A retreat in Turkey’s ‘more friends, fewer enemies’ policy?

A retreat in Turkey’s ‘more friends, fewer enemies’ policy?

When Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım replaced Ahmet Davutoğlu in May 2016 as both the prime minister and the chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), one of his first messages was about a substantial recalibration of Turkey’s foreign policy.  

Yıldırım’s pragmatic foreign policy understanding suggested “increasing the number of friends and reducing the number of enemies.” 

“Turkey has a lot of problems. We have regional problems. The conflicts taking place in our region and the EU, Cyprus, and the Caucasus increase the importance of our country in our region. We are aware of this.

 So what will we do? Very simple: We’ll increase the number of our friends and we’ll decrease the number of our enemies,” Yıldırım told his AKP fellows on May 24, 2016 after his election as party chairman. 

Yıldırım and his cabinet members began to indirectly criticize outgoing Davutoğlu for the collapse of Turkey’s Syria policy, which had serious consequences for Ankara’s relations with global and regional allies. 

For example, former deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş, currently serving as Culture and Tourism Minister, had described Ankara’s Syria policy as “a source of many sufferings for Turkey today.” In a statement as government spokesperson, Kurtulmuş said thawt “No country, us included, has been able to produce a valid policy for a solution in Syria. I have been talking about this for years. I wish a valid perspective for peace could have been developed before.” 

It is needless to say that there could be no such change in the position of the prime minister if this perspective was not shared by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Obviously, putting the blame for foreign policy failures on the outgoing prime minister - and a long time foreign minister - was the easiest thing for many in power. Of course, Davutoğlu’s foreign policy performance, particularly on Syria, can always be criticized. But putting entire blame on his shoulders was wrong. He had served for a long time as the foreign minister under Erdoğan’s prime ministry, and then as prime minister after Erdoğan was elected as the president. 

The best evidence for this point of view is today’s picture of Turkey’s foreign policy. 

In the first month of Yıldırım’s prime ministry, Ankara started a normalization processes with both Russia and Israel, which signaled a good beginning for the implementation of Yıldırım’s stated goal of earning more friends in the world. 

However, this beginning did not last for long. Apart from Russia, Turkey’s current relations with its longstanding allies are alarming. 

U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be the source of a huge disappointment for the Turkish government, which obviously misread the real intentions and priorities of the new administration. Trump did not only follow his predecessor’s policy in Syria, he also ordered to intensify it, paying little heed to President Erdoğan’s concerns in their first face-to-face meeting in mid-May. 

Turkey’s ties with Europe and European institutions have hit new lows every day over the past year. A year ago, Turkey and the EU were so close that they were able to accomplish a visa liberalization deal as part of a substantial migrant deal. Today, not only visa waiver talks but the entire accession process has been suspended, amid concerns that upgrading the customs union will also be affected. Many in Europe believe that Turkey’s isolation should continue until the Turkish government returns to its democratic agenda.

It should surely be noted that the July 16 coup attempt played an important role in the deterioration of Turkey’s ties with a number of countries, especially in the West. Many of them failed to comprehend the danger that Turkey went through and some were reluctant to show solidarity with Turkey. But also important was the Turkish government’s inability to adequately explain the issue to the world’s agenda. 

Unfortunately, today Turkey is not named as a country that narrowly escaped a coup attempt, but one that jails scores of dissidents from all walks of life including journalists, academics, and rights activists. 

To cut a long story short, over the last one year Turkey’s efforts to earn more friends have yielded few results. A more substantial change in foreign policy is needed if the government is still keen on increasing the number of its friends and reducing the number of its enemies.