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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a press conference during a NATO leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12.KACPER PEMPEL/Reuters

Adnan R. Khan is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer who has covered migration and refugee issues for the past decade.

Sometimes, what seems like a major policy shift on the surface is really more of the same, just with a dash of wishful thinking thrown into the mix. Take, for instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement before last week’s NATO summit in Vilnius that it would no longer be an obstacle to Sweden’s membership to the alliance. A little over a year ago, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg had said something very similar – that Turkey had “clearly indicated its intention not to block the process” – and yet Ankara has engaged in a great deal of process-blocking in recent months.

Analysts were quick to call this a “U-turn” on the part of Mr. Erdogan. But did something change in Mr. Erdogan’s heart to justify this? Frankly, no.

The reported tipping point was U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise to move forward with the sale of F-16 fighter jets “in consultation with Congress.” Canada had a role to play too, according to Reuters; Ottawa promised to “unfreeze” negotiations to roll back a ban on the sale of certain pieces of military equipment to Turkey, including the CMX-15D optical targeting system for Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone, one of country’s top sellers in the international arms sales market.

Neither the jet sale nor the ban withdrawal seems likely to actually happen in the foreseeable future. The U.S. Congress’s opposition to the F-16 sale is led by Senator Robert Menendez, who told Reuters last week that he could drop his objections if the Biden administration “can find a way to ensure that Turkey’s aggression against its neighbours ceases.”

That’s a big if. Mr. Menendez was referring to Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan, which has been in years-long conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. In 2020, Turkey helped its ally reclaim vast swathes of territory in the region thanks to the sale of TB2 drones to the Azerbaijanis. When it was revealed that those drones were equipped with Canadian-made targeting systems – in violation of Canada’s Export and Import Permits Act, which forbids the sale of weapons that could be used to commit serious human-rights violations – Ottawa put a halt to those exports to Turkey.

Resuming such military exports would be a risky prospect. Turkey had been able to bypass the spirit of the Canadian law by selling their drones to countries that may engage in human-rights violations, and the current ban allows Canadian authorities the ability to vet who receives the tech. Giving that choice back to Turkey risks repeating the mistake of trusting a government that has already proven it cannot be trusted.

The Turkish president is a transactionalist to the core – a leader who views the world in zero-sum trade-offs. In recent months, he has managed to win yet another national election and secure a majority in parliament for his governing coalition, and the lengths he was willing to go for those wins were astounding. In the 12 months leading up to the May election, Turkey’s interest rate was slashed from 14 per cent to 8.5 per cent, and minimum wage was raised by 260 per cent over the same period year-over-year. Turks were suddenly earning more and able to borrow more cheaply. Virtually all economists agreed that giving people money to make up for the higher cost of living due to the resulting inflation would only fuel more inflation, but Mr. Erdogan’s logic wasn’t economic, it was electoral – and it worked.

Next up are municipal elections, scheduled for next March. In the last local elections, Mr. Erdogan’s AK Party lost control of all of Turkey’s major cities, including the grand prize of Istanbul. To win them back, he must project an image palatable to the urban voter, which means reaching out to Europe and the U.S. while distancing himself from Russia, whose citizens have flooded into Turkish cities since the invasion of Ukraine and have contributed to skyrocketing rents in urban areas.

The tactics are cynical, but they have also kept Mr. Erdogan in power for more than two decades. How long he will need to play this game before his next U-turn will thus depend on how the domestic situation in Turkey plays out over the coming weeks and months. But Mr. Erdogan has some time: Sweden’s NATO membership will need to be ratified by the Turkish parliament, and it conveniently went on a three-month recess on Saturday.

A lot can happen until then – so much so that Mr. Erdogan’s U-turn could very well turn into a full roundabout.

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