Turkey Announces New Regional Policy
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Iran this week carried meanings and created results beyond Turkey-Iran relations. In Tehran, Ankara gave clues about its new, emerging regional policy.
It all started with President Erdoğan’s visit to the new king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdülaziz, last month. This triggered many questions: Does Turkey’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries point at a new opening? And does this make Turkey a part of the region’s sectarian war?
In the three weeks following this visit, Ankara announced its support for the “Sunni coalition,” formed for the Yemen crisis. This further increased the concerns that Turkey was becoming a party involved in the sectarian conflict.
Right after this, Erdoğan harshly criticized Iran’s regional policies, thus eliciting reaction from Iran. This nurtured the fears that Turkey was stepping into the sectarian rift at the expense of its Iranian relations.
Hence, it was widely speculated Erdoğan would cancel his trip to Tehran. Yet, just the opposite happened. Not only that, but during the welcoming ceremony, Erdoğan and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani held hands while walking. This scene itself was the precursor of the positive messages to be conveyed at the joint press conference.
Moreover, the visit resulted in decisions not only of bilateral cooperation, but also about Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
What was even more surprising were the messages he delivered on his return. We, journalists who had joined Erdoğan on his visit, asked him questions about his meeting during our flight back from Tehran. His answers carried traces of Ankara’s newly-emerging foreign policy.
First of all, Turkey, for the first time during the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) governance, declared clearly and loudly that it stands against sectarianism. Erdoğan repeated five times on the plane that Ankara stands at equal distance to all sects, through the use of very strong expressions. “My biggest fear is sectarianism. Some people might be Shiite. My country might be predominantly Sunni. However the main thing for us is neither Sunni, nor Shiite. It is Islam itself,” he said.
In this way, he also built his relationship with Iran by maintaining a distance from Iran’s Shiism. Similarly, he related to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries by setting aside their Sunni characters.
This approach revealed that Turkey’s support for the Yemen operation is not at the expense of its Iranian relations and that it doesn’t belong to either camp.
And this is exactly what paved the way for the mediation initiative recently brought up by Ankara.
The first cues of this mediation effort were given by İbrahim Kalın, the presidential spokesperson, just one day before the trip. “We will continue our efforts to bring all parties to the table and resolve the Yemen crisis via negotiations and dialogue,” he said.
Erdoğan then carried this plan forward, by drawing a roadmap. He said Turkey’s initiative was well received by both Saudi Arabia and Iran. “Now the process will continue with meetings held by our foreign ministers,” he said.
The president added that he had discussed this with Pakistan as well and would soon visit Indonesia and Malaysia, ending with another visit to Saudi Arabia. “After this tour, hopefully our evaluations will lead to a final point,” he said.
It is also notable that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Pakistan was waiting for a response from the Turkish president regarding his talks with Saudi Arabia and Iran, before Pakistan would decide to join the Sunni coalition or not.
The picture is clear: the Arab uprisings have turned the region upside down and shook Turkey’s bilateral relations. Now the balance of power in the region is being re-shaped and apparently, Turkey wants to have a say in this new equation. To this end, Ankara is developing a new regional policy and re-designing its relations.
This will certainly be a difficult process, since the equilibrium is quite sensitive and sectarian war is rapidly increasing. Moreover, Turkey has sour relations with some countries which stand at the very center of this equation. Hence patience and steadiness will be needed in order to stay the course. But most importantly, it requires extreme flexibility.
Yet, despite all the challenges, it gives hope.