Fine-tuning in foreign policy

Fine-tuning in foreign policy

Turkey has been amending its foreign policy for some time now without much ado. As this has not been part of a public debate and has not come about with fanfare like the “zero problem with neighbors” policy, most people could be forgiven for not noticing the change. However, after the disappointments felt due to the failure of “zero problems” and following “order builder” policies, Turkey has been regrouping and has quietly come up with a new line. The latest visits by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Turkey, by the Iraqi and Turkish foreign ministers, Hoshyar Zebari and Ahmet Davutoğlu, to Turkey and Iraq respectively, and finally by Davutoğlu to the U.S., indicate that a new thinking is up and about.

With the onset of the Arab Spring, Turkey met with dramatic and hitherto unfamiliar challenges in the Middle East. Although an ambitious role of “regional order builder” was mentioned, it ended up in “precious isolation” and failed to produce the desired results. Good neighborly relations, painstakingly created in the decade preceding the Arab Spring, gave way to a rollercoaster relationship with neighbors in the region.

In particular, Syria proved to be a trial. The reluctance of global actors to get involved, the lack of capacity of opposition groups to force al-Assad from power, and the inability of Turkey in channeling them toward a common objective, have created a rather negative narrative and a failing image for Turkey, including accusations of pursuing a sectarian-based foreign policy and supporting groups associated with al-Qaeda.

Relations with Iraq also passed through particularly rocky ground with mutual accusations between Prime Ministers Tayyip Erdoğan and Nouri al-Maliki. Turkey continues to provide asylum to former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who has been sentenced to death in Iraq, and its closer ties with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), including much discussed energy deals, have created concerns in Baghdad. Divergences about the future of Syria have also caused rifts between the two countries, as well as with Iran. Thus, the latest visits by foreign ministers, which will be followed up by prime ministers, are important steps.

It seems that some sort of deal has been achieved on the energy front and Turkey’s good intentions have been explained with regard to Iraq’s internal affairs. In addition to his official meetings in Baghdad, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s visit to Shiite leaders Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as to Shiite shrines at Najaf and Karbala, indicate Turkey’s search for dialogue with all parties in Iraq.

On the Iranian front, Turkey’s decisions to host parts of NATO’s nuclear defense system, to deploy Patriot missiles on the Syrian border, and diverging policies regarding Syria, have impacted the relationship. Although there has been hopes of mending ties since the election of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency, the timing of normalization between Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbors and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s visit to Washington on Nov 17-18 is thought provoking. The relations between the two countries have been rather tenuous since Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to the U.S. in May, as a result of unresolved Turkish-Israeli tension, diverging policies in Syria and Egypt, and the government’s response to the Gezi Park protests during the summer. Among many issues, the Middle East no doubt took up much of the time in discussions, and the two countries had an opportunity to further align their positions.

International actors in the Middle East regularly find themselves on slippery ground. Turkey
experienced such an unbalancing shake up after 2011 with its biased approach toward regional actors.
It seems that it is now finding firmer ground with a more nuanced approach and a fine-tuning in its foreign policy.