As a rule, domestic policies influence foreign policy priorities. This rule constitutes one of the important approaches to understanding Turkey’s foreign policy movements, which are guided by a domestic agenda that directs its priorities and trajectory. More often than not, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s positions on the global scene come in response to domestic problems, reflecting his desire to tighten his grip on power.
As such, the recent shifts in Turkey’s foreign policy can’t be interpreted in isolation from Erdogan’s strategic domestic goals pertaining to fulfilling his political aspirations, with the presidential and parliamentary elections looming on 18 June 2023 under the Constitution. The upcoming elections are projected to be the most decisive and critical to Erdogan’s political future, given results of recent polls that showed a dwindling popularity of the Justice and Development Party (APK) to less than 30 percent, down from 50 percent, which threatens the extension of Erdogan’s rule. Given Turkey’s economic problems and the growing strength of the opposition, it would be beneficial for Erdogan to make achievements at the external level to mobilize political support domestically.
The Turkish opposition has taken considerable steps to oust Erdogan from power in the upcoming elections. These steps included the formation of a six-party alliance by six opposition parties, aka the “Table of Six”. Notwithstanding estimates on the alliance’s electoral weight and its ability to defeat Erdogan, the growing popular anger due to the plummeting economic indicators and the negative repercussions of the recent foreign policy adventures have prompted Erdogan to reconsider his foreign policy orientations. The domestic dimension of Turkey’s foreign policy shifts can be detailed as follows:
• Pacification with the Syrian Regime: The Syrian file is of critical importance in the electoral competition and is becoming a trending subject on the political agenda of both the government and the opposition. Turkey is hosting about 3.7 million Syrian refugees, who are being seen as the source of the economic and social problems the country is experiencing. This fed the national anti-immigrant sentiment, which gave rise to a real political crisis for Erdogan and his party.
In a recent opinion poll, Turkish respondents rated the refugee crisis as the second most important issue after the economy. Several political observers attributed the successes of the opposing Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the 2019 local elections to its promises regarding refugees, which prompted opposition parties to toughen their positions on refugees to win voter sympathy.
For instance, the two largest opposition parties, i.e. the CHP and the Social Democratic People’s Party, bitterly criticized Erdogan’s policies that have changed the demographics of Turkey and pledged to restore relations with the Syrian regime to repatriate all Syrian refugees, if they win the upcoming elections.
The CHP promised to set out conditions to ensure the voluntary return of refugees to Syria within two years of coming to power, by engaging in dialogue with the Syrian regime, strengthening cooperation and coordination with the international community, and investing in the Syrian infrastructure.
The Democracy and Progress Party and the Future party argued that the open door policy is no longer durable, calling for sending Syrian refugees to a third country (e.g. European countries) and pursuing a more strict policy to curb the movement of Syrian refugees within Turkey and limit their presence within the camps. In this vein, leader of the Good Party, Meral Aksener, called on Erdogan to appoint her a special envoy for refugee affairs, expressing her readiness to travel to Syria and meet with al-Assad to ensure the return of the Syrian refugees. Eli Aksoy, a member of the Good Party, described the Syrians as illiterate, unable to integrate into Turkish society, and demanded that they be repatriated. Further, the Patriotic Party and the CHP announced visits to Syria in September.
What’s more, the hostile feelings towards the refugees prompted the emergence of anti-refugee parties. In August 2021, far-right politician and parliament member Umit Ozdag founded the Victory Party, which is based mainly on anti-Syrian ideology and campaigns against the presence of refugees in Turkey, accusing them of triggering the country’s economic and financial problems and criticizing the high birth rates among them, considering them a silent invasion.
Ozdag made headlines after giving a speech in April 2022 in which he criticized government spending on foreigners and argued that the presence of refugees had exacerbated inflation rates. Weeks after his speech, Ozdag gained great popularity on Twitter, as has been reflected in the wide interaction with his tweets, sometimes exceeding interactions with those of Erdogan. While the party enjoys only a handful of the votes, as per opinion polls, it pledged to abandon the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and place anti-personnel mines on the Syrian border to prevent the crossing of refugees.
This domestic dimension constitutes one of the main gateways to the interpretation of Erdogan’s initiative to activate the political dialogue with the Syrian regime after years of fraught relations. Besides the several geopolitical factors that push for pacification, Ankara realized that facilitating the return of refugees and entering into talks with al-Assad regardless of outcomes will only be possible through the Syrian government. This will allow Erdogan to gain political ground at home. Erdogan hopes that his calculated conciliatory moves towards Syria will help him improve his image internally, mobilize political support, and show the Turkish government as fixing its mistakes by trying to communicate with the Syrian President (refugees are generally seen as being a secondary outcome of Erdogan’s failed policy in Syria).
However, it seems that Turkish talks with the Assad regime will have a separate path from the political process, which is unlikely to witness progress in the near term due to the complexity of the calculations of the parties involved in the conflict. Rather, the negotiations will focus on issues that are of security priority for Ankara and serve its local goals. Perhaps this was reflected in the meeting of Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan with head of the National Security Bureau Ahmad Diyab, where they discussed the safe return of refugees. Fidan called for the repeal of Act No 10 passed by the Syrian government on 2 April 2018, stipulating that if citizens living abroad fail to make an ownership claim within the 30-day period, the ownership will be reverted to the province, town, or city where the property is located. During the meeting, Diyab requested withdrawal of the Turkish military forces from northern regions, Fidan promised to study the matter.
Over the past months, the Turkish government has taken steps, revealing its plans to repatriate refugees. For instance, a video was streamed showing a ceremony in which hundreds of housing units built by Ankara in northern Syria were handed over to refugees. In his speech during the ceremony, Erdogan stated that Ankara has plans to ensure the return of 1 million Syrian refugees to their country. In the same vein, Interior Minister Suleiman Soylu said that Turkey will deliver at least 100,000 homes to Syrian refugees by the end of 2022.
• Turkey’s Balancing Policy on the Ukraine War: The Ukraine war came at a perfect time for Erdogan, who made good use of it to enhance the geopolitical importance of his country, showing it as an irreplaceable international actor for the West, capable of making regional decisions and leading international mediation. In this vein, Turkey closed the Bosphorus Strait, hosted peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, and brokered the Black Sea grain deal, all of which are achievements that Erdogan will work to market himself internally as Turkey’s powerful man who secured his country an international standing, compensating for the foreign policy defeats he suffered over the past period. Erdogan also wanted to capitalize on the Ukraine war to reform his country’s relations with the West, believing that their awareness of the pivotal role he plays in addressing global crises such as the food crisis will prompt them to support him in the elections.
By pursuing a balancing policy on the war and opposing Western sanctions against Russia, Erdogan sought to consolidate his position at the global diplomatic stage, being the only NATO leader capable of talking to Putin and providing military aid to Ukraine. He aims at ensuring Russian assistance in elections through the economy, by pushing the Kremlin away from penalizing his country’s troubled economy through reducing tourism and energy flows or both and enhancing economic and trade cooperation, particularly given the growing Turkish exports to Russia, rising in July by 75 percent on an annual basis.
• Sweden and Finland Accession to NATO: Pursuing brinkmanship in the face of NATO’s eastward expansion strategy, Erdogan aimed at sending the message that he is a powerful leader who could challenge Turkey’s Western enemies and impose his own terms on the US and European agendas, forcing them to make concessions on an important issue, framed in the context of the war against Kurdish terrorism, a message geared towards titillating the nationalist voters, particularly with the Turkish public opinion having a growing hostility towards the West. According to a survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in April, 58.3 percent of Turks see the United States as the biggest threat to Turkish national interests, while 67.9 percent of respondents believe that European countries want to divide and disintegrate Turkey just as was the case during the Ottoman Empire in the past, and 70.1 percent believe European countries have helped strengthen separatist organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.
Erdogan managed to extract concessions from Sweden and Finland -even if they were superficial and difficult to implement- after he signed a tripartite memorandum before the NATO summit in Madrid on 29-30 June, under which Sweden and Finland pledged to cooperate with Turkey in combating the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, banning fundraising and recruitment activities of the Kurdish militants, showing solidarity with Turkey in the war against terrorism, and refraining from impose restrictions or bans on Turkish defense industries. Seemingly, the MOU wasn’t welcomed by all the nationalist parties in Turkey. While it was endorsed by conservative nationalists who support the government, on the pretext that Turkey got what it wanted and its gains from the agreement cannot be underestimated, according to Great Unity Party leader Mustafa Destici, it was opposed, on the other hand, by secular nationalists who support the opposition and saw the MOU as a diplomatic weakness rather than a victory because it is not about Sweden and Finland, but all NATO members who support terrorist groups, according to the vision of Yavuz Agıralioglu Good Party Deputy Chairperson.
• Escalation of Tensions with Greece: Hydrocarbon exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean is an issue that takes on a cross-party national dimension, which makes it one of Erdogan and the AKP’s significant electoral mobilization cards, presenting Erdogan as a defender of the rights and wealth of the country. Perhaps this was one of his drivers to end exploratory talks with the Greek government and send the Abdulhamid Han drilling vessel to the eastern Mediterranean, accusing Greece of militarizing the Aegean islands, calling on Athens to abide by international agreements. The opposition is using this as a pressure card, accusing Erdogan of inaction and not taking the necessary measures to protect the Aegean islands and its marine resources, making statements that contradict with Erdogan’s policy. For instance, Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, a social democratic politician, reminded Greece of the Turkish victory over the invading Greek forces a century ago, and called for stronger pressure on Greece in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Kılıcdaroglu challenged Erdogan to take action on the military status of the islands, in response to the 10-question list that Erdogan challenged him to answer, including whether he will side with his country in its struggle in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea or will take the side of opponents.
• Regional Pacification Policy: Due to its interventionist policies and militarization of regional interactions, Ankara lost its geopolitical friends, which had repercussions for the domestic situation, embodied by the mounting economic crisis. For example, the unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods cost Ankara $3 billion dollars annually. And since the economic situation is the worrisome domestic factor for Erdogan’s chances in the upcoming elections, with Turkish lira losing 44 percent of its value against the US dollar in 2021 and 25 percent in 2022 and given the unconventional monetary policies that led to sharp cuts in interest rates and increased inflationary pressures, with inflation rate rising to 80 percent, which led to huge increases in food and housing prices, Erdogan is now opting for a less confrontational foreign policy, based on opening a new page with regional neighbors according to pragmatic foundations that tolerate differences of interest and focus on meeting points, especially on economic cooperation, towards promoting investments and trade to support the country’s broken economy. Seemingly, Erdogan’s regional de-escalation maneuver is paying off financially, with the reserves of the Turkish Central Bank increasing by more than $17 billion since the beginning of 2022, largely thanks to Gulf and Russian funds.
On the other hand, the pacification policy reflects Erdogan’s desire to move closer to the foreign policy orientations of the opposition parties to reduce the gap before voters, who have long criticized policies of Erdogan’s government in the Middle East, including its sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood and its interventions in Libya, Syria, and Egypt. In 2017, Kılıcdaroglu labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization” and criticized Erdogan for meeting it representatives, publicly calling on his party to normalize relations with Egypt and Syria. Kılıcdaroglu also withheld support for an 18-month extension of Turkey’s military mission in Libya, justifying this by the government’s abuse of mandates for domestic political purposes rather than focusing on protecting Turkey’s regional interests.
That said, it should be noted that there is consensus between the government and the opposition on some foreign policy issues, considered red lines that shouldn’t be crossed. For instance, the CHP criticized the government’s slipping into hostile and interventionist foreign policies in recent years, Kılıcdaroglu stated, in a speech on 14 May, “Foreign policy must be national, meaning there should be no rivalry with the government over foreign policy. We have to stand together as a nation on foreign policy.” Additionally, a Eurasian nationalist wing within the CHP has taken positions consistent with Erdogan’s policies on a range of issues, including chasing the PKK on Iraqi soil, military operations in Syria targeting the Kurds, intervention in Libya, military support for Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia, confrontations in the eastern Mediterranean in line with Turkey’s Blue Homeland strategy, tensions with Greece over territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea, and the Cyprus conflict. While the CHP called into question the gains of the Turkish military intervention in Syria and its conviction that it had deviated from its original goals, its members voted in favor of renewing the government’s mandate for military action in Iraq and Syria.
In short, Erdogan’s realization of the difficulty of a rapid economic reform that ensures him a dramatic rise in the upcoming elections caused him to return to playing the foreign policy cards and move on a diplomatic tightrope to ensure the survival of the political gains he made by pursuing the brinkmanship policy adopted in recent years, while reducing its negative domestic repercussions to the minimum and adopting an approach that allows him to present himself as a regional manipulator, capable of seizing geopolitical opportunities to serve supreme strategic interests, in a manner that helps him attract nationalist voters and convince the reluctant groups to participate in the upcoming elections and vote for the AKP.