Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no Saladin Ayyubi. Last week, Turkey’s President inaugurated the Saladin Mosque in Diyarbakir, emphasizing his admiration for the historic figure. Saladin, a Kurd, famously defeated the Crusading armies, diminishing the West’s influence in the Middle East. Although Erdogan’s actions are not consistent with Saladin’s legacy, they undermine US authority in the region more than any other single leader. Erdogan’s influence extends beyond Turkey’s borders, as his actions serve as an example for other US allies in the region, which are increasingly borrowing from his playbook. By Güney Yıldız in Forbes on April 18, 2023.
Previously, Erdogan had identified himself with Saladin and his soldiers, and ruling AK Party officials have openly compared him to the legendary Muslim leader. However, his outsized role in diminishing US power comes from his example to other US allies, not his connection to Saladin.
Saladin was a respected leader, even among his enemies. Dante Alighieri, in his Divine Comedy, placed Saladin, as the only Muslim figure in his imagined heaven. The legendary Muslim leader and military strategist united Muslim forces during the Crusades. In 1187, he achieved a significant victory at the Battle of Hattin, leading to the recapture of Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Saladin was known not only for his military prowess but also for his chivalry and just treatment of his enemies.
Contrasting Erdogan and Saladin
Erdogan’s admiration for Saladin is apparent, but their approaches differ significantly. Saladin was a unifying figure, known for his chivalry and diplomacy. In contrast, Erdogan is often seen as a divisive and pragmatic leader, prioritizing his own political preservation over any ideology.
Erdogan’s actions in the Middle East have not consistently aligned with any one ideology, making his true beliefs unclear.
For instance, in 2003, he tried very hard but failed to persuade the Turkish parliament to approve the US invasion of Iraq.
In the later stages of his leadership, Erdogan has collaborated with Russia in Syria, even when it conflicts with his professed Islamist ideology. In 2016, he helped Moscow clear Aleppo of Islamist rebels, dealing a decisive blow to the Islamist anti-Assad opposition’s war efforts.
He has also worked closely with Iran on multiple occasions, despite their differences in Sunni and Shia beliefs. If he were a Sunni Islamist, his cooperation with Iran on various occasions would be incompatible, such as in 2017 when they worked together to end Kurdish rule in Kirkuk for the benefit of Shia forces and the Shia Iraqi government.
Kurdish origins. Furthermore, Saladin was Kurdish. Erdogan, however, especially today, shows no fondness for Kurds, despite past and present support from Kurdish figures. His relationship with Kurds in Turkey and neighboring countries is fraught. Saladin united diverse Muslim groups, while Erdogan’s policies stoke tensions and divisions.
Erdogan’s Influence on Other US Allies
The US faces a dilemma. Erdogan has significantly weakened US authority in the Middle East, yet the US accommodates him, reportedly developing respect, tolerance, and acceptance. He bought the advanced S-400 air defense system from Russia despite protests from NATO allies. Erdogan cooperates more with Russia than NATO members, meeting President Vladimir Putin more frequently than his NATO counterparts.
Erdogan’s defiance of US interests is brazen. He openly expressed his desire for Turkey to join the Shanghai Cooperation Council. He attacked US allies in Syria and possibly targeted a Kurdish military commander in a convoy with US personnel just two weeks ago. His policies conflict with US interests, such as his recent signal to meet with Assad, which would further break the Syrian regime’s diplomatic isolation despite US sanctions.
Although Erdogan’s approach is not ideologically driven and based mainly on leveraging Turkey’s NATO membership against the US, his approach to foreign policy has left a mark on other US allies in the Middle East, causing other Middle Eastern nations to act more indepedently. His assertiveness in challenging US.interests and his ability to do so without severe consequences have served as a blueprint for countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Erdogan’s approach lacks ideology. He leverages Turkey’s NATO membership against the US. His foreign policy has left a mark on other US allies in the Middle East, pushing them to act more independently. Challenging US interests, he faces no harsh consequences. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates follow his lead. The irony lies in how Erdogan’s pragmatic tactics inadvertently fuel a drive for independence, akin to Saladin’s challenge against the crusaders.
Erdogan’s anti-US rhetoric fuels tension domestically and in the region. He accuses the US of orchestrating the coup attempt against him. He talks about teaching a lesson to the US in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14.
Erdogan’s approach to foreign policy has left a mark on other US allies in the Middle East. His assertiveness in challenging US. interests and his ability to do so without severe consequences have served as a blueprint for countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi and Emirati leaders follow Erdogan’s playbook, collaborating with Russia on oil prices and China on significant political shifts. The UAE also pioneers rapprochement with Syria, despite US objections.. These shifts threaten to reshape alliances and power dynamics in the region, with potential long-term consequences.
Erdogan’s bold defiance is a lesson for US allies and neutral countries alike. The Middle East is becoming more fluid and unpredictable as regional actors feel empowered to pursue their own agendas.
Broader Reasons of Diminishing US power
Three legs stand. To contextualise the broader regional political landscape that Erdogan operates it is important to mention that the US’s fading dominance in the Middle East has multiple causes. First, gradual disengagement from the region began under former President Barack Obama and persists today. This retreat created a vacuum, now filled competitively by Russia, Iran, China, and Turkey.
Betrayal stings. Second, the US’s reckless abandonment of allies in Afghanistan and partial desertion of Kurdish-Arab anti-Islamic State allies in Syria fuels doubt. The US’s support for Ukraine against Russia highlights its preference for involvement outside the Middle East.
Defiance spreads. Third, figures like Erdogan showcase the lack of consequences for defying the US Erdogan joins Viktor Orban of Hungary, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Emirati and Saudi leadership in this defiance.
Not all unheeding. The Turkish President has limits. Ankara respected US and EU redlines, concerning the most crucial issues, such as S-400 activation and Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean, which aims to sideline other actors seeking to explore oil and gas in the Mediterranean.
Implications for US-Turkey Relationship and Regional Power Dynamics
The dynamic of the US-Turkey relationship has consequences beyond the bilateral ties between Turkey and the United States. Accommodating Erdogan’s actions weakens US influence in the Middle East. The US-Turkey relationship serves as a microcosm of the larger geopolitical shifts occurring in the region.
As more countries in the Middle East start to question their alliances and the value of aligning with the United States, the regional landscape changes shape towards the point of no return.
A new strategy is needed. The United States cannot afford to ignore the growing challenge. Washington must reengage with its regional partners and demonstrate its commitment to their security and prosperity. Through proactive measures, the US can seek a stabilizing role in the region and mitigate the adverse impact of both allies and adversaries.
The Middle East is a battleground. The United States has long played a key role. Now, Turkish President Erdogan is changing the game. He’s shifting the balance of power away from the US. He sets an example for other US allies, who are following his lead.
A New Saladin? A leader who forges an independent path, uniting the region beyond divisions, corruption, and autocracy is essential. Saladin inspires, but as shown, Erdogan falls short.
Güney Yıldız, as a London-based research analyst and journalist, focuses on Turkey, the Middle East, and their relationships with Europe, the U.S., and Russia.