Time for a reset in Turkish foreign policy

Time for a reset in Turkish foreign policy

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Dec. 19 that the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the Bashiqa training camp near Mosul would “continue.”

In the same statement it said the problem arose between the Turkish and Iraqi governments over the Turkish troops there because of a communications mistake regarding the deployment of reinforcements to the camp earlier in the month.

The statement came a day after a call by U.S. President Barack Obama to Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, after which the White House released a read-out about the conversation which showed Obama asked Erdoğan for the continuation of the withdrawal. Actually, the issue reportedly came up during another telephone call between U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu last week, following an earlier contact by Biden with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. But Davutoğlu denied Biden had asked him about any withdrawal. Obama’s call to Erdoğan came after that denial and as the readout was released, the Turkish Foreign Ministry made the statement about the withdrawal.

The Iraq withdrawal is so traumatic in Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government circles that some pro-government newspapers had their headlines sticking with the former statements of Erdoğan that Turkey would never leave the Mosul camp, without even considering the official statement by the Foreign Ministry.

It is not the only trauma nowadays. On Dec. 17, when the news about an advance in secret Turkish-Israeli talks started to hit the wires, opposition members in parliament asked for an explanation from the government. The answer by Education Minister Nabi Avcı was that it could be a lie, a fabrication; the opposition should rely on the Foreign Ministry instead of taking the Israeli-origin statements at face value. In hours, Turkish officials confirmed there were actually diplomatic contacts with Israel and an agreement was indeed close.

By surprise, a part of that agreement was reported as Turkey’s deportation of a Hamas leader, Saleh al-Arouri, who is considered a terrorist by Israel. After the shock waves, for one or two days, the pro-government media forgot about the Israeli sanction on Gaza, which was one of the three conditions of Erdoğan’s from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and started to praise the possible benefits of normalizing relations with Israel. The president’s press office on Dec. 20 released a photo showing Erdoğan shaking hands with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Istanbul on Dec. 19.

The Syria resolution of the U.N. Security Council on Dec. 18 was something that Turkey had to accept according to the Geneva and Vienna documents. The Turkish Foreign Ministry made its maneuver a couple of months ago by saying that Ankara could accept a “transitional government with [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad,” providing that he would not take a place in the next Syrian administration. The U.N. resolution does not say anything specific on the next stage but al-Assad seems to have cheered himself up in recent photos from Damascus thanks to Russian support.

Turkey’s position regarding Syria has dramatically changed since the downing of a Russian warplane on Nov. 24. Before the downing, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu were pressing hard for a safe-zone in Syria next to the Turkish border with a 98-kilometer width and 40 kilometers deep to act as a gate for refugees and rebel fighters, except those belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda and the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). After the downing, both the U.S. and Russia were asking Turkey to close down the border to end all speculations about the transit of ISIL militants and goods.

On the positive side, NATO stood by its member Turkey against Russia. Yet a decision on Dec. 18 stated that Turkey’s air defense would be reinforced and supported in order to not cause any similar incident with the Russians. The U.S. and other NATO members sent the Turkish government a signal saying that a confrontation with Russia should be avoided as long as tensions over Ukraine and the Baltic lingered. 

There could be more examples found but it is clear that Turkey’s foreign policy after its shift in early 2011 with the break of the Arab Spring is heading towards another turning point and needs a good reset in order to end the frequent diplomatic and political traumas. 

The reactivation of relations with the European Union thanks to the belated awareness on the Syrian refugee flow could provide a way out, but the Cyprus tension is still there, now with the inclusion of the Russian factor.