A difficult era awaits Turkey on foreign policy

A difficult era awaits Turkey on foreign policy

Sunday’s parliamentary election will mark yet another milestone in Turkish political history, just five months after the election in which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its single-party government for the first time in 13 years. The Nov. 1 re-election came about as a product of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP top brass’ discontent with the June 7 poll results; they forced another election in order to fix this and push for the required majority at parliament. 

There is no need to speculate more about the potential results of the election, as we’ll all have a clear picture late on Nov. 1. Instead, let’s evaluate a potential change in Turkery’s foreign policy, particularly on Syria, in the aftermath of the election. 

However, before speculating, it’s worth analyzing the main developments in foreign policy between the two elections. It should be noted that a caretaker government has been in place during this period, in which two important agreements have been reached. 

The first came in mid-July with the U.S. over the use of Turkish airbases and airspace by American warplanes in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The second was reached with the EU over handling the growing refugee crisis in return for re-energizing Turkey’s stalled accession talks. 

(Equally important, the appointment of Foreign Ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu as the caretaker minister should also be counted as a positive move. As a high-level Turkish diplomat told me recently, “Under his leadership we can pinpoint on very specific issues.”)

Although these two blueprints address totally different issues, some of their aspects can be interpreted under the same headline. 

Firstly, both agreements highlight Turkey’s geopolitical and strategic importance for the West as a stabilizing factor, which it has actually long used for leverage in its strained relationships with its allies. While the first agreement foresees a heavily military engagement in the fight against ISIL and therefore easing the hands of its main ally, the U.S., the second agreement serves as a breath of life for many European governments that have been struggling with the refugee crisis. 

Secondly, these two agreements have partly helped the government to escape growing international criticism that Turkey was not doing enough to combat ISIL and also stop the refugee influx to the West. It has been gravely accused of tolerating the activities of ISIL and other extremist groups and of deliberately ignoring the refugees trying to go to Europe. So these two steps could be seen as efforts to reverse the AKP government’s much tarnished image.   

Thirdly, Ankara’s recently adopted flexibility that does not categorically rule out a political transition period with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should also be noted. This slight change allowed Turkey’s foreign minister to take an active part in what can be called the Vienna process. There are no signs that Turkey will be changing this newly adopted stance on Syria. 

In a general and rough summary, one can come to the conclusion that all these moves are aimed at mending broken relations and repairing misunderstandings between Turkey and its allies. However, whether these efforts are reflected in the eyes of Turkey’s allies is disputable.

Only a few months after the Turkish anti-ISIL agreement, Ankara opted to strain its relations with the U.S. over the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, making the landscape very difficult for joint military planning in the field. The government’s focus on the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), instead of ISIL, and its new definition of “cocktail terrorism” as being responsible for the Ankara bombings has sparked further questions about Turkey’s level of cooperation in Washington. 

At the same time, more moves to curb fundamental freedoms in the country have caused serious question marks in the West, with rising concern that Turkey is steadily becoming a more authoritarian regime. The seizure of critical newspapers, the violence committed against media organizations and individual journalists (with impunity for the perpetrators), and mass detention of citizens on charges of “insulting” the president can all be seen in the same short period. 

Whatever shape the next government takes, either a single-party AKP or a coalition government, it should first prove that it is genuine in its commitments to the international community on human rights and democracy. Only then should it expect respect and credit for its foreign policy moves. Otherwise, it risks coming to see days when even Turkey’s geopolitical and strategic importance will no longer prevail in Ankara’s ties with the rest of the world.