Stagnation in Turkish foreign policy

Stagnation in Turkish foreign policy

Almost three weeks after Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said he was going to meet U.S. President Donald Trump during his visit to the U.S. on May 16-17, the White House officially confirmed on May 10 that the meeting will take place on May 16.

The announcement came after a high-ranking delegation consisting of Turkey’s chief of general staff, intelligence chief, and Erdoğan’s security and foreign policy advisers carried out week-long contacts in Washington.

Despite all efforts of this Turkish team, on top of numerous public and diplomatic statements from Ankara, Trump has approved a Pentagon plan to step up the direct flow of arms to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the U.S. military will partner with in taking the Syria town of Raqqa from the occupation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH. 

Turkey is particularly concerned because the YPG is the militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a bloody armed campaign against Ankara for the past three decades. 

Responding to Trump’s approval, Erdoğan reiterated on May 10 that it was wrong to act together with one terrorist group (the YPG) against another (ISIL). He vowed to try to convince Trump on May 16 to revise his decision.

Convincing Trump to revise a decision? The same Trump who fired the FBI chief with a Twitter message? On a military issue like defeating ISIL, which is in the interest of the world?

Erdoğan is right in principle when he says it is wrong to fight one terror group with the help of another, but there are other realities of power politics that must be considered. ISIL is a terrible terrorist organization designated as such also by the United Nations, while the YPG is designated as a terror group only by Turkey. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also in line with Trump in protecting the YPG against Turkish military attacks, so long as the YPG (which can be read as the PKK) - as the backbone of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) - keeps fighting against ISIL. 

Still, if Erdoğan is able to convince Trump to revise his decision, just before the Raqqa operation is about to start, it would be a major diplomatic victory.

Turkish foreign policy has certainly not seen many victories in a long time. It has not even seen many minor successes.

The last reasonably successful one was the migration deal struck with the European Union in March 2016, which today is the main anchor preventing Ankara’s relations with Brussels from getting much worse.

 Erdoğan’s insistence on bringing back the death penalty after the foiled military coup attempt of July 2016 is like a bitter cherry on top of the cake of problems between Turkey and the EU. Cyprus also continues to be a major stumbling block, though perhaps Brussels is the bigger source of the stalemate on that issue.

Problems with Germany have been frozen until the German election due to take place in September 2017, and a new page is likely to be opened regardless of whether Chancellor Angela Merkel wins again or not.

Turkey managed to rebuild bridges with Russia in June 2016 after the downing of a Russian jet on the Syrian border in November 2015, with the intermediation of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. But problems with Moscow affecting the Turkish economy (particularly in tourism and agriculture) continue to linger.

With Israel, rapprochement after a dip of six years recently suffered another tremor, after Erdoğan said he would “not permit” the Israeli ban on morning calls to prayer for Muslims.

Turkey’s relations with its neighbors Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Greece and Armenia are also far from being at their best. Ankara’s best relations remain with Gulf countries like Qatar and Kuwait, along with more distant economy-oriented ties with countries like Japan, China and India.

After Erdoğan’s win in the April 16 referendum, in which he consolidated executive power, he may feel more capable in foreign policy as the sole authority in Turkey. But it remains a question mark whether this will actually help the country’s foreign policy.

The truth is that the reach of Turkish foreign policy - after the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan with U.S. help, and after Turkey became eligible for EU membership candidacy in 1999 - reached its peak around 2009-2010 when Abdullah Gül was president and Ali Babacan, also an economic captain, was foreign minister.

 Since then Turkey’s foreign policy has been in steady decline, accelerated by the influence of the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

President Erdoğan and his two most recent foreign ministers, Ahmet Davutoğlu and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, have not been as successful as their rather ambitious targets demanded.

Turkish foreign policy is therefore currently in a period of stagnation. The Erdoğan-Trump meeting will give an idea on which direction it will go, but we may have to wait until after the German elections to get a better idea.