When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was inaugurated as Turkey’s president with enhanced powers in 2018, Venezuelan counterpart and admirer Nicolas Maduro called him the “leader of the new multi-polar world.”
In Syria, however, Erdogan appears to have tested to destruction the ability of a country with no nuclear arsenal, few natural resources and an economy roughly the size of Spain’s to carve a sphere of influence for itself.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has tried to re-establish sway in nations of the former Ottoman Empire. It’s been an enthusiastic competitor in the Middle East to fill the growing power vacuum left behind as the U.S. seeks to disengage.
But although he secured another cease-fire for Idlib from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, Erdogan was a supplicant. Russian jets and air defenses have demonstrated the vulnerability of Turkish troops in Syria and, in a political threat to the Turkish leader, their ability drive more than a million refugees to the border.
After an airstrike blamed on Russian-backed Syrian forces killed 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib province on Feb. 27, Erdogan requested an emergency meeting with NATO allies. Yet relations with many European alliance members are frosty—not least because Erdogan’s threats to direct refugees to Europe—and little concrete support was forthcoming.
Turkey also asked for U.S. help, in the form of Patriot anti-aircraft batteries to protect its troops, but Washington has proved reticent, angered by Erdogan’s purchase last year—over fierce U.S. objections—of Russia’s S-400 equivalent.
“What we saw in Idlib is the predicament of Erdogan’s empire,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “His vision that Turkey could be a stand-alone power has been proved completely wrong.”
Erdogan has had successes abroad. Turkish Airlines has expanded to the point that by last year it served over 120 countries, more than any other airline anywhere, opening up possibilities around the globe for Turkish influence, trade and investment. Turkish TV dramas air in more than 100 countries.
The country has also become a significant political and economic force in Africa and the Balkans. Erdogan himself has proved adept at playing Donald Trump against the rest of Washington, securing the U.S. president’s agreement to make way for his incursion into Kurdish zones of Northern Syria, and protection from U.S. sanctions over his S-400 purchase.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan has boldly laid claim to swathes of waters claimed by Greece in a deal with Libya that would have significant energy implications.
Indeed, for a while, the creation of a Turkish zone of influence from North Africa to Central Asia looked at least conceivable. In the immediate wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Middle East seemed open to a new generation of leaders who looked to Turkey for the model of a distinctly Islamic government that was at the same time democratically elected and economically successful.
Yet Erdogan’s hopes of seeing like-minded Islamist leaders installed from Tunis to Damascus have been dashed, with the space hotly contested by rivals for influence including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi was toppled in what amounted to a military coup in 2013. Tunisia’s governing Islamist party, Ennahda, stepped aside. Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war in 2015, turning the tide against Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood clients.
In Libya, a United Nations-backed government favorable to Ankara is under siege from militants backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, jeopardizing Erdogan’s fragile deal to carve up the Mediterranean.
Turkey is unlikely to be the last mid-size power to try to assert itself in this way, according to Graham Allison, professor of government at Harvard University, because the demise of the so-called unipolar moment of U.S. dominance that followed the Cold War has opened the door for others to act.
“As states notice that their relative power in a region has increased and the willingness of the U.S. to exercise power has decreased, they will undertake ventures,” Allison said, arguing that like it or not, the U.S. will have to accept spheres of influence, whether for China in the South China Sea, or Russia in Georgia and Ukraine.
In Syria, Turkey has a clear interest in preventing the establishment of a de facto Kurdish state that would be run by close allies of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, which conducts an armed insurgency within Turkey. Since sending troops across the border last year, Erdogan has built a buffer zone where he hopes to build cities and repatriate about 1 million Syrian refugees from Turkey.
But Idlib, the last redoubt of Sunni Arab rebels and Al Qaeda-linked radicals dedicated to Erdogan’s long-held goal of bringing down President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, is a different story. In their campaign to retake the province and reopen two of the country’s most important highways, Syrian government troops are backed by both Iranian—led militias and Russian airpower.
“There is no reason to think that middling powers will be smarter than superpowers,” said Allison, noting costly failures of both the former Soviet Union and the U.S. in Afghanistan.
Erdogan has now doubled down to apply military force where diplomacy failed in both Syria and Libya, only to find the field crowded with other external powers. Meanwhile, he has alienated traditional allies in the West and made enemies of Arab leaders wary of his support for the Muslim Brotherhood. At home, meanwhile, Erdogan has crushed his nation’s democratic institutions and its economic miracle has stalled, sapping Turkey’s soft power attraction.
By the time of Erdogan’s inauguration at the peak of his domestic powers in 2018, the limits of his reach abroad were mapped out by the guest list, according to Cagaptay, author of a new book on Turkey’s foreign policy, “Erdogan’s Empire.”
Venezuela’s Maduro was there, together with about two dozen leaders mainly from Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia. But none came from a major NATO ally, Russia or China. Just one Arab leader attended, from Qatar—the object of a Saudi-led boycott.
By now, there is little that Turkey’s traditional Western allies are willing or able to do to dig Erdogan out of trouble in Idlib. That leaves him reliant on Russia, which controls the skies and therefore has the upper hand in any military escalation, said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.
Erdogan’s audience, he says, “is an audience of one: Putin.”