Is Turkey moving towards regional isolation again?

Is Turkey moving towards regional isolation again?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clearly hoped for a new direction in foreign policy when he fired Ahmet Davutoğlu and replaced him with Binali Yıldırım as Prime Minister. He hoped that this would end the international isolation that Davutoğlu’s policies gradually led Turkey into. 

Yıldırım promised to work to increase the number of Turkey’s friends and reduce the number of its enemies. Reconciliation with Israel and Russia were the first products of this new approach and the general expectation was that the rest would follow. 

That has not happened. There is no indication, for example, that Turkey is prepared to reconcile with Egypt. If that were to happen then Yıldırım’s promise would be much more convincing.

Turkey’s ties with Europe remain strained for a host of reasons that will continue to fester unless managed well by Ankara. Supporters of the government will argue that it is up to Europe to improve ties. However, Ankara is in the weaker position here; if it wants better ties with Europe there are things it has to do, most notably with regard to democracy and the inalienable rights associated with it.

As for Turkey’s ties with the U.S., they are in such a state that one marvels at how the two countries still define their relationship as a “model partnership.” They are seriously at odds over Syria and Iraq, not to mention the crisis over Fethullah Gülen. Given what columnists and analysts close to government sources are writing and saying in both countries, one wonders how Ankara and Washington are not yet seeing each other as enemies. 

We see Turkey clinging now to its reestablished ties with Russia, its relationship with Saudi Arabia - and even Iran - in an effort to break out of the international isolation it is moving towards again. Of course, ties with these countries have to be maintained and improved for the benefits they provide.
We witnessed President Vladimir Putin’s high-profile visit this week and the promises made to develop economic and energy ties to the maximum limit possible. We also read reports that the Saudi national oil company Aramco is considering massive investments in Turkey. Both of these are highly positive developments for Turkey.

One has to question, however, what benefit improved ties with Russian will bring to Ankara in Syria, or improved ties with Iran in Iraq. Ankara remains on the opposite end of the scale with Moscow and Tehran with regard to these crises.

The very fact that Russia resumed its brutal bombing campaign in Aleppo while Putin was being hosted in Turkey, with no objection or protests from Ankara - which once championed the cause of the Syrians so strongly - shows who is in the driving seat.

Turkey’s silence in the face of Saudi atrocities in Yemen is also telling. This shows that the “moralistic” approach under the guidance of Davutoğlu is over, and that the government is trying to be a little more realistic with regard to Turkey’s interest. Had it adopted this approach at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turkey would have been spared much trouble.

On the negative side there are indications that Ankara continues to cling to its Islamist and sectarian approach in the Middle East. Erdoğan’s recent remarks to the Saudi Rotana TV station, in which he, according to the transcript from the channel, declared that Mosul should remain Sunni, is a case in point.

Yıldırım is more circumspect in this regard and says “Mosul belongs to the people of Mosul,” but this line is apparently is not enough at this stage to dispel doubts about Turkey’s ultimate intentions. That is probably also one of the reasons why there is an effort to keep Turkey away from the impending operation to liberate Mosul. 

Ankara’s discordant approach with regard to the realities that govern the Middle East continues to have a high cost in terms of its vital security interest. The lesson that foreign policy administration is not about rowing against the tide, but managing it has yet to be learned.