Turkish foreign policy is heading to a crossroads
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) “zero problems with neighbors” policy was nothing but a derivative of the Turkish Republic’s strategic position formulated by its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as “peace at home, peace in the world.”
When it was first explained to the Turkish public and the outside world by then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül in 2003, it sounded good. Turkey was tired of controversies with its neighbors. It did not have embassies in two of its neighbors - neither in Greek Nicosia because Ankara does not recognize its presence as representing the Turks on Cyprus, nor in Yerevan because it has not established diplomatic links due to the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories. The emergence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq in 2005 was another problem, as the military headquarters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is located there.
The pragmatism of the Turkish Foreign Ministry at the time could have been in parallel with the “Strategic Depth” thesis of Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was serving as the chief foreign policy advisor to then Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. That policy reached to its peak in 2008-2009, after Gül was elected president in 2007 and the cabinet’s economy chief Ali Babacan, who was already a well-known figure in the West, took the Foreign Ministry post.
By 2008, the Turkish government was proud that there was not a single government or political group that it was not in contact with, and it was involved in normalization efforts with the Greek Cypriot and Armenian governments. The Turkish Foreign Ministry was also mediating between Israel and Syria, it was facilitating the nuclear talks between Iran and the U.N.’s 5+1, it was best friends with the Egyptian and Iraqi governments, it was getting into strategic partnership projects with Russia, and it had started talks with the U.S. over hosting the early warning radars of the strategic Missile Shield project. Ankara was trying to compensate for its distanced relations with the European Union by diversifying its links elsewhere, while cash was also flowing into the Turkish market from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. When Davutoğlu took over the Foreign Ministry post in 2009, the circumstances were ripe to establish strong ties with Iraqi Kurds, which he did.
The situation as of Feb. 24 is as follows: Turkey still has no embassies and no friendly contact with Greek Cyprus or Armenia. Now it also has no ambassadors in Israel, Egypt or Syria, being almost alone in prioritizing the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Erdoğan used to call his “brother.” Iran is in direct contact with the U.S. and other leading U.N. countries over its nuclear program. There are serious problems with the central Iraqi government, mainly based on sectarian differences. U.S. President Barack Obama is not in such close contact as he was before with the Turkish leadership, unless he has to ask for or tell something; between Ankara and Washington there are no detailed consultations any longer, instead there are discrepancies over the implicit Turkish backing of Russia in the Ukrainian crisis. Following heavy criticism about helping jihadist militants in Syria and Iraq, Turkey has begun cooperating, but all land routes to the Middle East are seriously cut because of circumstances. Egypt has said it will not renew an important sea transportation agreement as of April, and one of the split governments in Libya has announced that it has excluded Turkey from government tenders, which Turkey used to benefit from a lot. Even Hamas, which the AK Parti government quite values, is reluctant to carry its leadership to Turkey, firstly because it would rather choose an Arab country and are not keen on the idea of Turks leading Arabs, and secondly because it would like to be in an environment that has links with the West and Israel.
The government may still believe its loneliness is precious, since they give more value to principles than national interests, but this makes no difference regarding the need for a revision, because Turkish foreign policy may well be coming to a crossroads fairly soon.