Following the AKP (Justice and Development Party) victory in February 2002, Turkey’s clout has been steadily increasing in the Balkans, the Arab world, and the predominantly Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union.  Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is pursuing a neo-Ottoman agenda that blends Islamic revivalism with nationalism.  Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s concept of “strategic depth,” patiently applied over the years, has transformed the geopolitics of the Greater Middle East and cemented Turkey’s position as a power in her own right.  Robust economic growth and the absence of serious opposition cleared the way for a gradual abolition of Kemal Ataturk’s secularist legacy at home.  Davutoglu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” opened the prospect of regional leadership abroad.

Since May, however, Erdogan has made a series of uncharacteristically hazardous moves.

Before then, his government was maintaining cordial, if not exactly friendly, relations with Syria.  Ankara stayed neutral in the conflict while advising Bashar al-Assad’s regime to follow the path of political and economic reform.  Erdogan’s abrupt decision to support the uprising has changed the equation.  His calculus was simple: Turkey would become a key player in the Western regime-change strategy by providing operational bases and supply channels to the rebels and by confronting Iran, which supports Bashar.  Turkey’s position as Washington’s regional partner would be strengthened, and at the same time the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—which is ideologically close to the AKP—would be groomed for eventual takeover.  The prospect of an Islamist Syria as Turkey’s client state proved enticing.

By mid-summer Erdogan felt confident enough to make a series of controversial moves—notably, Turkey’s open backing of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority.  Ties between Turkey and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, have blossomed since Turkey’s alliance with Israel collapsed following a raid by Israeli troops on a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010.  By supporting Hamas in the Palestinian power struggle, Turkey was acting contrary to the long-established U.S. policy of supporting the more moderate Fatah movement.

In northern Iraq, Turkey forged close ties with the autonomous Kurdish region, bypassing the country’s central government in the process.  In an audacious display of assertiveness, Davutoglu visited Kirkuk in early August without notifying the government in Baghdad.  Turning the putative Kurdish statelet in Iraq into a client would be a major coup for the government in Ankara.  The partnership is based on the common goal of denying the Marxist PKK guerrillas a foothold on either side of the border and providing Iraq’s Kurds with a potential northwestern route for their oil and gas exports, which Nouri al-Maliki’s central government would not be able to control.  The net effect would be a further weakening of an already unstable Iraq in the aftermath of allied withdrawal, which is also contrary to U.S. policy; but Washington appeared, yet again, unperturbed by Turkey’s faits accomplice.

Erdogan’s assertiveness in the Balkans reached a new high when he declared, on July 11, that “Bosnia and Herzegovina is entrusted to us.”  Addressing an AKP meeting in Ankara, he recalled an alleged statement of the late Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, whom Erdogan visited on his deathbed in Sarajevo: “He whispered in my ear these phrases: ‘Bosnia is entrusted to you [Turkey], it is what remains of the Ottoman Empire.’”  Erdogan went on to declare that Turkey would “put this trust in God with high precision.”  The notion that Bosnia has been bequeathed by her fundamentalist Muslim leader to the Turkish state is unsurprisingly anathema to the non-Muslim majority of Bosnia’s citizens, and caused uproar in the region.  Serbia under the new leadership is notably less inclined to tolerate Turkish posturing than the inept Tadic regime, and a key link in the Balkan Green Corridor from Istanbul to Central Europe is still missing.

On October 10, Erdogan committed the biggest blunder of his career to date when he authorized the Turkish air force to intercept a Syrian passenger plane flying from Moscow to Damascus and force it to land at Ankara airport on suspicions that it was carrying weapons.  No weapons were found, but the affair caused abrupt deterioration of Turkey’s relations with Russia.  President Vladimir Putin postponed a scheduled visit to Ankara and declared that “only the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council can serve as a basis for limiting arms supplies. . . . In all other cases, nobody can use any pretext to dictate how Russia should conduct trade and with whom.”

Diplomats and analysts agree that Turkey acted on faulty intelligence from a Western, probably American source.  The question remains whether the mistake was deliberate—designed to provoke Moscow, or to curtail Turkish overconfidence, or both—or incidental.  Either way, Erdogan now finds himself dangerously overexposed.  At home his support for the Syrian rebels is eroding his standing with the people—including an estimated ten million Shia Alevis—who overwhelmingly oppose any military action against Bashar’s government.  Abroad, his repeated calls for “humanitarian intervention” elicit no response.  The Europeans have more pressing financial and political problems and are loath to act without U.N. Security Council approval, which will never be granted.  Bellicose rhetoric from Washington is not matched by actions on the ground.  Erdogan’s hints that he may act unilaterally have not impressed anyone, and his calls for border buffer areas and no-fly zones remain ignored.  And Bashar’s forces remain impressively effective, almost two years into the conflict.

To add to Erdogan’s woes, the government in Damascus has retaliated by helping Turkey’s archenemy, the Kurdistan People’s Party insurgents, whose attacks on government targets in southeastern Turkey are at a ten-year high.  Davutoglu complains that when Syrian government forces withdraw from certain places along the Turkish border, “sometimes they are giving weapons or other means to let the PKK control those parts of Syria.”  He of all people should not feign surprise.  A regime fighting for survival will help its enemy’s enemy.

Erdogan feels pressured and let down by the reluctance of the Western powers to up the ante, but the problem is of his own making.  It was imprudent to start playing va banque before the gains of the previous decade, impressive but tentative, had been consolidated.  He now stands isolated, in the same camp with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  “Strategic depth” has been replaced by strategic blindness.  Columnist Semih Idiz, writing in the influential Hürriyet daily, summed up the problem when he described Turkish foreign policy as a “rudderless ship.”  This is good news.  For years, a cocky, overconfident Turkey has been a destabilizing force in the Greater Middle East and in Southeastern Europe.  Her ambitions need to be curtailed, and her character unmasked.