turkish military operation in Syria.
Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar met with his counterparts in Moscow on 28 December, a signal that the three governments are maintaining momentum on advancing the normalisation process. In addition, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that the foreign ministries of Russia, Syria, and Turkey were planning to meet in late January.
Turkey, Russia, and Damascus could find common ground and leverage a limited Turkish military operation in order to further pressure the Kurds into scaling back their relationship with the United States.
“Politically it would benefit both Putin and Erdogan. The operation would cover areas to the west of the Euphrates and not risk coming into direct contact with US forces to the east. The US would protest it anyway but could not prevent it given Russia’s green light to Ankara,” Cubukcuoglu added.
Although Russia and Turkey are pursuing a meeting between Erdogan and Assad, the Syrian dictator is reportedly hitting the brakes on a summit.
"The United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, and the Syrians will be anxiously watching to see what Erdogan does over the next six months and what type of Turkey emerges in the aftermath of the elections"
Regarding Erdogan’s efforts to reconcile with the Assad regime, MacGillivray remarked that these efforts might occur at a “slower pace, if there’s willingness on the Syrian side. The Assad regime doesn’t really want to give Erdogan a foreign policy win this close to the elections. We could probably see a reconciliation if Erdogan wins the next election”.
MacGillivray said, “There’s a will for a reconciliation or détente. However, there are Turkish forces in northern Syria and they are occupying territory.” He pointed out that Assad’s forces also cooperate with the SDF and that Turkey might need to give up its territory in northern Syria.
Although Turkey has made some changes and has pushed for less tensions in the region, MacGillivray noted, “Turkish foreign policy is now very zero-sum, transactional, and reactionary. This is a consequence of the larger structural changes and state reformation that have happened since the post-2016 coup attempt”.
Turkey also has to deal with the political fallout from the Syrian opposition, which is largely based in Turkey and in northern Syria. Protests in the rebel-held areas against Turkish policies have become increasingly critical of Ankara. The foreign ministry recently backtracked on the prospects of such a deal.
In 2023, Turkey and its Syrian allies have to contend with the growing ambitions of the jihadist faction, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which continues to test the limits of Turkish resolve and expand its territory in the north.
Ultimately, Assad would be happy to “see the end of Erdogan” and there was a much stronger pro-reconciliation sentiment towards the Syrian regime within the Turkish opposition, MacGillivray said.
In year ahead, the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, and the Syrians will be anxiously watching to see what Erdogan does over the next six months and what type of Turkey emerges in the aftermath of the elections.
Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area. He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris