Turkey’s foreign relations after the referendum

Turkey’s foreign relations after the referendum

Frankly, Turkey’s foreign relations had started to look not so bad after the first advances against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria in the framework of the Euphrates Shield operation. A Syrian ceasefire deal was cut with Russia and Iran, leading to the Astana talks, and even the December assassination of Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov could not disrupt it.

The first problem emerged as Donald Trump took over the U.S. presidency in late January. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan had hoped that Ankara’s relations with Trump would be better than they were with Barack Obama, especially on two subjects in particular: The first was Obama’s pick of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a partner in the anti-ISIL fight on the ground in Syria. For Turkey, the YPG is the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and thus just another terrorist organization that should not be worked with. The second subject was the demand for legal action against Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist preacher who Ankara sees as being behind the foiled military coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

A number of ranking Turkish figures have visited Washington DC, including Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, to make contact with names in the new administration and to make progress on those two issues. But Trump has so far given Erdoğan a cold shoulder. Despite meeting with many leaders up to now, the two men have only had one telephone call, back in February. It seems that Trump is determined not to make any close contact before Turkey’s April 16 referendum on whether to shift to an executive presidential system.

The second big problem in Turkey’s foreign relations emerged as Erdoğan started to make reinstating the death penalty one of the main pillars of his “Yes” referendum campaign. The European Union has clearly stated that this is a red line for the continuation of accession talks, adding another issue to the many already existing problems between Ankara and Brussels. Others range from the many jailed journalists in Turkey to the state of judicial independence, seen to have been exacerbated by the state of emergency declared after the coup attempt. The crisis with the EU peaked after Erdoğan and ministers of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) were not permitted to make referendum campaign appearances in a number of EU countries, even though PKK supporters had no difficulty organizing rallies complete with live broadcast connections to their military bases in Iraq. 

Seizing the opportunity presented by xenophobic rhetoric of some politicians in Europe ahead of elections, Erdoğan accused Europe of acting “like Nazis” during the crisis. Since the heat of the crisis, the situation has somewhat calmed, and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said on April 4 that “thanks to the stupidity of European politicians,” the AK Parti has been able to “add a few more points’ support” in its referendum campaign. But heavy damage has been given to Turkey-EU relations, which were already in a bad shape. Adding to the current problems are ongoing frictions with Greece in the Aegean and the continued question of immigration control of Syrian refugees to Europe.

The third problem is with Russia. Moscow had in recent months been helpful to Turkey in Syria - so long as Ankara moved against ISIL. But when Turkish-backed forces started to make moves against the YPG, Russia as well as the U.S. took a protective position for the YPG against Turkey. Ankara recently announced the end of the Euphrates Shield operation, transforming the role of its military units in northern Syria from active combatant positions to helping refugees in Turkey return to their homes in Syria. But problems with Russia remain in military, political and trade dimensions.

What’s more, Turkey’s relations with Arab countries are not in the best position either. Ankara has no relations with Syria, almost none with Egypt, and very fragile ties with Iraq. With Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar there is also the problem of the Muslim Brotherhood, which those countries continue to see as a terrorist organization, unlike the Turkish government.

Regardless of the outcome of the April 16 referendum, these problems - which have mostly been put into freeze by Turkey’s counterparts - will be back on the agenda. If the outcome is “Yes,” a further empowered President Erdoğan will have to deal with all those problems himself, with no one else to share responsibility.