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Turkish Foreign Policy Under New Management

Turkish Foreign Policy Under New Management
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey

The elections that took place in May in Turkey resulted in the reelection of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President in the second round of the vote. Mr. Erdogan’s own party, the AKP, lost 7 and a half points since the last elections in 2018 but the People’s Alliance that he led gained an unexpectedly comfortable majority in the National Assembly. Prior to May 14 these elections were billed as an existential one by many observers and analysts. The results were thought to likely determine the trajectory of the Republic as it enters its second century. Given the critical nature of these elections, therefore, the defeat of the opposition signified more than just an electoral happening. Turkey’s sui generis Presidential system is now consolidated but it will arguably need major alterations at least to improve its governance capacity. The secular democratic societal opposition is demoralized and the main opposition party, whose leader and presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroglu refuses to assume responsibility and resign, is in a political and ethical crisis. An intensification of introverted nationalism as well as further moves to expand the role of religion in public life are to be expected.

A more detailed look into the distribution of the votes, a demographic, regional and class breakdown, and comparison with previous elections would be necessary for a more rounded analysis. Yet, some preliminary assessments can still be made. Half the electorate voted in favor of a nationalist, conservative Turkey and displayed either a profound loyalty to Mr. Erdogan’s person or confidence in his ability to lead the country out of the current crisis. The opposition failed to induce the same sense of confidence that it could govern the country or safeguard its security. It was also unable to convince the electorate that Mr. Erdogan had to be replaced despite the exposed graft and corruption, mismanagement of the economy, and the moral breakdown in public life. This suggests on the one hand that the economic crisis which was the most burning issue for Turkey’s top ten metropolitan cities, all of which Mr. Erdogan lost, did not affect the provincial Turkey with the same intensity. On the other hand, it showed that issues of identity and a manipulated fear for security proved to be a winning combination.

The Economics of the new term

The election fever will not recede fully though due to the local elections to be held at the end of March 2024. In fact, Mr. Erdogan’s victory speech launched the campaign for those elections with the explicit goal of winning back Istanbul that his party (practically equal to himself) lost in 2019. The practical impact of this is that although the country’s pressing problems have immediately asserted themselves and the need to tend to the postponed and accumulated problems has regained its main place on the agenda, the implementation of policy will be subject to the expediencies of politics and the goal the President has set for his party.
The most anticipated question about the new Presidential Cabinet was who would take the helm of the economy. There was a relative relief when Mehmet Simsek, a former minister who was rather curtly dismissed before the so-called "unorthodox" economic policies were adopted, was persuaded to return. In his first public statement Simsek said that he would abandon "irrational policies", with his predecessor by his side during the handover ceremony. The big, lurking question was whether Mr. Simsek would have independence of action or work within parameter set by the President who, on his way back from Azerbaijan, insinuated that he stood by his own belief that the cause of inflation was the interest rate but that he would give his minister a chance to try his hand.
Mr. Simsek’s first move was to appoint the first woman governor of the Central Bank, Ms. Gaye Erkan, former co-CEO and President of the failed American bank, First Republic, who was a member of the company's board of directors as well. Ms. Erkan, inexperienced in central banking, replaced the distinctly underqualified but obedient former governor Sahap Kavcıoglu who was then appointed as the head of the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, casting doubt on Mr. Simsek’s ability to form his own team. When the unreconstructed team of the Central Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee raised the interest rate by 6.5 points which the markets deemed insufficient, the limits of Simsek and his team’s control over policy was clearly demonstrated. The decision likely indicates that the political authority puts the premium on growth with some tolerance for mild unemployment and pays less attention to taming inflation. The financial markets’ reaction was a swift depreciation of the TL.

A new foreign minister: a new direction?

The second most-commented upon appointment in the cabinet, which was generally positively received, was the appointment of MIT (National Intelligence Service) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan as head of foreign affairs. It is worth noting that prior to that job Fidan also worked as head of TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) an organization that played an important role in projecting Turkish soft power abroad. The fact that the new Minister is Fidan, who spent 13 years at the head of the Turkish intelligence service and had a significant influence in the shaping and implementation of foreign policy, especially towards Syria and was the main architect of Turkey’s efforts to normalize relations with the Middle Eastern countries Ankara alienated over the course of the past 10 years, certainly drew a lot of attention.
Fidan, who accompanied President Erdogan in many official visits, was in the picture in shaping the framework of foreign policy. In fact, he was one of the three people on the Turkish side at the dinner Erdoğan as Prime Minister had with then-US President Obama at the White House in May 2013. From that time on, at least in American circles, it was believed that he had a say in foreign policy and issues were discussed with him. Mr. Fidan is a trusted person in the world of intelligence and diplomacy. He is cerebral and has just the right balance of toughness and diplomatic finesse as he displayed in his recent bilateral meeting with Secretary of State Blinken in London. He is also expected to make better use of Turkey’s diplomatic corps.
The appointment as head of the MIT of Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın, who had a de facto voice in the formulation and implementation of Turkish foreign policy, who was sent to important capitals by President Erdogan for some critical contacts, and has a highly favorable reputation abroad, suggests a foreign policy in which intelligence and diplomacy will be in close cooperation. However, in the end, it is President Erdogan who will determine the parameters of foreign policy.
While discussing how foreign policy will develop in the coming period, two factors must be considered. The first is that Turkey must get out of the hole it now finds itself in as a result of "irrational" economic policies it has been implementing since 2018, and it is essential to find new sources of finance for this. Although Gulf countries, Russia and China come to mind first as possible sources, Turkey, whose economy is integrated with the European economy, will need to get closer to the international financial markets again. In this case, it will be important to manage the economy in a way that will give confidence to the capital markets, as well as to conduct relations with Western countries in a way to avoid tensions. It is worth noting that Mr. Simsek’s first visit abroad was to the UAE.
The second and perhaps more important factor is the weight of the quest for "strategic autonomy" in the conceptual approach of Turkish foreign policy. In a world order that will be defined by asymmetric multipolarity, Turkey like other regional powers, believes that it has a wide space for maneuver in its foreign policy, if need be, in defiance of global powers. Although it is a member of the Western alliance, it seeks to protect its own regional interests as it sees fit in a world order where the relative weight of the West is decreasing. As Galip Dalay suggests, "The assumption and starting point of Turkey's foreign policy is that global politics is not as West-centric as it used to be, but it is still not post-Western either".
In this case, we can predict that Ankara will not give up its balancing policy in the Ukraine war. Currently it rejects all of Russia’s claims over Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea, supplies the Ukrainians with drones and other equipment, invokes the Montreux Convention to prevent the passage of all military vessels through the straits but does not join the sanctions regime against Russia. President Erdogan also has a cordial relation with President Putin, who openly favored President Erdogan in the elections and supported him by suspending payments to Gasprom for Turkey’s gas purchases. However, if the war ends in favor of Russia and Moscow increases its power and weight in the Black Sea, Ankara would be anxious. (During the most recent crisis in Russia caused by the Wagner group’s mutiny and before the Belarus brokered agreement, president Erdogan spoke with President Putin and according to the Turkish readout advised calm and asked for common sense to prevail. The Russian readout, on the other hand, that was released before the Turkish one claimed that the Turkish President gave his support to the Russian President. It is worth remembering that Mr. Putin was the first head of state to offer support to Mr. Erdogan when an attempted coup targeted the latter in 2016 when all Western ally capitals basically remained inactive and non-committal.)
When looked at from a broader perspective Ankara’s open alliance with and military support for Baku two years ago go against Russian interests. In this context, the presence of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at Erdogan’s inauguration ceremony can be read as a sign of Turkey's desire to change the balance of power in the southern Caucasus in its own favor, as well as the desire of Yerevan to gradually get out of the orbit of Russia. This trend will continue as the makers of Turkish policy also believe that the war in Ukraine provides an opportunity for Turkey to extend its influence not just in southern Caucasus but beyond that in Central Asia.
Another important file in the portfolio of the new Minister is the Syrian issue. President Erdogan has long wanted to meet with his Syrian counterpart. Bashar Assad has said at various times and places that he will not accept this unless Turkish soldiers withdraw from the north of his country. Assad's hand became even stronger after he returned to the Arab League, which indeed led the Kazakh government, that has given its capital’s imprimatur to the so-called Astana process which brought together Iran, Russia and Turkey to discuss policy vis a vis Syria, to declare the end of the process in the latest summit that took place there.
Hakan Fidan, as the head of MIT, was in contact with the Syrian intelligence when deemed necessary. Since Syria is an intelligence state after all, it can be expected that these relations will facilitate diplomatic initiatives in the future. In his inaugural speech, President Erdogan said that the policies towards Syria will continue, that is, they will continue to oppose the formation of an autonomous Kurdish political entity under the control of the PYD/YPG.On the other hand, Ankara’s urgent priority is to send Syrian refugees back to their country before municipal elections. Mr. Erdogan also wants Turkish companies to take the lion's share in the construction of the buildings for the returnees.
Russia and Iran and possibly the Arab world will have a say in the future of relations with Syria. Although Moscow, Tehran and Ankara joined forces in the Astana process, their goals and interests were not compatible, particularly those of Ankara and Tehran. Since Ankara's attempt for a hegemonic position in the Sunni world of the Middle East has ended in disappointment and Saudi Arabia, which has increasingly imposed its diplomatic weight in the region, does not want Turkey to play a dominant role in the future of Syria, Ankara might have to change tracks and think of a different policy. But such a shift would require a satisfactory settlement for Ankara on the political future of Syrian Kurds. In this context, we can also predict that relations with Israel will get closer as Ankara would also be uneasy about the perpetuation of Iranian influence to the south of its border and subtly join the anti-Iranian bloc in the region, unless major disasters occur in the Palestinian issue.
Turkey will continue to court its Arab neighbors and the normalization process engineered by Minister Fidan, among others, will continue. Ankara’s financial needs and its geopolitical interests dictate such an amelioration of relations. The same is true for relations with Israel. The old axis of security and cooperation between Tel Aviv and Ankara in the Middle East will be strengthened. It is quite remarkable, particularly in view of the precedents, that Ankara remained mainly silent as Gaza and the West Bank are assaulted by the Israeli military and the extreme right-wing government in Israel is pushing the boundaries of acceptable conduct towards the West Bank. To top it all, there are news reports suggesting that Mr. Erdogan and Prime Minister Netanyahu may meet face to face some time in July, perhaps in Ankara.

Neither inside the alliance nor completely outside of it.

Regardless of what some of the infantile commentaries may say, Turkey is one of NATO's most active members contributing substantively to its military power and actions. In other words, there is no point in doubting Turkey's commitment to the alliance in this respect or as some do, advocating its expulsion from the organization. As this article was being written Turkey has already sent a special forces battalion to Kosovo for peacekeeping purposes. As this deployment took place Turkish Air Force was engaged simultaneously in two NATO exercises by deploying F-16s and E-7T aircraft. The first of these exercises hosted by Germany is the Air Defender 2023 and the other is BALTOPS 2023 conducted over the Baltic Sea which is known to have mightily disturbed President Putin.
In a world where the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean come to the fore as strategic areas, Turkey’s geography makes it a country of central importance for the Western alliance. Politically, however, Ankara has troubled relations with its allies within NATO. This is what causes the complaints. The approval of Sweden's membership in NATO is currently the most important outstanding issue. There is a lot of anticipation but also an expectation that a way will be found, perhaps an invitation to the White House, for Turkey's veto to be lifted before the Vilnius summit. This, despite President Erdogan’s unequivocal statement that Ankara did not believe Sweden has sufficiently done its part although a new terrorism law was enacted, and the Swedish high court agreed to send back a PKK sympathizer wanted for drug trafficking. The limited time till the Vilnius summit of NATO will demonstrate if the Wagner crisis in Russia will have an impact on that process.
In return, Turkey expects that its request to buy new F-16’s and the kits to upgrade its already existing ones, which is awaiting approval in the US Senate, will pass. The problems with the Biden administration will not end with the resolution of these two issues. USA's support for the PYD/YPG in Syria and the lifting of the arms embargo against the Greek Cypriot administration continue to antagonize Ankara. The presence of the Russian S-400 missile system plays the same role for Washington and NATO. It will not be possible to overcome these problems in a short time.
There remains though the critical issue of relations with Europe in general and with the European Union in particular. It is an open secret that there is neither love lost between Mr. Erdogan and most of the Western European leaders nor an oversupply of mutual trust. European leaders and the EU prefer to treat Turkey as an outsider even as an adversary and not as a candidate country, however unrealistic that condition may have become by now. They wish to conduct their relations with Ankara on a strictly transactional basis. The new German National Strategy Document does not even mention Turkey by name while it is very generous in extending membership to all the riparian countries of the Black Sea. This perspective suits well the strategic blindness of a Union that seeks "strategic autonomy" or looks for ways of being self-sustaining in security terms when the moment finally arrives that the American security umbrella will no longer be as extensively available.
From a more strategic perspective, particularly in the more comprehensive definition of security that includes the all-important matters of migration, smuggling, illicit activities, in addition to military capabilities cooperation with Turkey is not a necessity but an imperative. This ought not be done on a transactional basis. Agreements and areas of cooperation should be forged on the basis of common interests and relations should be institutionalized. Whether or not the European Political Community could be the platform to enable this is an open question.
There is no doubt that Ankara violates the fundamental tenets of membership in the wider European community. Turkey’s possible suspension from the Council of Europe is a sign of this delinquency. Ankara does not care much about the EU’s narrative of values and principles either since it considers these to be conspicuous in their absence when it comes to the matter of refugees or honoring dictators such as General al-Sisi of Egypt.

It is often suggested that the value of something is best recognized in its absence. This is the direction EU-Turkey relations might be taking in not too distant a future. There is EU fatigue among even the most occidentalized, most pro-European circles in Turkey, a condition that is being exacerbated by the rate of rejections and outright humiliating conditionality of visa issuing to Turkish citizens. At a time when the resentments of the ex-colonial Global South are turning into subjects of relevance for strategic relations, it behooves the Union and its members not to offend to the point of exasperation the most Europeanized segments of Turkish society that remain, in spite of everything, the break on further alienation between Europe and Turkey. In turn, Ankara will also have to recognize that 200 years of Westernized modernization cannot be canceled by a whim and certainly not without a huge cost to the vital interests of the country.


Copyright Image : ADEM ALTAN / AFP

Turkish President and Leader of Justice and Development (AK) Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves as he arrives at the party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, on June 21, 2023.

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