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Opinion Why is Erdogan suddenly making nice to his enemies?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Aug. 23. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Never underestimate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite his well-earned record as a ruthless strongman, he has always had an acute sense of when it is time to abandon an unfavorable position. Now, he’s showing it again.

For much of the last decade, Turkey has positioned itself as a regional hegemon, establishing military bases across the Middle East, flexing its muscles in the Mediterranean, and deploying troops in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Erdogan’s revisionism went hand in hand with his plan to spread Turkey’s influence in former Ottoman lands and remodel the region in Turkey’s own image. That included — in cahoots with its ally Qatar — helping like-minded Islamist movements to gain power around the region. (Those two powers’ ideological feud with otherArab monarchies in the Gulf region defined the Middle East in recent years, spanning conflicts in Libya, the Mediterranean and Syria— even drawing European states such as Greece and France into conflict zones.)

Now, all that seems to be changing. Motivated by the war in Ukraine, the revival of great power competition, and U.S. retrenchment in the region, Middle Eastern states are turning inward, consolidating their regimes and angling to reduce tensions with one another. Turkey is no exception. Over the past year, Ankara has been quietly sending envoys to regional capitals, offering to normalize relations with its former foes.

Turkey and Israel announced last week they are reappointing ambassadors after more than a decade of turbulent relations. In February, Erdogan traveled to Abu Dhabi to meet with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, even though Turkish media had painted MBZ, as Mohamed is known, as a sworn enemy of Turkey and a sponsor of the failed coup attempt of 2016. In March, the Turkish prosecutor investigating the 2018 murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi transferred the case to Saudi Arabia, effectively sweeping the inquiry under the carpet and thus allowing Erdogan to visit to Riyadh and embrace Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Ankara has also sent delegations to Egypt to repair the damage caused by Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its involvement in the Libyan war.

Erdogan, of course, has his own personal reasons for wanting to make friends with regimes that he once hoped to dominate. Ahead of the 2023 general election, the Turkish leader looks more vulnerable than ever. With a united opposition, and an economy in doldrums, his popularity is in decline. Turkey’s state coffers are almost empty. The lira is slipping, and inflation is around 80 percent. Despite his tight grip on the country, Erdogan’s chances of being reelected are uncertain. The president is hoping that making friends with former enemies, especially the rich Gulf states, will bring in much-needed cash that will enable him to muddle through until the elections — warding off the threat of bankruptcy from a looming balance of payments crisis.

In perhaps the most dramatic policy reversal, Ankara is now hinting that it is even ready to start talking to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria — after years of pushing for regime change in Damascus and supporting armed opposition groups in the north of the country.

Patching up relations with Damascus is not about finance. It’s all about placating Turkish voters who are angry at the presence of millions of refugees in their country. Turkey’s opposition has long been calling for normalized relations with Syria, suggesting this would lead to the voluntary return of Syrian refugees. Now, Erdogan is jumping on that bandwagon, taking steps to encourage the repatriation of millions of Syrians who escaped from the regime.

In reality, such a return unlikely to happen. The Assad regime has shown itself incapable of reform or ensuring the conditions for safe repatriation. With 4 million anti-regime Syrians inside Turkey and millions still on its borders, Ankara cannot force a settlement between the opposition and the regime, let alone ship Syrians back to an uncertain future. But it’s the promise of repatriation, as opposed to the reality, that matters before the elections. Erdogan is hoping that any talk of a deal with Damascus could take the edge off widespread criticism of his Syria policy.

Erdogan’s regional de-escalation gambit is starting to pay off financially. Turkey’s central bank reserves are showing an unidentified increase of more than $17 billion since the beginning of the year. The markets are speculating that this is largely Russian and Gulf money — and that more is to come. While NATO allies are not happy with Ankara’s decision to bypass economic sanctions against Russia and provide a lifeline to Vladimir Putin’s regime, they have largely stayed quiet about their disapproval. Turkey’s strategic position at the opening of the Black Sea is critical for Ukraine’s self-defense. The last thing the West wants is to antagonize Erdogan and push him further toward the Kremlin.

Erdogan’s diplomatic charm offensive is tactically smart — but it doesn’t change the reality that it is driven by an awareness of his dire domestic position. Despite Turkey’s authoritarian lurch, the electoral system remains competitive. Voters are unhappy about rampant inflation, chaotic economic mismanagement and the direction of the country overall. Injections of foreign cash might help to ward off an economic catastrophe, but in the end, Putin, Assad, and Mohammed bin Salman cannot determine the outcome of Turkey’s elections. Its citizens will.

And so far, they seem unconvinced that Erdogan can deliver a better tomorrow.

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