By Eran Lerman

The decision to drop charges against Pastor Brunson and let him go home was strictly a judicial determination, says the Turkish government, but anyone familiar with Turkish President Erdogan's efforts in recent years to bend the judges to his party's will is entitled to accept this elegant claim cum grano salis, indeed, with a larger than usual grain of salt. This was a policy decision, and not a trivial one.  It may even herald a broader change in Erdogan's perceptions as to just how far he can go in defying the U.S. without putting at risk things that are important to Turkey, to the AKP, and to himself.

It turns out that a no-holds-barred test of wills with President Trump is not an experience that foreign leaders are keen to go through, even brazen populists enjoying a solid base of domestic support. Much of AKP's appeal, beyond Erdogan's charisma and the underlying allegiance of many Turks to their no-longer-suppressed religious identity, has been the remarkable success of the new Turkish economy—the party's symbol, after all, is not the Qur'an but the lightbulb of modernity. As millions were on the move from the impoverished shanty towns at the edges of the great cities – the Gecekonduz – to decent, affordable flats in the new high-rises that now crowd the landscape, they forged a loyalty to those who made it possible. But when the Lira went into a tailspin and no amount of nationalist exhortations ("burn your iPhones") could stop the slide, this seemingly rock-solid base of support was liable to erode.

Idlib on the Brink

Pressing external concerns added to the need to break the impasse.  The future of the Syrian region of Idlib is not a marginal issue from a Turkish point of view: indeed, it should worry even those of us whose souls have already been seared and coarsened by the daily fare of Syrian horrors. Millions have been cornered into this last stronghold of the rebellion, and they have nowhere to go. An all-out Syrian and Iranian effort, backed by Russian air strikes, to conquer the area would be long and bloody even by Syrian standards.  Well over half a million have perished till now by other Syrians hands, or by Russian and Iranian hands, and the cost in Idlib will be proportionately higher. Turkey would then bear the burden of taking in another huge wave of refugees just when anti-immigrant sentiments are rampant in Europe.

Turkey has in fact managed to persuade the Russians to hold off for a while, and to work together in search of a less violent outcome. But without some firm external backing, it will not be easy for Erdogan to sustain his position. Paradoxically, it is the persistent American presence in eastern Syria – which the Turks greatly resent, due to its association with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces – that helps prevent and deter Assad and his backers from consolidating their rule over all of Syria.  

Good reasons, all, for Turkey to tread more carefully than Erdogan is used to. Indeed, even in the outrageous affair of Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish conduct has been nuanced: while anonymous intelligence and police sources, undoubtedly with a nod from above, leaked the horrifying details to the local and international media (there is no love lost between the AKP and the Saudis), at the official level care was taken not to level specific accusations, and to create some investigative platform that the Saudis could use in order to climb down, as they did after days of vehement denials. Again, this is not the time for Erdogan to pick another fight, even if he quietly enjoys watching the Saudis in agony.

There were other diplomatic tensions on Turkey's horizons this fortnight. For a while there have been loud rumblings in Ankara about the illegality of the Cypriot EEZ (exclusive economic zone) – parts of which the Turks claim as part of their continental shelf. Last week, in their sixth trilateral summit – held this time in Crete – Presidents Nikos Anastasiades of Cyprus and Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, as well as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece, reacted sharply to these pressures, bringing Erdogan up against another dilemma. It is one thing for Turkey, with a population a hundred times bigger, to bully Cyprus; it is less rewarding to be faced with Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus (and Israel, which has her own trilateral dialogue with the two Hellenic nations).

Egypt-Turkey Relations

While Turkey and Egypt as nations have no practical quarrel with each other, ideological imperatives have turned Erdogan and Sisi into bitter enemies. In 2013, Erdogan refused to admit the legitimacy of Morsi's removal from power – another Jewish conspiracy? – and treated Sisi as a usurper. In 2016, Egypt retaliated by refusing to denounce the coup attempt in Ankara. The two countries have in effect been fighting a prolonged proxy war in Libya, with Egypt's ally, "Field Marshal" Khalifa Haftar, controlling much of the east (Cyrenaica) and Turkey backing the internationally recognized regime in Tripoli, which is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This hostility will not abate soon: Turkey reacted angrily to the joint statement issued in Crete, whereas Egypt lent full support to Cypriot exploration in the Mediterranean. But if (a big if) Erdogan does seek to improve relations with Egypt (and Israel?), he has before him a good reason to do so. Over the last ten years, Turkey has positioned itself as the patron of Hamas in Gaza, berating Israel for military action and Egypt for complicity in the "siege." Israel, however, is now working closely with the Egyptian intelligence team to manage the latest round of conflict and bring about a workable deal:  calm restored, in return for alleviation of economic misery. If Turkey does indeed care for the Gazans – and not only for Hamas's ideological imperatives – it can join Qatar in helping, rather than act a spoiler once again.

Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.

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