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The new directions in Turkish foreign policy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan [File photo]

Both Israel and Turkey have recently announced a new agreement that would end the tense relationship between them. It was also reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin apologising for the incident in which Turkish forces brought down a Russian jet. Erdogan also sent his condolences to the family of the Russian pilot and emphasised his utmost commitment to reviving Turkish-Russian relations to their former strength.

These steps are considered two important signs that point to new directions in Turkish foreign policy and the actions that the Turkish government views as essential to implementing said foreign policy, which has been influenced by the developments in the region at large and by Turkey’s own interior reality and all the ways it has changed over the course of the last five years. All of these factors act as signifiers that show us the new directions of Turkey’s prevailing foreign policy.

Turkish government officials have been committed, both political and in the media, to implementing possible changes in the country’s foreign policy. Yet, members of Turkish opposition groups believe that these changes come far too late and that the Turkish government has been forced to go down this path in an effort to protect the country’s regional role and to find a way out of the political impasse that has come with partaking in this role. These changes also justify the Turkish government’s decision to go back on its previous stances and may lead to the drawing of new red lines, especially concerning the Freedom and Justice Party’s (AKP) relationship with Russia, Syria, Israel and Egypt.

Recalibrating the path

The path that Turkey has taken with regards to its foreign policy in the last five years, at least, has prevented the country from taking memorable stances with regards to current regional situations, although Turkey in itself has taken decisions on regional issues that greatly differ from its allies in the region.

The Arab revolutions have led to many important geopolitical changes in the Middle East. These changes have greatly affected neighbouring countries that have extended to other parts of the world. Turkey is among the countries that have been greatly affected by these changes due to its geographic proximity to the Arab world and its economic, cultural, social and political ties that draw it closer to the countries of the Arab world.

Turkish foreign policy has adopted a number of trajectories, especially after the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. Turkey’s regional role increased after revolutionary success in Tunisia and Egypt brought down the dictators of both countries. Transitional parties in both countries sought to implement the AKP’s model for governance, democracy and economic development with the rise of Islamic factions in both countries. The orientation of the parties in Tunisia and Egypt were in line with the AKP’s trajectory, yet many of the driving factors behind the decisions taken by these Arabs parties were also affected by the revolutions, and later the strength of counter-revolutionary forces and foreign interference, which led to changes on all accounts and in all stances.

Turkey took on positions that differ from its NATO allies especially with regards to the Syrian issue, all that happened in Egypt, the Palestinian question and finally, its most controversial stance when it placed itself within the line of fire by engaging in an open war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist organisation. Turkey also recognises the PKK’s ability to expand by creating a new united branch in Syria via the United Democratic Party. Such a development would eventually lead to the establishment of a Kurdish state that would be led by this party and its militias, which are currently enjoying the benefits that come with unprecedented American and Russian military support. Not to mention, there is also the growing presence of Daesh along Turkey’s borders and the increasing threat of the group’s influence as it continues to target villages and cities within Turkey.

Another source of stress for Turkey is its relationship with Russia, which has been placed under pressure after Turkish forces brought down a Russian jet in Turkish airspace on 24 November 2015. This incident occurred after the Russians entered the war in Syria to defend their interests and the Assad regime.

All of these factors have led both the AKP and the opposition to call for a change in Turkish foreign policy, so that it would become more realistic and pragmatic, in a way that would “reduce their enemies and increase their number of friends” in the region.

Turkish media outlets have all recently pointed to the possibility of a change in direction within foreign policy in a way “that straightens the path as opposed to taking steps backwards” because Turkish national interests require these kinds of changes. In fact, a Turkish official noted that improving the country’s relations with Russia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria would benefit Turkey’s economy and business relations with nearly $36 billion in gains.

One of the main signs for change was the need for a change in Turkish foreign policy. Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister, Numan Kurtulmus, has stressed on a change in Turkey’s role within the Syrian issue, in addition to its relations with Russia, the European Union and Israel.

It appears that a number of these changes will occur rapidly and that they will be based on a new foundation of political thought that will be pragmatic and realistic in its treatment of regional issues and crises within Turkey’s proximity. The current Turkish rationale behind dealing with this issue is that the world in its entirety has entered a new era of conflict and that Turkey is not capable of countering or confronting these challenges on its own. In this regard, “Turkey must actively work to actively deal with and solve the crises within its own zone and in countries within its proximity.”

Boundaries and possibilities of change

There is no doubt that the boundaries and the possibilities of change within Turkish policy are limited to and governed by Turkey’s alliances and the possibilities of reviving relations within the region. Turkey is currently considering forming new relations within the region in addition to restoring its older relations with former regional allies. As it stands today, Turkey is at least hoping to decrease the level of tension with countries in its domain.

Such a policy or way of thought was embodied by the recent implementation of Turkish-Saudi relations. In addition, Turkish-Emirati relations recently went back to their old ways. What is important here is that the level of cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, has improved such that it would limit Iran’s zone of influence within the region.

Saudi Arabia had also hoped that Turkey would restore its relationship with Egypt; however, it seems that Ankara is still adamant about maintaining its political stance with the Egyptian regime in that it views “any interference with the will of the people is nothing short of a coup.” Yet, this does not prevent Turkey in resuming economic relations with Cairo. The Turkish prime minister recently stated: “It is still possible to improve economic relations between [Egypt and Turkey] as this will undoubtedly benefit both countries.”

It also appears, according to Turkey, that it is Egypt which has taken a hard-line stance against restoring relations between the two countries. There have been talks of a new agreement between Turkey and Israel, which might stop Turkey using its veto power so that Israel could participate in NATO.

The agreement is said to potentially lead to the possibility of reparations and a formal apology, meeting on the middle ground, contingent upon lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip or at least providing a timeline for the siege. In addition, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has requested that a visit is planned for him to go to the Gaza Strip and that humanitarian aid is allowed to enter the Palestinian territory in exchange for Turkey increasing its level of control on Hamas’ leadership in Turkey.

Some political analysts have suggested that there is a link between the announcement of a reconciliation agreement with Israel and the emergence of a similar agreement with Russia. One of these agreements is said to have cleared the path for the other, though Ankara is said to have placed a peace agreement with Russia on the top of its priority list. This explains why Turkish officials recently celebrated Russia’s national day at the Russian embassy in Ankara and why Erdogan recently delivered a speech that congratulated Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. In fact, Erdogan expressed his wishes for “relations between the two countries to reach a desired state.” Erdogan’s address to Putin was taken as a sign that negotiations would begin between the two countries and that the Turkish foreign minister would visit Moscow at the beginning of July.

Other difficult issues

It appears that the possibilities and limitations for changes within Turkish foreign policy will include all of the issues that are affecting Turkey. Said changes will be a series of agreements on the middle ground by all parties. Thus one must ask what the prices that must be paid or the compromises that must be made for Turkey to reach agreements with countries like Russia, Israel, Egypt and Syria.

The importance of the Syrian issue is the driving force behind such agreements, as it is the most difficult and the most complicated issue facing the region. The Turkish foreign minister has recently begun a series of policies that would lead for way out of the political impasse in Syria without presenting a number of conditions as Turkey has done in the past. In addition to this, he has also stressed the importance of ending the war in Syria “in which our brothers and sisters have been dying for the last five years without a reason.” However, unlike previous years, he did not speak of Assad’s departure as a pre-condition for Turkish involvement.

Moreover, Turkish officials have made a number remarks about the nature of the collaboration that will take place with Russia and Iran on the Syrian issue, in that Turkey will insist on the unification of Syrian territory and will not allow for the formation of a Kurdish state.

It remains that changes within Turkish foreign policy will ensure Turkish interests, especially with regards to its economic and geo-political interests. These changes will emphasise Turkey’s role and its reality and it will reinforce the strength of its relations with its regional neighbours and the rest of the world.

Therefore, deep-rooted changes will not take place any time soon because of the complicated nature of the regional situation and the threats against Turkish national security. For this reason any of the changes that will take place will be implemented after the careful thought and consideration of all factors, including Turkey’s policies, interests and its security.

Translated from Al Jazeera, 28 June 2016.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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