Even tough guys have to say sorry sometimes, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no exception. But the regrets expressed this week by Turkey’s famously stubborn president over last November’s shooting down of a Russian military plane have an ulterior purpose. Erdoğan boxed Turkey into a diplomatic corner in recent years. Now he’s on the ropes and he badly needs a wet towel and a breather.
Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister sacked by Erdoğan in May, might be forgiven a wry smile. As chief adviser and foreign minister after 2002, when the ruling Justice and Development party first took power, Davutoğlu championed a policy of “zero problems with neighbours”.
He sought to rebuild Turkey’s regional and global influence by reviving Ottoman empire-era ties – an approach dubbed “neo-Ottomanism”. Country by country, Erdoğan’s headstrong behaviour wrecked Davutoğlu’s bold attempt at friendly outreach.
To be fair, the unrest that followed the so-called Arab spring upset calculations, too. Davutoğlu went to Damascus in 2011, personally pleading with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, to compromise before the war really took hold. When Assad refused, Erdoğan turned on him and demanded his removal, an aim he still cherishes.
Erdoğan, a devout Sunni Muslim, fell out seriously with Egypt, the Arab world’s leading power, after the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, was toppled in an army coup. Erdoğan is also at daggers drawn with the neighbours in Baghdad. He accuses Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shia Muslim leadership, like Syria’s Alawites, of conniving with the “enemy” – Turkey’s separatist-minded Kurds.