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Reading into Turkey’s Foreign Policy Shifts

Over the past decades, Turkey has adapted to the changing regional and international environment, bringing about shifts in its foreign policy orientations, tools, and mechanisms, towards meeting its paramount national interests of becoming a dominant regional power, stressing its strategic importance globally, and fulfilling the political ambitions of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Fundamentally, Turkey’s foreign policy has undergone several periodic transformations over the past two decades, adapting to the geopolitical environment at the global and regional levels. The current developments brought catalysts for the third transition, involving a “multi-axis pragmatic realpolitik” to fix its strenuous relations with neighbors and critical partners, after its “intensive use of force” policy reached its maximum limits.

Phases of Turkey’s Foreign Policy Development

Since the JDP’s accession to power in 2002, Turkey’s foreign policy has undergone three main phases that governed its response to the global, regional, and local dynamics. These phases are as follows:

The Policy of Zero Problems: The policy of Zero problems was developed by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. It governed Turkish foreign policy during the first decade of the JDP rule. In essence, it is based on developing diplomatic and institutional relations with regions of strategic depth to Turkey, including the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, using soft power tools that are based on multilateralism, active globalization, and civilized realism, towards qualifying Turkey to a attain a central position in regional affairs. This policy was driven by the decline that characterized Ankara’s policies towards its neighbors in the Caucasus and the Middle East (former territories of the Ottoman Empire) in the 1990s and the lack of engagement with them beyond the NATO umbrella despite the social and cultural ties with neighboring regions, which limited Turkey’s regional influence and brought about a decline in its foreign investments and military partnerships. This required Ankara to adopt a multi-directional approach building on the “Zero Problems” and “strategic depth” concepts.

Under this policy, Ankara led regional pacification endeavors. For instance, it involved in nuclear talks with Iran on behalf of the United States, achieved reconciliation with Syria, led a mediation effort in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and engaged with the Iraqi Kurds. Additionally, it allowed for expanding the influence of Turkish diplomacy to the republics of the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, as was manifested in the establishment of the Organization of Turkic States in 2009, the tripartite cooperative partnership with Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the establishment of strategic partnerships with Ukraine, let alone the implementation of new business ventures in dozens of countries, the improvement of relations with Russia, and the expansion of diplomatic engagement in Africa.

Securitization Phase: This phase started with the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. By mid-2016, it had taken a more violent and militarized character with the aim of addressing the security problems that the soft power failed to resolve, given the internal and external dynamics that gave rise to serious political and economic pressure on Erdogan’s government, including primarily the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the failed 2016 coup, the accusation made against regional powers of being behind it, the Kurdish threat along Turkey’s southern borders with Syria and Iraq, and the divergence of its interests with its Western partners and allies on regional problems, especially those related to its security. During this phase, Turkey’s foreign policy was governed by concepts of independence, unilateral interventions, and gunboat diplomacy to protect its non-negotiable security interests and provide support to the political Islam movement. In this vein, it carried out a series of military operations in northern Syria, allied with the Tahrir ash-Sham movement, bombarded northern Iraq several times, and expanded its military bases there to curb Kurdish aspirations. It also provided military support in the Libyan and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts, which resulted in its isolation and conflicts with most of its regional neighbors, reinforced multilateral alignments against it, and deepened bilateral disagreements with its traditional Western partners such as the European Union (EU) and the United States.

Turkey’s joining the NATO, which has long been a strategic goal for the Ankara government, became impossible, given Turkey’s existential disputes resulting from its repeated intrusions into the eastern Mediterranean waters of Cyprus and the confrontations with Greek and French naval vessels. The Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 and its considerable repercussions reinforced the mistrust between NATO and Turkey. US-Turkish relations have also been complicated by Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system in July 2019, a step to which Washington responded by suspending Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter development program. Additionally, the Turkish military incursion that targeted Syrian Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria in October 2019 has also raised tensions with Congress, which considers the Kurds the main partner of the United States in its war against the Islamic State. Moreover, the Russo-Turkish relations were characterized by periods of ups and downs driven by the military and diplomatic competition to take control over the Syrian and Libyan conflicts as well as the Nagorno-Karabakh war, where the two countries backed opposing sides. Eventually, however, they managed to develop a cooperative and competitive strategy to avoid slipping into a clash of interests within the common conflict arenas.

The Return to the Pragmatic Approach: Turkey’s foreign policy is now on the brink of another tipping point, governed by moving away from unilateralism and returning to a multi-pronged foreign policy to reduce the negative repercussions of the hostile policies and the failure to capitalize on Arab uprisings. This Phase will be characterized by strengthening existing alliances, promoting bilateral relations, and managing conflicting interests, by pursuing proactive diplomacy that maintains contact with all parties during crises and benefiting from the multilateral diplomacy. This new approach has been manifested in Turkey’s endeavors to fix its deteriorating relations with four major Middle Eastern countries, i.e. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, and the progress in the Armenian-Turkish relations. Further, Turkey resumed diplomatic relations and flights and supported pacification efforts in the Middle East and negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. This trend was driven by several factors, including the need to promote the diplomatic gains of the recent military victories in Libya, Syria and the South Caucasus and the desire to counter the anti-Turkey alignments, increase regional competition with Russia and Iran, and reduce the economic cost of foreign adventures.

The necessities of the current geopolitical moment and the domestic situation gave rise to the third turn in Turkey’s foreign policy. In other words, the political and economic cost of Ankara’s diplomatic isolation and its need to adapt to the regional order that emerged after signing the Ibrahim Accords between Israel and Arab countries forced the Turkish government to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. This opened new channels to strengthen the diplomatic, strategic, and economic assets in Turkey’s foreign policy. The strained relations between the main regional actors proved to be detrimental to the real prospects of economic relations.

Turkey’s foreign policy shift was motivated by its desire to take advantage of its geographical location and gas infrastructure as a transit route for Israeli gas exports to Europe, an option that gained value after the withdrawal of US support for the EastMed natural-gas pipeline and the improvement of relations with Israel. Moreover, the shift in Turkey’s foreign policy was also driven by its desire to dismantle the regional cooperation networks which the tripartite partnerships (i.e. Egypt-Cyprus-Greece, Cyprus-Greece-Israel, and the East Mediterranean Gas Forum) gave rise to, towards defusing tensions with the Eastern Mediterranean countries and reviving the old communication mechanisms that have been disrupted in recent years. However, this path may stumble over the next period of what Turkey considers an encirclement of its security interests after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced Washington’s approval of the F-16 aircraft deal with Athens and his call to Congress to reject a similar deal with Turkey. In effect, Ankara views the US-Greek military and security cooperation similar to the US support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), i.e. alliances between the West and its traditional opponents that harms its security interests.

Turkey’s domestic political and economic interests were also a key driver of its foreign policy shift. Since 2017, Turkey has been witnessing an exacerbating economic crisis, with the exchange rate of the Turkish lira against the US dollar rising from TL3.1 in July 2017 to TL17.3 in June 2022. This caused inflation to hit highs of 78.6 percent on an annual basis, which had an impact on the purchasing power and living standards of the Turks and brought about an increase in poverty rates. And since the economic situation could harm Erdogan’s electoral chances, improving economic and trade relations with the economically important Middle Eastern countries may contribute to reopening their huge markets to Turkish exports, allowing for the possibility of increasing imports of agricultural and manufactured products and enabling revitalization of the tourism sector, which contribute to achieving Economic recovery necessary for Erdogan to win votes of the conservative national electoral base. Likewise, Turkey considers Europe as a significant part of this orientation. After all, it remains economically integrated with the EU, given the existing Customs Union, which has been in place since 1996, and the centuries-old bilateral economic, investment, and trade relations.

Recent developments in global geopolitics have contributed to Turkey’s shift towards moderation. In effect, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan –the country where Turkey has considerable influence– offered Ankara a chance to assert its ability to conduct dialogue with the Taliban regime, emerging as a key player that could help maintain open lines of communication between the Taliban and Western powers and NATO. This Turkish influence in Central Asia intensifies Ankara’s strategic importance for the United States if it wants to have access to this area.

Furthermore, there is the Ukraine war, which gave Turkey an opportunity to reposition strategically. For Ankara, the war could be employed to achieve two goals: 1) asserting Turkey’s global and regional standing by maintaining a balanced relationship with Moscow and Kiev without jeopardizing its geostrategic calculations, while avoiding joining the Western sanctions against Russia, in a way that ensures its strategic independence, and 2) promoting its geopolitical and economic influence by shaping the dynamics of the current crisis. This trend is consistent with the reading of some Turkish leaders of the future international order structure, who believe that the world is moving towards multipolarity, which allows regional powers such as Turkey to maneuver in a way that helps achieve its national interests through the geopolitical balance between Western powers and Russia, arguing that the country’s exclusive defense affiliation to NATO would a thing of the past and that developments in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union should reposition Turkey away from NATO, to have an independent position equidistant from the various centers of power.

Indeed, the Ukraine war highlighted Turkey’s strategic importance to the West and the European security structure, which contributed to breaking its international isolation and allowed it to play pivotal roles on the world stage to improve its international standing. For instance, last month, it brokered a grain deal between Russia and Ukraine, aimed at avoiding the global food crisis. Achieving balance and keeping contact with the two conflicting sides before and during the war, allowed Turkey to present itself as an intermediary, where it hosted peace talks in Antalya (11-13 March 2022) with the participation of the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine as well as other talks in Istanbul on 29 March.

Ankara has also taken advantage of its place in NATO to seize concessions on foreign policy issues that serve its central security goals. Its moves to postpone Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO weren’t intended to impede NATO’s strategic expansion plans in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but it was a calculated move to demonstrate Turkey’s continued ability to change the rules of the game and take advantage of its position to push the United States and the EU to make concessions on the F-16 aircraft deal and the arms embargo issue, along with addressing the bilateral security issues related to the SDFs elements. Erdogan viewed that NATO does not take Turkey’s security concerns seriously and that this was an opportune moment to force NATO to consider these concerns. This coincided with repeated Turkish threats to target Kurdish forces in Manbij and Tal Rifaat in northern Syria, given Turkey’s long-standing policy of considering the SDF a part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

In parallel, the Turkish stance offers Erdogan a personal opportunity to achieve his political goals, particularly enhancing his electoral chances, deeply touching feelings of national sectors by achieving victory in a political battle with Europe. This could prove effective, particularly with some national issues (e.g. the Western support for the SDFs and the maritime border demarcation dispute with Greece) going beyond party lines and enjoying the consensus of various political forces. 

That said, the Ukraine war and its repercussions may have a negative impact on several regional issues that are vital to Turkey’s security. For instance, the war could disturb the regional balance in the South Caucasus, the Black Sea region, and the Middle East, which would promote the Iranian presence, especially in Syria. This could spark further discord between the two major regional powers and exacerbate the existing tensions on several issues, including the negative Iranian stance on any Turkish military operation in northern Syria, the competition for influence in the Caucasus and Iraq, the disputes over water resources, Ankara’s anger over the violation of Turkish sovereignty through espionage and assassination attempts on Iranian exiles in Turkey, and the Iranian attacks on Israeli targets inside Turkey. The past few days have witnessed attacks by Turkish drones on several Syrian areas under the control of the SDFs, especially in the area of ​​Tal Rifaat and the villages of Ayn Issa, Tal Tamr, and Kobani. On 20 July, Turkish artillery bombed the Zakho tourist resort in the Dohuk region, located within the Kurdistan region of Iraq. This makes it unlikely or perhaps impossible to complete a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation in the current phase and makes matters more tense between Ankara and Baghdad, which gives Tehran more room to maneuver on Iraq.

In short, the current international, regional, and domestic dynamics forced Turkey to reorient its foreign policy towards a multi-pronged, more pragmatic, and serene approach that gives more space for establishing diplomatic and political understandings against a decline in the confrontation policy and a reduction of security interventions, with the aim of building positive relations with the Middle East, restoring its position as a strategic partner of the United States, and reducing tensions with the EU without severing its special relations with Russia. 

Turkey is likely to continue its strategy of neutrality and hedging in a turbulent global environment that is seeing a reconfiguration of alliances and in which taking sides would mean reducing Turkey’s ability to act as a bridge between Russia and Western allies. Turkey may be the most reliable country when it comes to potential negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Whatever direction Ankara takes, it will make sure to secure its national interests in Syria, Libya, the Caucasus, and the eastern Mediterranean, meaning the military option will be always on the table to address some of the security issues that Ankara considers non-negotiable.

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