ANKARA (Reuters) – When Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan last received Joe Biden on official business, in August 2016, Erdogan had just sent tanks into Syria.
Seated by Erdogan’s side on a cream-and-gold-leaf chair in Ankara’s presidential palace, then-Vice President Biden said, “We’re supportive of the operation.”
U.S. air support helped that incursion, as Washington put on a show of solidarity after a coup attempt against Erdogan the previous month; Biden visited parliament to see the bomb damage inflicted when rogue troops in tanks and fighter jets had tried to seize power.
Nearly five years on, Biden is president and Erdogan’s interventions abroad have multiplied, to the point where Turkey has a stake in many of the struggles that Biden must contend with in the world’s most volatile region. Interviews with a dozen insiders and officials from both countries show how the weeks around the coup and Biden’s visit set the stage for a new era of Turkish power projection, starting with that incursion into Syria.
Turkey has muscled its way to prominence in the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. At home, Erdogan launched a purge which would eventually remove 20,000 military personnel, and started to concentrate authority around the presidency.
Leaning heavily on a close personal relationship with Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump – advisers said Erdogan used to call Trump on the golf course – Erdogan developed a vision of what one Western diplomat called “a club of strong leaders who sort out the world.”
That was a vision Erdogan shared with Trump, but not with Biden, who has publicly described Erdogan as an autocrat, and promised U.S. diplomats in February the United States would address a “new moment of advancing authoritarianism” in the world through old-fashioned diplomacy and alliance-building.
It will not be easy. Since 2016, the Turkish leader has waged three more incursions in Syria, one directly targeting Kurdish fighters allied with the United States. He has changed the course of Libya’s civil war, bought weapons from Russia, challenged the maritime claims of European neighbours in the east Mediterranean, and backed Azerbaijan’s military victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.
At the weekend, Erdogan abruptly pulled Turkey out of a convention protecting women from violence, a move that his U.S. and EU allies said marked another backward step for human rights in Turkey. He also plunged markets into turmoil by sacking a central bank governor admired by Western investors.
Still, Turkey hopes a European Union summit this week can be a step to improving strained ties, the government says. Erdogan has also said he will seek good relations with Biden, but he insists Turkey needs to protect its interests.
“We have no eyes on any country’s land, sea or sovereignty,” Erdogan told officers at the end of a major Mediterranean naval exercise this month. “We are just trying to protect our homeland and our rights.”
Asked if U.S. support for Turkey’s earliest Syria incursion may have encouraged Ankara in its military operations, the State Department declined to comment.
“The U.S. is trying to patch together the very status quo Erdogan rejects,” said Max Hoffman, associate director at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank which has helped shape policies of Biden’s Democrat Party. “There is obvious tension.”
When Biden visited Turkey in 2016, the country was in shock from the failed coup. But Erdogan, who had long chafed against a powerful military that resisted his calls for intervention in Syria, saw opportunity in the turmoil. He described the coup attempt as a “gift from God” and an opportunity to cleanse the army.
Two Turkish officials close to him say two incidents four years apart show how power shifted to the president. When a Turkish reconnaissance plane was shot down by Syria in 2012, Erdogan wanted to send five Turkish jets to strike Syrian targets in retaliation, but was overruled by officers who said that would risk an escalation the army was not ready for.
Turkey’s defence ministry declined to comment on that account.
A month after the 2016 coup attempt, when an Islamic State suicide bomber hit a wedding in southern Turkey, Erdogan was determined to strike the Islamist group in its Syrian haven. This time, and with U.S. help, he succeeded.
Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan, who served as senior ministers in Erdogan governments before breaking away to set up rival political parties, told Reuters that starting in 2016 the president sidelined the foreign ministry as well as the military general staff.
Babacan, a former economy and foreign minister, said Turkey had previously avoided direct military interventions. Davutoglu, who served as prime minister and championed a policy of “zero problems with neighbours,” said that before 2016, “opinions would be sought … We would then reach a final view and convey it to the prime minister or president.”
Those former allies said the change to a narrow circle of advisers accelerated Turkey’s more hawkish stance.
Officially, security and military decisions are taken by the cabinet and National Security Council, but three political and security officials, as well as diplomats and analysts, say Erdogan relies mainly on Hulusi Akar – a military commander held hostage in the 2016 coup who is now defence minister – as well as intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and presidential spokesman and adviser Ibrahim Kalin.
“These people, who almost always come together for foreign operations, work as Erdogan’s A-Team,” said a security official who works with the presidency.
Officials from the presidency, intelligence organisation and defence ministry declined to comment on the roles played by Akar, Fidan and Kalin, or the statements by the former ministers.
A Turkish aide summed up Erdogan’s mindset as “Turkey first.” Ankara, the aide said, was tired of scenarios where the United States or Russia “sets the rules, while Turkey pays the price.”
The 2016 operation in Syria, for example, curbed the gains of Kurdish fighters the United States had picked as partners against Islamic State. Erdogan went on to play dual roles with Moscow and Washington.
In Libya, Turkey sent armed drones, military trainers and Syrian mercenaries to drive back an assault on Tripoli that had been backed by Russia. His move against Moscow came months after Turkey bought $2.5 billion of Russian missile defence systems – a deal which in turn angered Washington and led to U.S. sanctions on Turkey’s defence industry.
“It was very evident that they were trying to exert more influence in the Middle East region and some of the Gulf states as well,” General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East at the time, told Reuters.
Erdogan has also challenged the European Union, sending ships to explore for natural gas in waters long claimed by Greece and Cyprus. When the EU threatened sanctions, Erdogan ignored the threats.
Beyond the immediate neighbourhood, Erdogan set up military bases in Qatar and Somalia, projecting Turkish force into the Gulf and Horn of Africa.
“As these operations were undertaken, Turkey realized its own capabilities, and realized that its competitors were unable – or unwilling – to react,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Turkey director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“Turkey basically had a free hand … and realized it could change the reality on the ground.”
Erdogan also found home-grown military solutions. His son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar co-owns Baykar, a company that pioneered Turkey’s domestic drone production. Its aircraft have helped the army strike distant opponents without risking military lives in combat, and are part of Ankara’s self-declared drive to develop an independent arms industry.
Turkey says it has used drones against Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, where deploying ground troops is hazardous. In Libya, its drones destroyed Russian air defence systems. In a campaign against Russian-backed Syrian government forces in Idlib in northern Syria in early 2020, drones helped strike three Syrian fighter jets, eight helicopters and 151 tanks, according to the Turkish military.
The scale and impact of the operations has grabbed attention.
“Even if only half those claims are true, the implications are game-changing,” said Britain’s Defence Minister Ben Wallace in a speech about the future of air power in conflict. Turkey has deployed electronic warfare, lightly armed drones and smart ammunition “to stop tanks, armoured cars and air defence systems in their tracks.”
Beyond the battlefield, Erdogan’s highly personalised diplomacy has changed the course of events. He spoke regularly to Trump, in calls that U.S. advisers said often veered off the scripts U.S. administration officials prepared.
Erdogan intensified that connection in March 2018 after Trump fired his secretary of state and national security adviser, who had been working to defuse a dispute with Turkey over Syria. The sacking led Erdogan to behave as if contact with anyone other than the president was a waste of time, said Fiona Hill, who served as senior director for European and Russian Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council.
On a call in December 2018, Trump was briefed to warn Erdogan against an operation in northeast Syria where the Turkish leader planned to target the U.S.-allied Kurds, according to U.S. officials. Instead, encouraged by Erdogan, Trump promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and hand responsibility for fighting Islamic State in Syria to Turkey.
That decision, later partly reversed, surprised even Erdogan’s officials, they told Reuters.
Erdogan has since resumed talks with Greece over their maritime dispute, toned down a war of words with France’s president and played up prospects of mending ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But his incursions have earned him enemies, and as his inner circle has narrowed at home, polls have shown falling support for his party, which relied on an alliance with a smaller nationalist party for a majority in the 2018 parliamentary vote.
A compilation of 15 recent polls in February showed their support at 46%, suggesting he faces a battle to extend his power into a third decade in elections due by 2023.
More immediately, he faces a new administration in the White House.
Last week, Erdogan chided Biden for saying in a U.S. television interview he thought Putin was a killer, describing the comments as unacceptable and unfitting for a U.S. President.
Two months after taking office, Biden has yet to call the Turkish president.
Orhan Coskun reported from Ankara, Humeya Pamuk from Washington, D.C.; Writing by Dominic Evans; Edited by Sara Ledwith