At the crossroads of opportunities and risks

At the crossroads of opportunities and risks

Turkey welcomed the new year in the midst of political turmoil, stemming from corruption allegations against the government and counter-charges of the existence of illegal structures within the state.

Externally, a scandal was narrowly averted when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeated allegations about U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, printed earlier in some newspapers, and hinted that he could send him home. As it became clear that the allegations about Ricciardone’s meddling in Turkish politics were not true, the U.S. was sufficiently upset about the affair to the level that it considered withdrawing its ambassador to Ankara, and was only persuaded not to do so with the highest level of intervention and assurances from Turkey.

The episode highlighted one of the main issues that Turkish foreign policy has to deal with in 2014: In today’s world, it is impossible to separate internal and external theaters and rhetorical arguments used for the sake of placating part of a domestic audience that could easily damage the country’s foreign affairs. When faced with a multitude of delicate issues in its environs, Turkey does not need, and indeed could not afford, these kinds of distractions in its international connections.

The more important challenges for Turkey in 2014 will likely come, as in 2013, from the Middle East, its instability causing further ruptures in Turkey’s relations with the West. The current regional volatility might get worse with the forthcoming elections in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia this year. In addition to the civil war in Syria, political positioning and the arms race, as well as rising sectarianism throughout the region, will pose serious risks, if not outright threats, to Turkey’s stability. The Syrian civil war will particularly affect Turkey’s security, not only in terms of the border regions, but also spilling over into several cities through Syrian refugees and the possible spread of al-Qaeda operatives. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has already exceeded 600,000, one third of which are living in the camps and others in cities throughout Turkey. Although its destructive power was already demonstrated with the Reyhanlı bombing, nobody knows for sure the extent of al-Qaeda cells and their operational strength in Turkey.

Turkish-Israeli relations are still on hold, despite the apology of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 22 and the efforts to patch up relations. The compensation issue still remains the main block. Although the two countries recently agreed on a more flexible stance, the upcoming election process in Turkey might hamper a genuine rapprochement in 2014.

Relations with the U.S. will continue to be problematic. They have become fragile due to Turkish-Israeli tensions; divergent policies in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq; the government’s response to the Gezi Park protests; and Turkey’s selection of a Chinese company to build its long-range missile defense system. The latter also created fissures in Turkey’s relations with other NATO allies. The incompatibility of the Chinese missiles with the NATO system and the concerns regarding a possible intelligence leak has left NATO members frustrated over Turkey’s decision.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been trying to reformulate Turkey’s foreign policy line, though the fast-changing pace of international developments has not allowed that to happen. His latest visits to the U.S., Iraq, Armenia and Greece were part of such an attempt. This led to a search for an easy success story, which steered Turkey to accept “The Readmission Agreement” with the European Union, presented as a way to the visa-free movement of Turkish citizens to the EU, ignoring the possible economic, political and social costs of accepting thousands of refugees back to Turkey from EU members. This and attempts at reviving Cyprus negotiations without a clear strategy are examples of half-baked initiatives that might create further problems in the longer term.

Foreign policy does not accept frivolous actions and demands clear directions with solid thinking.

Otherwise, the related risks outweigh opportunities and the resulting dangers can threaten national security. While Turkey is entering a period of successive elections, its foreign policy should not be short-changed for the sake of short-term political gains on the home front.