Signs of change in Turkish foreign policy

Signs of change in Turkish foreign policy

It was something predictable to say that Turkish foreign policy, especially its policy regarding Syria and the Middle East, could not remain the same in a coalition as it was when Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) was in a single-party government. That would be the same even if a coalition is again led by Davutoğlu.

For example, on Syria, Ankara’s foreign policy could get even more aggressive in the event of a possible coalition between the AK Parti and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). On the other hand, it could become more pacifistic in the event of a coalition with the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The MHP, for example, is openly Eurosceptic, while the CHP criticizes AK Parti governments for focusing too much on the Middle East affairs and not paying attention to improving relations with the European Union.

It seems that in order not to be in a position to be asked for a foreign policy change by a potential coalition partner, Davutoğlu has decided to fine-tune certain problematic fields, taking advantage of the new situation imposed by the election results.

There are strong indications that the government line - about the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria being as important as fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), and about the Syrian Kurdish group the PYD taking control of areas on the Turkish border being more dangerous than ISIL - is quietly being replaced by rhetoric that ISIL is the number one threat for Turkey. A fine-tuning in Turkey’s policy regarding Syria and Iraq would have positive effects on Turkey’s relations not only with the U.S., but also with Iran and Russia. That could help Turkey better cope with its immense problem of refugees. 

In addition, there may be a series of moves regarding normalization of relations with Israel and Egypt.

It is likely that the focus of Turkish foreign policy, which has been more on the Middle East since the start of the “Arab Spring” nearly five years ago, could slowly shift back to relations with the EU. This may be starting with the chronic problem of Cyprus, with the U.K. apparently also playing a positive role in ongoing diplomacy on that issue.

For sure, Cyprus is not the only problem dogging relations between Turkey and the EU. But it is the main pretext for vetoing a number of effectively completed negotiation chapters for Ankara’s accession to the EU, including chapters on expanding democratic and legal standards. Of course, the EU is very much focused on its own economic crisis at the moment, including the acute situation in Greece, which leaves little space to give much thought to Turkey, especially at a time when Ankara is occupied by neighboring crises in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

But Cyprus diplomacy could provide a good start for improving relations with Greece, the EU, and the West more generally. The U.S. is certainly interested in stability and economic cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean amid new energy resources being found off the shores of Cyprus, Israel and Egypt.

The change is not visible yet. But the current diplomatic backstage shows signs of a move toward Turkey’s foreign policy changing in a positive direction.