Today, Turkish soldiers are stationed in Syria, Iraq, Qatar and the Horn of Africa. This is on top of the 30,000 troops that have been on Cyprus since the Turkish interventions on that island in 1974.
Relations between Ankara and Moscow have warmed since 2016. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and is supplying the Turkish military with the S-400 air defense system, despite intense pressure from NATO to block the contract. In addition, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to help with Turkey’s membership application to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a grouping that includes all Eurasia’s major continental powers.
Those developments have gone hand in hand with a clear deterioration in Turkey’s relations with the European Union and the United States. Negotiations between Brussels and Ankara about Turkey’s EU accession have been put on ice. The Turkish army’s incursion into the Kurdish-inhabited region of Afrin in Syria has also drawn harsh international criticism.
The growing estrangement between Turkey and its Western partners
is most evident in President Erdogan’s rhetoric
However, the growing estrangement between Turkey and its Western partners is most evident in President Erdogan’s own political rhetoric, which reflects the conspiracy theory that European and U.S. policy is designed to thwart Turkey’s ambitions to become an Islamic superpower. By criticizing Ankara’s domestic policies, the argument goes, the West is backing terrorist groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and followers of a broad Islamic movement led by preacher Fethullah Gulen, which Ankara officially refers to as the «Fethullah Gulen terrorist organization».
The question is where this leaves Turkey. Do Ataturk’s principles still hold? Does the country still see itself as part of the Western community? Is it still a reliable member of NATO?
Relations with the West have been ambivalent ever since the Turkish Republic was established. Its founders saw no alternative to aligning with Europe. Modernization meant Europeanization.
However, it was etched in the Turkish collective consciousness that European powers had systematically dismantled the Ottoman Empire from the early 19th century until World War I, even as their cooperation with the Ottomans was supposed to have resulted in modernization and closer ties. The trauma of the Treaty of Sevres (1920), in which the victorious Allied powers carved up large swathes of Anatolia into exclusive «zones of influence», still resonates powerfully today.
In 1963, an agreement was concluded between the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the current EU) and Turkey, holding out the prospect of Turkey’s accession if certain criteria were met. No Turkish statesman has done as much to meet those «Copenhagen» criteria as Mr. Erdogan after he became prime minister in 2003. Over the next 10 years, he modernized the country in line with European values. Yet the message he got from several European capitals, including Berlin, was that Ankara could only expect a «privileged partnership» and not membership in the EU. This confirmed a suspicion long harbored by Mr. Erdogan and a large section of the population – that Turkey is unwanted by Europe.
Ahmet Davutoglu’s appointment in 2009 signaled a more ambitious
conception of Turkey’s place in the world
Disappointment at being rejected by Europe accelerated Ankara’s foreign policy reset. Mr. Erdogan named Ahmet Davutoglu as foreign minister in 2009. His appointment signaled a shift to a new foreign policy doctrine, with a more ambitious conception of Turkey’s place in the world.
As a professor of political science, Mr. Davutoglu published a book in 2001 about the «strategic depth» of Turkish foreign policy. In that publication, he recommended that Turkey take pains to keep friendly relations with its neighbors. But he also defined Turkey as a power whose security and economic interests are global in scope – with the implication that Ankara’s foreign policy could not always move in lockstep with those of the U.S. and Europe.
Will Turkey turn its back?
The outbreak of the crisis in Syria further soured relations between Turkey and its Western partners. Back in 2011, Mr. Erdogan threw his weight behind efforts to topple President Bashar al-Assad, counting on support from the West. When that failed to materialize, he intermittently supported radical Islamist groups in their fight against the Assad regime.
Turkish domestic policy only deepened the rift with Europe and the U.S. From 2013, the Erdogan government and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were increasingly challenged by Mr. Gulen’s religious movement. When Gulenists leveled serious allegations of corruption in December 2013 against high-ranking politicians, including one of Mr. Erdogan’s sons, the prime minister (he became president in 2014) found himself in an increasingly brutal fight for political survival – culminating in the failed military coup of July 2016.
The dismantling of human rights and the rule of law in the wake of those events has been strongly criticized by the Western powers. This criticism was deeply resented by President Erdogan, who interpreted it as support for terrorism.
Turkey has now deviated sharply from Ataturk’s maxim of «peace at home, peace in the world». Internally, the armed conflict with the Kurdish PKK has been rekindled, while the power struggle with the Gulenists has polarized Turkish society.
Foreign policy is being driven increasingly by domestic considerations and the Turkish president’s need to consolidate power. Mr. Erdogan’s emphasis on Islamic values has forged a close bond with the Muslim Brotherhood, setting him on a collision course with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose governments regard the Muslim Brothers as mortal enemies. Similar tensions have surfaced in the Gulf countries, where Ankara has sided with Qatar in its conflict with Saudi Arabia.
In Syria, Turkey’s top priority is no longer regime change. Instead, Ankara is doing everything in its power to keep the Kurds from being in the position to establish an autonomous state, on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent for the Kurdish minority in Turkey. The incursion of Turkish troops into Afrin, widely deemed a violation of international law, is a clear sign of Ankara’s determination to serve Turkish interests wherever it sees fit – even if that flies in the face of the international community’s objections and misgivings.
The unshackling of Turkish foreign policy from the West has produced a corresponding convergence between Ankara and Moscow. Bilateral relations had reached a low point when the Turkish air force downed a Russian warplane in November 2015, but a rapprochement followed as Russia sought to drive a wedge between Ankara and its Western allies. Given the opportunity to pit NATO members against each other over the Kurdish question, Moscow was quick to give a green light to Turkey’s invasion of Afrin. The price was Ankara falling in line on the future of the Assad regime.
Implications for NATO
The shift in Turkish foreign policy created a rift with the Western states that had been Ankara’s main political and security partners since World War II. This divergence is partly due to profound changes that have taken place in the international system. Aside from that, however, there is also an emotional and psychological dimension that dates from the foundation of the Turkish Republic, which questions the Kemalist strategy of a radical alignment with Europe.
The new policy orientation is guided by the Islamic nature of the Ottoman heritage, and envisages Turkey as part of an imagined community of the Islamic world. President Erdogan sees himself both as a Turkish nationalist and as a protagonist for the resurgence of the Islamic world. By definition, this policy has a distinctly anti-Western character.
One scenario that can be definitively ruled out is a Turkish exit from NATO
Such logic should not be taken too far, however. One scenario that can be definitively ruled out is a Turkish exit from NATO. Turkey’s partners in the alliance still have a very strong interest in its continued membership. That is demonstrated by the relatively mild response in Brussels, Washington and other NATO capitals to Ankara’s recent diplomatic, military and procurement decisions, which are clearly incompatible with the alliance’s fundamental principles. Even in Ankara, the conviction that the alliance is indispensable for Turkey’s security outweighs its frustration and disappointment with NATO members for failing to understand its internal terrorist threat.
The rapprochement with Russia is also shadowed by Turkish memories of more than two centuries of conflict and war with their neighbor to the north. At present, despite some shared aims, the two countries’ interests remain at odds in the Black Sea region, the Caucasus (especially regarding the Muslim minorities there) and Central Asia.
About the only thing that would put Turkey’s NATO membership at risk would be an open conflict with Greece – whether over islands in the Aegean Sea, sovereignty over the waters surrounding Cyprus, or associated rights to extract offshore oil and gas. But most likely, NATO will base its relations with Ankara on the realistic assumption that it is dealing with a headstrong partner, acting according to the principle of «Turkey first». This is apt to create increasing friction as Ankara refuses to coordinate policies with its Western partners and be guided by their interests.
Running hot and cold
Turkey’s EU membership will remain frozen as long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in power. The game plan on which Turkey’s president is staking his political future became clear on April 18, when he called snap parliamentary and presidential elections for June 24, a year ahead of when they were supposed to take place. Victory would serve as a springboard to Mr. Erdogan’s goal of presiding over a «new Turkey» through 2023, the centennial of the Turkish Republic.
If the constitutional referendum of April 2017 is any guide, the president and the ruling AKP can expect to collect a little over half the vote. However, surveys show that support for his policies among the Turkish electorate is dwindling. Nervousness about potential shrinkage in his support base may explain the decision to move up the ballots from 2019.
Ankara is aware that Russia remains unpredictable even during periodic thaws in relations
Undemocratic measures and strong-arm tactics against the opposition can be expected to continue during the campaign, along with a radically populist foreign policy. More red lines will be crossed regarding the EU membership talks, while the authorities will seek to whip up the public’s deep-seated anti-Americanism – much as was the case, under different circumstances, back in the 1970s.
Foreign policy populism lay behind the campaign against Kurdish «terrorists» in Syria. This propaganda is chiefly directed against the U.S., which is being accused of backing «terrorists». In support of these claims, the government frequently cites Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen.
With President Erdogan dominating domestic and foreign policy, Turkey’s relations with the West will remain distant and cool. However, we do not see a radical departure from the foreign policy Turkey has pursued since 1945. There will be no break with the EU and its member states, nor with the U.S. Ultimately, Ankara is aware that Russia remains unpredictable even during periodic thaws in tensions. Relations between Turkey and Russia have run hot and cold for centuries.
Turkey’s relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors are also far from serene. At the dawn of the Arab Spring in 2011, the prospect of a Turkish statesman combining Islamic identity with a democratic mandate was a beacon of hope to many in the region. However, President Erdogan’s shift toward autocracy and his overtly aggressive regional policy bear the hallmarks of Ottoman revisionism. This suggests that the appeal of the «Turkish model» will continue to fade.
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