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June 27, 2012, Wednesday

Erdoğan’s problem

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan outlined Turkey’s action plan against Syria’s aggression toward Turkey and said Turkey would retaliate. Turkey’s action plan seems a serious one.

However, the majority of Turks, for the first time in the last 10 years, do not take Erdoğan seriously. The majority of Turks think that he is basically repeating what he said when Israel killed nine Turkish citizens in the Mavi Marmara incident. Right after that incident, Erdoğan said the exact same thing about Israel but did not do anything. Israel did not even apologize to Turkey or pay compensation to the families of the Turkish citizens who lost their lives in that incident.

Now with the crisis in Syria, Erdoğan has lost his credibility in the eyes of his own people. They think that Erdoğan, by using exaggerated statements against Syria, is trying to appeal to people’s sentiments.

More importantly, many in the Syrian opposition do not take Erdoğan seriously. The members of the Syrian opposition I spoke with think that there is nothing convincing about Erdoğan’s words. They, too, gave the same example of the Mavi Marmara to illustrate that Erdoğan would not do anything against Syria. When I insisted that Turkey is serious about taking action against Syria this time, a friend of mine reminded me of Erdoğan’s big rhetoric against France during its attempts to pass a genocide denial bill. My friend said, “Erdoğan has always made empty promises when he faces an international crisis, but in few months he forgets them and distracts people from the crisis.”

Such distrust toward Erdoğan is a big problem for him as a politician and for Turkey as a country. More importantly, by Erdoğan’s use of inflated rhetoric, such as saying Turkey is a regional actor that does not consult with other states when it comes to its own interests, etc., he creates an image that Turkey is not an interdependent country. He often argues that Turkey pursues independent foreign policy goals.

Indeed, from time to time, the Erdoğan government has not hesitated to challenge American foreign policy choices in this region. For instance, when the UN Security Council, together with the US and Western countries, voted to put more pressure on Iran, Turkey voted against the resolution, while Lebanon remained neutral at that time. In addition, the “one minute” crisis was another example of Turkey being perceived as though it follows independent foreign policies.

On one hand the Erdoğan government has created an image that Turkey pursues an independent foreign policy, on the other hand people do not take him seriously when he makes exaggerated comments against Turkey’s adversaries. Thus, Erdoğan is less likely to mobilize people around him should he try to rally Turkish citizens against Syria.

More importantly, now that the opposition in Syria no longer has confidence in Erdoğan, this constrains Turkey’s ability to build policies around them. The opposition in Syria is not sure whether to trust Erdoğan or not.

I think the trust problem Erdoğan has created has become a major obstacle for Turkey and that it needs to convince first its own citizens, then the opposition in Syria, and finally the people in the region. A cartoon that Al-Arabiya posted on its website further demonstrates this. In the cartoon Erdoğan says, “if it is proven that they [the Syrians] deliberately shot down our jet, then we will stop selling Turkish soap operas to Syria…” I think the Syrian crisis is an opportunity for Erdoğan to prove he is a trustworthy leader when it comes to foreign policy crises.

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