Need for mending fences in Turkish foreign policy

Need for mending fences in Turkish foreign policy

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is placing much importance on his visit to Iran on March 4-6. The trip is Turkey’s first official visit to Iran since the lifting of international sanctions following the nuclear deal, and it also follows the recent election in Turkey’s neighbor, won by reformists. The trip comes amid the fragile “ceasing of hostilities” in Syria and marks an opportunity for Ankara and Tehran to normalize relations, which have been strained in recent years.

In Syria, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the pro-Iran Hezbollah militia have been fighting in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Turkey, meanwhile, has been supporting “moderate opposition” groups trying to overthrow al-Assad. So Iran has been siding with Russia while Turkey has been siding with its NATO allies. During Davutoğlu’s visit to Iran, the sensitive Syria issue is highly likely to be discussed between the two neighbors competing for regional influence.

Another political issue that is likely to come up during Davutoğlu’s talks in Tehran could be the recently established “Islamic Military Alliance,” motivated by Saudi Arabia, which aims to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) while also standing against “Shiite expansionism.” Ankara and Riyadh are cooperating both within the Alliance and the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, though Turkey has declined to actively participate in the Alliance and has not assigned any troops.

An equally important topic for Ankara is to try to boost already existing economic ties between Turkey and Iran. Davutoğlu recently pointed out that Turkey was among the few countries that continued trade with Iran despite the U.S.-imposed sanctions, adding that he hoped there could now be more cooperation.

After returning from Tehran, Davutoğlu is scheduled to fly to Brussels on March 7. There he will hold a critical meeting with the European Union in order to talk over the agreement to control the influx of Syrian and other migrants and also reactivate ties between Ankara and Brussels. The EU’s efforts, orchestrated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will focus on a 3-billion euro package to handle the migrants in Turkey, as well as Turkish-Greek cooperation (with a NATO mission recently starting to patrol the Aegean Sea). Turkey’s efforts will focus on opening negotiation chapters and visa-free travel for Turkish passport holders within Schengen states.

On March 8, Davutoğlu is due to meet with his Greek guest Alexis Tsipras in the Aegean city of İzmir for the “High-Level Cooperation Council” between the two countries, to work on enhancing cooperation over the Aegean, including the migrant problem.

These are all good signs for Turkish foreign policy, which has been under severe domestic and international criticism over getting too deeply involved in Middle Eastern affairs since the Arab Spring protests started in 2010-11. In addition to becoming bitter rivals with the regime in Syria, Turkey has been left with no ambassadors in Egypt and Israel, has serious problems with its major ally the U.S., and now has very tense relations with Russia since the downing of a Russian jet over airspace violations last November.

So Davutoğlu’s travel program over the next few days could see a diversification of attention in Turkey’s foreign policy. If it leads to a reactivation of relations with the EU, perhaps it will mark a major step toward turning Ankara’s face West once again.