Any change in Turkey’s foreign policy?

Any change in Turkey’s foreign policy?

The question of a radical shift in Turkey’s foreign policy, particularly on Syria, has been the talk of diplomatic circles since Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced last week that he would step down at the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) snap congress on May 22.

That question is based on the assumption that it was Davutoğlu - a former foreign minister and now the outgoing prime minister - who has been in full charge of Turkish foreign policy. But he was not. 

Erdoğan has always had the last word on policy - both when he was prime minister from 2003 to 2014, and as president since then. Especially after Abdullah Gül moved from being foreign minister to president in 2007, Erdoğan’s weight in foreign policy matters increased to become absolute. 

Actually, according to political backstage in Ankara, two of the causes that led to the fading of Davutoğlu’s star are directly related to foreign policy: Davutoğlu’s modification of the migration deal with the European Union at the eleventh hour (without full approval from Erdoğan), and his request to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington almost a month after Erdoğan (which was seen as being open to the perception that he had something else to say).

So there is no reason to assume that there will be a radical change in Turkey’s foreign policy just because Davutoğlu is departing as prime minister. Policies may still change, but not because of Davutoğlu’s departure – only if Erdoğan sees it as necessary. Indeed, Davutoğlu’s leaving might even be a convenient pretext to put the blame on him for certain failures over the past few years - including Ankara’s Syria policy – but any change will not be because Turkey will have a new prime minister from May 23.

So will there be a change in Turkey’s foreign policy?

That is not very likely for the time being. Turkey is currently at the threshold of a number of sensitive foreign policy moves. The “strategic nature” of getting closer to the EU was underlined by Erdoğan after he delivered a strong statement about the possibility of cancelling the migration deal if Brussels’ promises on visa-free travel are not kept. 

The ongoing Cyprus talks are also connected to Turkey’s EU relations. Following the Greek Cypriot election, due to take place on May 22, the intensity of those talks might accelerate. The normalization of relations with Israel is also on Ankara’s agenda. What’s more, Turkey is preparing for a joint military move with the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in both Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s Syria policy is already not the same as it was a year ago, and since the downing of the Russian jet in November 2015 it has been much more closely tied to that of NATO. Erdoğan said on May 10 that the recent ISIL attacks on the border town of Kilis are not only the “work of ISIL terrorists,” but part of an historic face-off. He said Turkey was keeping “all options on the table” for dealing with the ISIL threat.

In sum, there is no radical change in sight in Turkish foreign policy, at least in the short run.