The Irish Times view on Turkey and Nato: Erdogan’s bargain

This latest round of regional assertiveness is likely to be sustained by Turkey’s president over the next year as elections loom

Turkey is a large regional power and its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has developed the skills to exploit that position to its and his own advantage after 20 years in office.

They have been much in evidence during the Ukraine war as Erdogan bargains Nato membership for Finland and Sweden against his need to revive fighter aircraft orders from the US and Turkey’s strategic control of Russian and Nato access to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus. Simultaneously he has renewed links with the Saudis because he needs their wealth and investment to offset the increasingly precarious state of the Turkish economy ahead of elections next year.

Erdogan adds his own particular brand of unscrupulous, quixotic and authoritarian politics to the established realism of Turkey’s foreign policy. The combination adds value to his domestic political posturing, in which he retains support in the poorer Anatolian heartlands which brought him to power, but faces strong competition and hostility from coastal populations and in the enormous Istanbul urban complex. His involvement in Syria pits him against Russian support for Assad and US support for the Kurds.

This latter issue is at the centre of the bargaining with Sweden and Finland, both of which have sheltered Kurdish opponents of Erdogan’s regime. Nato and EU members have to take seriously Turkey’s agreement to host 3.7 million Syrian refugees, now causing popular resentment as the economy deteriorates. Erdogan has conceded Nato membership for Sweden and Finland on the basis that their assurances about alleged terrorism among Kurdish refugees will be delivered on, though he adds that the matter has yet to pass through the Turkish parliament.

In the same way President Biden qualifies the sale of F-16 fighters with support in Congress, where Turkey’s arms deals with Russia still rankle. Erdogan and Putin have several leadership traits in common, notably their ruthless pursuit of domestic opponents on trumped-up legal charges. This latest round of regional assertiveness is likely to be sustained by Erdogan over the next year as the elections loom.