Turkey and Iran obviously start from very different places. Turkey, for decades, has been a NATO partner and a bulwark against Soviet-Russian power. In the shadows, it was also Israel’s key strategic ally in the Muslim world. Iran, by contrast, has treated the United States as an implacable enemy since its 1979 revolution and has been Israel’s most strident foe.
But Turkey has changed under Erdogan, and not just in its growing antipathy toward Israel. Today, the similarities with the ayatollahs’ Iran are eerie — and the Trump administration’s disparate treatment of the two countries is jarring. Both push radical versions of Islam at a time when moderate voices are rising in many Arab countries, such as the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Both have a backward-looking nostalgia for ancient glory, in the Ottoman and Persian empires. Both are exporting instability through proxy forces. And both delight in bashing the United States.
Congress has become increasingly suspicious of Erdogan, and for the past two years key members “have quietly frozen all major U.S. arms sales” to Ankara, according to a recent story in Defense News. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is said to be increasingly peeved, tweeted this week that the United States will partially lift its arms embargo to Cyprus and increase security cooperation, a modest rebuff of Turkey.
But the Trump administration remains Erdogan’s enabler. When James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special envoy for Syria, visited Ankara last month, he said reassuringly that the United States remained “a close ally of Turkey. We proved our value in many fields outside of Syria.” Hey, wait a minute: How about Turkey proving its value to the United States?
Erdogan’s secret is that he has assiduously stroked President Trump’s ego. He places regular calls to the White House and plays to Trump’s idea of personal diplomacy. Trump bragged last month that a “top leader” had asked him to call the Turkish president, saying: “ ‘You’re the only one he respects. . . . You’re the only one he’ll listen to.’ ”
Erdogan’s team is loudly advertising its dislike of former vice president Joe Biden. Pro-government media last month resurrected a comment Biden made to a New York Times roundtable last December that yielding to Erdogan and abandoning the Syrian Kurds (as Trump did last year) was “the absolute last thing” he would have done.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin thundered last month that Biden’s comments were “based on pure ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy,” and warned: “The days of ordering Turkey around are over.” That sounded close to taking sides in the U.S. presidential election.
That’s unseemly, but what worries regional leaders even more is Erdogan’s Iran-like push to project military power. A graphic posted recently by the Turkish news agency TRT listed 12 foreign countries where Turkish troops are operating: Northern Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Somalia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Albania, Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Sudan. That list doesn’t include Libya, where Erdogan has sent thousands of Turkish-trained Syrian mercenaries to support the Tripoli government. Critics say Erdogan also uses the network of the Muslim Brotherhood to advance his cause.
Erdogan’s regional ambitions reflect what analysts describe as a “neo-Ottoman” desire for hegemony beyond the Turkish borders drawn after World War I. Erdogan told a visiting U.S. diplomat several years ago that Turkey’s sphere of influence should stretch from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul in Iraq. To accomplish just that, he now has what TRT estimates are 5,000 troops occupying a border strip in northern Syria and 2,500 in northern Iraq.
As Erdogan seeks influence in the Muslim world, he is rivaling Iran as the loudest champion of the Palestinian cause. Last month, he met in Istanbul with two prominent Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Saleh al-Arouri, both on the U.S. terrorist list. The State Department said it “strongly objects” but took no significant action.
Erdogan’s backstop is that his country is a member of NATO. But the commitment is fraying. Last year, despite strenuous U.S. warnings, he bought the Russian S-400 air-defense system. And in recent weeks, he has challenged two NATO allies, Greece and France, in his push for drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean. When the UAE sent four fighter jets to demonstrate support of Greece, a Turkish official threatened to shoot them down if they approached Turkish airspace. NATO took a small step back from the brink Thursday with a proposal from Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for Greece-Turkey talks.
Trump doesn’t seem to realize it, but two of his favorite Middle East partners — the UAE and Erdogan’s Turkey — are close to a shooting war. Trump regularly denounces former president Barack Obama for being soft on Iran. So why is he coddling a Turkey that threatens regional stability?