Turkish Foreign Policy after the Elections: Changing Course in Dire Straits
Sinan Ülgen, Doruk Ergun*
The Turkish general elections conducted on November 1st, resulted with the victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). After running the country single-handedly for the past 13 years, the AKP had lost its parliamentary majority in the June elections but managed a spectacular comeback in the November elections and was able one more time to form a single party government.
In the run-up to this last round of elections, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu promised his electorate the country would undergo a process of “restoration”. Indeed, many of the country’s policies, including its foreign policy, are in need of recalibration. The foreign policy steps that were undertaken in the first two terms of the AKP which aimed to develop Turkey’s relations not only with the West, but also with its close neighborhood were continued more ambitiously under Davutoğlu’s administration. Initially Turkey’s increasing trade relations with the Middle East and rising soft power were welcomed by significant part of the Turkish public and throughout the region.
Yet after 2011, Turkish foreign policy, under the pressure of rapidly changing regional dynamics, gradually abandoned caution and realism and engaged in policy initiatives incommensurate with Turkey’s soft power and foreign policy capabilities. As a result, Ankara became party to regional disputes and mostly in isolation from its traditional allies.
The Hardships of the Current Context
Turkey’s relations with almost all of its more distant neighbors have turned sour. The warming Turkish-Egyptian relations in the aftermath of the Muslim Brotherhood movement’s rise to power, were torn apart after the coup d’état that brought General Sisi to power. The severed relations with Israel after the Mavi Marmara incident have not been bridged even after the United States’ attempts of facilitation. Turkey’s rising economic presence in Libya was hampered after the 2011 intervention in Libya.
Turkey’s ties with its bordering neighbors are also under stress. The Turkish-Iranian relations that reached a level of confidence leading to the signature of a nuclear fuel swap deal back in 2010, have been replaced with competition and turned into a struggle for attaining regional influence that pits Iran to Turkey and the Gulf States. The tense relations between Turkey and Baghdad due to Turkey’s energy ties to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have become even more under duress as a result of Turkey’s military presence in Northern Iraq, and Iran and Russia’s rising influence over Iraq.
While Turkey had reached the pinnacle of its relations with Syria before 2011, it saw quite quickly after the civil war began that Assad was beyond redemption and thus became one of the biggest opponents of the regime. In this process Turkey has suffered both from the spillovers of the civil war, and has been at the centerpiece of criticism from states in the region and the West for its political, logistical, financial and military support to rebels. Turkey has drawn criticism from its Western partners on a number of issues, including not doing enough to fight against ISIS, allegedly supporting radical Islamist groups and its relations with the Kurds.
The recent crisis with Russia has been the latest addition to Turkey’s web of complicated relations. Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has both been a new front in the competition between NATO and Russia, and has formed a new hurdle to Turkey’s vision of a Syria without Assad. Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane due to its violation of the Turkish airspace on November 24th has not only caused the economic and political relations of Turkey and Russia, which had become major trading partners in the last years, to plummet, but has also increased the risk of escalation between the two sides.
Signs of change
Nevertheless, the deterioration of the Arab Spring into a collapse of the security order, especially in Syria, has severely limited Turkey’s freedom of movement in the region and has inevitably started the process of restoration to “factory settings” of Turkish foreign policy. Moreover, the security environment that has been reshaped after Russia’s intervention and the potential escalation between Turkey and Russia, have accelerated Turkey’s convergence with its Western partners. As cooperation has left its place to the traditional competition dating back to the Ottoman Empire and Russian Tsardom, the wave of Eurasianism that was being voiced more loudly in Turkish policy making in the last years—which manifested itself in ways including the proposed air defense deal with China and President Erdogan’s declarations regarding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—has come to an end. Actually, the first signs of this convergence became visible with the signature of the deal between Turkey and the United States on July which opened the Incirlik air base to the use of the anti-ISIS coalition and envisaged the establishment of a zone cleared of ISIS in Syria near the Turkish. Turkey’s decision in mid-November to abandon negotiations with China regarding its missile defense tender—which had drawn harsh criticism from NATO—can be taken as yet another indication of the end of this period of an ultimately futile quest to balance Turkey’s foreign relations with deeper engagement with major non-Western players.
Relations with the West
Yet even if Ankara decides to cooperate more closely with the West, significant gaps remain between Turkey’s regional aspirations and the long term objectives of its Western partners. On Syria, Turkey remains adamant about the regime change agenda while the priority of the West has shifted to the containment and weakening of ISIS. The status of the Syrian Kurds that are seen mostly as a threat by Turkey due to their organic links to the PKK and rather as an useful component of the land campaign against the ISIS by the West. Ankara’s relations with the overtly Islamist elements in the Middle East ranging from Al Nushra in Syria, Hamas and the Dawn Coalition in Tripoli continue to raise suspicion in Western capitals. In general, the past few years have created and sometimes deepened a trust gap between Turkey and its partners in particular about Turkey’s regional ambitions. This has been the consequence of the few years of unilateralism that undermined the cohesion of Turkey’s previously established alliances. Going forward, Turkey will need to reshape its foreign proclivities to reflect a stronger penchant for multilateralism and coalition building. This is the only path to the type of regional influence that the Turkish leadership is adamantly seeking.
As stated, coalition building with the United States will be facilitated by the worsening security environment. A convergence with Europe has also become a tangible reality in the wake of Europe’s desire to resolve the burden of Syrian refugees which has greatly strengthened Ankara’s hand. As a result of the negotiations initiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkey has received for its cooperation with the European Union on the refugee issue, the assurance of financial aid amounting to 3 billion euros, the opening of several chapters in its accession negotiations and the removal of Schengen visa requirements for Turkish citizens by fall 2016.
Yet these steps should not necessarily be read as a signal of a clear pathway to EU membership. One scenario would be for this agreement to lay the foundation to a stronger Turkey-EU dynamic that could indeed accelerate Turkish EU accession. But this outcome will depend both on the evolution of European politics as much as the zeal for democratic reforms in Turkey. The indomitable rise of anti-immigration, anti-Islam parties in many European constituencies portend a difficult environment for the Turkey-EU relationship. It is even unclear if under these conditions the EU can deliver on its promises to Turkey including the lifting of visas and the financial assistance. But equally Turkey has not yet demonstrated a strong willingness to significantly upgrade its democratic standards and address its deepening deficiencies on the rule of law and press freedoms.
Relations with the Middle East
Furthermore, even if Turkey wants to “restore” its relations in the Middle East, its maneuvering space would be limited in the current context. The legacy of more recent Turkish policy in the Middle East has been a more conflictual relationship with Iran. Ankara and Tehran are engaged in a proxy war in Syria. In Iraq, Tehran is determined to champion the Shiite constituency again to the detriment of Turkey backed local actors. With Egypt the scope of a real convergence remains limited due to the animosity in Ankara to the Sissi backed government. Since the end of the AKP leadership more vocal support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the relations with the Gulf States have improved. But in the wake of Turkey’s clear support to the Saudi led campaign in Yemen, Ankara should be wary of being sucked in a sectarian alliance with Saudi Arabia that would further fuel the confessional conflict between the Gulf Kingdom and Iran. In contrast with the Arab countries, relations with Israel can be expected to improve. The changes in the regional security environment, where many challenges are viewed similarly in Ankara and in Tel Aviv, and the improved Turkey-US relationship would provide the impetus to such a rapprochement.
On the other hand, relations with Russia are drifting towards uncertainty after the jet downing crisis. Putin’s expectation of an apology that will not be met in Ankara and the instrumentalization of this crisis by Putin to serve his Russian nationalist discourse indicate that Ankara and Moscow have passed a turning point in their relationship. The quite astounding diplomatic achievement of being able to compartmentalize their differences over regional issues so as to prevent them from poisoning their bilateral relationship is now a feature of the past. Indeed, Turkey, which has traditionally strived to appease NATO- Russia relations, at the cost of coming under criticism for its lack of belligerence by its NATO partners is now in a direct conflict of interest with Russia. Russia’s continuing military and political build up in the Middle East will inevitably lead to a clash of interest with Turkey. This is already a reality in Syria. But beyond economic and political friction, a direct tactical military conflict over the contested Syrian airspace cannot be totally discounted. The greatest risk in this regard comes from potential Russian provocations, with a Turkey intent on protecting its sovereign rights and not to overlook potential harassments.
The Turkish foreign policy project that began after 2011 which focused on attaining regional leadership through Turkey’s unilateral projection of its own power and skills, instead of the traditional policy of influence that would work more gradually but permanently through multilateral alliances, has reached its end. In the 2011-2015 period, with a desire to influence regional dynamics Ankara chose to become party to the disputes of the Middle East contrary to its foreign policy tradition. The failure to reach desired outcomes has led to a reassessment in Ankara about its foreign policy choices. A recalibration is in the works. Current signs suggest a resurfacing willingness—in part due to the imposition of regional conditions—on the side of Ankara to work in tandem with the Western alliance. At this stage, a key consideration regarding Turkey’s long term foreign policy orientation is whether this convergence with the West is to remain contextual or more structural in a way that is reminiscent of the established principles of Turkey’s more traditional foreign policy throughout the Republican era.
*Sinan Ülgen, Chairman, EDAM & Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe
*Doruk Ergun, Research Fellow, EDAM