The Middle East challenge for Turkish foreign policy

The Middle East challenge for Turkish foreign policy

Turkey’s active and effective image in regional relations and the constant trend in Turkish economy throughout 2000s have increased the importance of the country for its global allies as a regional actor. Instead of passive and inexperienced moves based on the syndrome of “learned helplessness” in the diplomatic arena particularly after the World War II, Turkey has recently followed more active and sometimes too self-confident policies and become a significant regional actor. 

With this distinctive stance, Turkey was able to take a risk by not allowing US ships to pass the straits during the 2008 Russian-Georgian War although the US was its most strategic ally. On the other hand, during the Mavi Marmara crisis, which resulted with Turkey’s accepting the apology and compensation of Israel without, Turkey did not even hesitate to destroy the relations with such an important military partner. 

“Domestic Policy-Oriented Foreign Policy” Dilemma

Turkey’s unique attitude has sometimes positive and sometimes negative consequences in the domestic and foreign policy. However, Turkey’s Middle East policies during the Arab Spring makes it more isolated in the region day by day and even causes it to be unable to make long-term policies. For example the pro-Morsi stance, which was adopted as a principle after the ousting of the elected Morsi government has isolated Turkey in the region and ended its relations with the current government, and thus with Egypt. 

Another point which must be underlined within the context of Middle East is certainly the Syrian crisis. During the events in ‘neighbor Syria’, Turkey followed completely opposite policies with pro-Assad Russia. After the “straits favor” of Turkey for its northern neighbor Russia in the wartime; Russia’s approach with the US left Turkey all alone in this regard. Besides, Turkey sometimes insisted on ‘its own Syria thesis’ despite the US. Turkey handled the Syria crisis like a domestic issue and becamethe most interested country among others in the region by taking significant initiatives. among its neighbors in the region. Thus, it was one of the most directly affected countries by the developmentsevents in Syria.

It is obvious that such policies and risks were not beneficial at all despite all valid reasons justifications, and the approaches which seemed consistent in principal did not give expected results most of the time. Moreover, many approaches that were adopted for the sake of consistency 
of pinciples turned out to be a source of inconsistency. This fact must have been realized by Turkish Foreign Policy decision-makers that Turkey has revised its Syria policies before the Geneva II conference and tried to take a different and more concerted stance. 

Above mentioned foreign policies, which developed with a unique stance, were justified by the government in its foreign policy with the “principaled approach” argument, and the concept of “precious isolation” was coined in the international relations literature although the demand for this concept is not so popular today. Recently Turkey followed a similar path in its relations with Iran, and wanted to be a mediator between Iran and the West, particularly the US, because of the tension due to Iran’s desire to have nuclear technology. Thus, Minister Davutoğlu used the method of shuttle diplomacy and made great effort to help reach an agreement between parties before the voting in the United Nations (UN) Security Council and ease the sanctions toward Iran. As a result, Turkey voted “No” for that decision to impose sanctions while even Russia voted “Yes” as the biggest supporter and actor in the process of Iran’s obtaining nuclear technology during that period. For Iran, Turkey turned 
the vast majority in UN Security Council against itself with that vote. 

Turkey does not hesitate to take risks in issues related to Iran, and today it is observed in domestic developments that this attitude is not limited to the aforementioned voting in UN Security Council. Nowadays, we are on the eve of highly important developments in foreign policy and unfortunately the government is focusedfocuses on domestic issues. It is especially meaningful to see that Iran, which is regarded as a party in the debate within the country, has not made any pro-government statement yet. In this case, it can be concluded that Iran is highly pleased with the November 24 Agreement that was signed in Geneva with global powers called ‘5+1’ (USA, Russia, China, UK, France + Germany), and thus it does not want to interfere in the balances of this new order. In order to better understand the significance of the issue, it should be remembered that the Agreement is the first and only “agreement” in real terms between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout its 34-year history. 

“State Interests” or “Principled Approaches”?

It is getting more obvious that the stance based on decision-makers’ principal approaches such as “zero problems with neighbors” or “precious isolation” in Turkish Foreign Policy are not functional and even misleading, at least in our region. Preferring “principled approaches” or “precious isolation” rather than “state interests” which should be the main starting point in foreign policy making, should be elaborately discussed in a world where value judgments may instantly change. Moreover, the importance of “precious isolation” is always a disputable issue. It can be easily observed that a country, which makes foreign policy in the middle of the Middle East region where cards are re-shuffled all the time, needs this more than ever and anything.

Hayreddin Aydınbaş, Senior fellow, Foreign Policy and Security,
Caspian strategy Institute