Recalibrating Turkish foreign policy will be harder and longer than presumed

Recalibrating Turkish foreign policy will be harder and longer than presumed

One of the most important questions frequently posed after the departure of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the formation of a new government under new Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım was whether the newcomer would make a foreign policy shift. 

Yıldırım’s message that Turkey needs to increase the number of friends and lessen the number of foes was regarded as a clear sign for a foreign policy change on the new government’s side. However, just this one-sentence statement is far from providing convincing explanations to lingering questions about on what grounds this change will take place. 

The questions are too many, but to cite only a few: Will Turkey undergo an entire change both in terms of ideological grounds and the pragmatic needs of its foreign policy? Or is it going to be a limited one with no major recalibrations on the general characteristics of the Turkish foreign policy that has been implemented by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments?

One other crucial question: Which institution will be primarily responsible of leading this change in foreign policy, the Presidency or the Foreign Ministry? 

The answer to the last question would have great value in making a sound estimation on the outlook of the new shape the foreign policy. Critics of contemporary Turkish foreign policy have long been suggesting that it has turned sectarian and interventionist, particularly in the Middle East and especially in regards to ongoing Syrian unrest. 

Turkey’s alignment with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on a number of regional problems at the expense of openly challenging Iran - Yemen, Syria, etc. - has almost diminished its weight and role in the region while long-standing rifts with Israel and Egypt have closed all doors for Ankara in its bid to become a honest broker in this corner of the world. 

Therefore, a return to Turkey’s traditional foreign policy line based on a secular, non-interventionist and peacemaker line while promoting its soft power as a democracy running after more reforms to get the country closer to the European Union seems to be a must. Needless to say, neo-Ottoman motifs that have long been accompanying Turkish diplomacy should also be abandoned if credible relationships with countries in our immediate neighborhood are sought. 

In addition to these ideological amendments, there are some practical problems that the government has to resolve if it’s sincere in shifting the foreign policy. 

Syria, Russia, Egypt…

On Syria, Turkey will have to live with the continued leadership of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) just on its border. While ISIL has been terrorizing the entire Middle East as well as carrying out deadly terrorist attacks inside Turkey, the PYD is using every opportunity to create an autonomous region in northern Syria and to increase its legitimacy in the West. Moreover, Turkey’s categorization of the PYD as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continues to be one of the most important sources of tension with its prominent allies, including the United States. Turkey’s strong-worded opposition to PYD has been interpreted as either indirect support or an unwillingness to fight against ISIL in many Western capitals. 

So a change in Syria’s policy should on the one hand focus on enhancing the security of the Turkish border and its people but on the other hand help destroy this unfair image of Turkey abroad.  

On Russia, the stakes are high as well. Statements from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reflect the Turkish capital’s intention to restore the relationship with Moscow. A formal apology and compensation were announced as preconditions on the Russian side to this end and it’s a decision Erdoğan has to make if he wants to go back to good old days with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Egypt is not much different. Expecting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to forget the harsh words of Erdoğan and the Turkish president rushing to Cairo to meet el-Sisi would be naïve. However, there seems to be not much difficulty if Turkey would be the first to extend its hand to Cairo for lower-level talks with Egyptian authorities. 

Israel and the EU...

A potential reconciliation with Egypt would also ease the conditions for Turkey and Israel to accomplish the process of normalizing their ties, as the former plays an important role on issues concerning Gaza. 

In any case, the normalization of ties with Israel will be the starting point for the making of the new Turkish foreign policy. The positive impact of sending an ambassador to Tel Aviv will likely be felt across Western and Middle Eastern capitals, ending years of long anti-Israel rhetoric that has been used by senior Turkish leadership. 

An endorsement of this new foreign policy should be followed by the continuation of intense talks with the EU over the migrant deal as well as negotiations to grant a visa waiver to the Turkish citizens. However, the EU agenda is not and will never be only about technical harmonization of regulations and laws but about further alignment of democratic and human rights norms.  

A change on foreign policy also requires a complete mental change for the promotion of fundamental freedoms, rule of law and adoption of universal values. To be precise, this change should be not of words but deeds; the Turkish leadership should realize that continued oppression and a crackdown on dissidents accompanied with an insistence on one-man rule will undermine efforts for a policy change.