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Turkish foreign policy: Where to next? 3 juillet 2011

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, Middle East / Moyen Orient, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est, Turkey / Turquie.
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New Europe (Belgium)  3 July 2011

Demir Murat Seyrek * and Amanda Paul **

The proactive approach of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party AKP to foreign policy making has changed traditional dynamics and taken Turkey to a totally different level of influence and power in its neighbourhood over the last few years. Nowadays Turkey has developed a far more independent foreign policy than hitherto. While maintaining strong links with the West being a long time member of NATO Ankara has begun to consider the national interests of the Turkey first and foremost which was not always the case in the past. This independent approach has raised the eyebrows of many western experts who interpret this as the West losing Turkey as Ankara becomes increasing engaged in its other neighbourhoods most particularly the Middle East.

Some explain this « shift” as a natural result of Turkey’s growing influence in the region while others have described it as the imperialist concept of « neo-Ottomanism” which refers to the increasing involvement of Turkey in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire including the Balkans Middle East and North Africa.

While the AKP’s third landslide victory taking almost 50% of the vote at the 12th June Parliamentary elections is expected to have several implications for Turkey’s domestic politics whether this success will take Turkey further away from the West or result in better dialogue and cooperation between the West and Ankara on foreign policy issues still remains to be seen. Although the AKP’s main foreign policy dynamics are unlikely to change regional developments including the recent uprising in Syria may force Turkey to have closer cooperation and dialogue with western allies particular the US.

Presently Syria represents the first foreign policy challenge of AKP’s third term. The once close relationship between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came to an end following al-Assad’s failure to introduce expected reforms and the on-going brutal attacks on civilians by the security forces. Sharing a border with Syria means that Turkey is one of the first countries to be directly affected by chaos and instability and this fact therefore rules out the possibility of maintaining a low-profile as has been the case with Libya. Turkey’s policy on Syria and the level of coordination with its Western allies in building this policy has consequences for Turkey’s relations with the West and Israel. Moreover potential regime change in Syria increases concern in Iran which is starting to take a more critical approach towards Turkey’s deepening role in Syria. In this respect the Syrian crisis may act as a litmus test for the reshaping of foreign policy dynamics in this region: on the one hand dialogue between Turkey and Iran may run into trouble while on the other it may create an opportunity for rapprochement between Turkey and Israel.

The future of Turkey-Israel relations is another important issue. US attempts to « reset” Turkey-Israel relations prior to the elections came as no surprise. With developments in the Arab world and Iran’s nuclear programme bringing instability to the region the US desires an end to the tensions between its two democratic reliable and stable allies. Thus we should expect an increasing amount of American diplomacy to reconcile Turkey and Israel in the coming period. AKP’s efforts to prevent a second flotilla incident can be viewed as a consequence of this. It would be naïve to expect the reestablishment of strong ties between Turkey and Israel in short and mid-term. However normalization of relations and Turkey’s return to the negotiation table in the Middle East as a mediator may be expected.

Turkish-US relations may also enter a new era following the Arab Spring. While Washington has recently taken a critical approach towards several issues in Turkey including media freedom and freedom of expression mutual strategic interests and the increasing regional role of Turkey may re-strengthen the strategic ties between two old allies. The US needs Turkey’s support and consistent approach on Syria and Iran while Turkey needs concrete steps from the US in eliminating terror camps in the Northern Iraq while at the same time making greater efforts into solving the Kurdish issue in a peaceful way through domestic reforms.

While expectation for re-strengthening Turkish-American relations are high the same cannot be said for EU–Turkey relations which are set to remain deadlocked unless there is a change vis-à-vis the decades old Cyprus problem or from the leadership of those countries in particular France and Germany that are opposed to Turkish membership.

There are currently eighteen negotiating chapters frozen due to vetoes by France Germany and Cyprus. While France and Germany block for political reasons Cyprus blocks due to Turkey’s failure to fully meet it’s Custom’s Union the Additional Protocol obligations and open its airspace and harbours to the Republic of Cyprus. Turkish policy has always been to link the implementation of the Additional Protocol to the EU delivering on the commitments it made to Turkish Cypriots in the aftermath of the 2004 Annan Plan Referendum for the reunification of Cyprus when Turkish Cypriots voted « yes” while Greek Cypriots voted « no”. The EU offered Turkish Cypriots an economic deal which included a Direct Trade Regulation but it has never materialized due to Greek Cypriot opposition.

With such a big mandate Erdogan could now take steps and extend the Additional Protocol. This would immediately unblock 8 chapters boost Turkey’s credibility and take way some of the ammunition used by those opposed to Turkish accession. However Ankara is unlikely to do this as long as the EU makes no effort to demonstrate commitment to Turkish membership. Given that nowadays the EU remains bogged down with the Euro-crisis has had a negative reaction to immigrants coming from North Africa and seems to lack any vision at all it does not seem likely that a « reset of talks” is about to happen.

Turkey would also probably welcome an opportunity to reopen rapprochement talks with Armenia which collapsed last year principally as a result of Turkey’s decision to link it to progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan following pressure from Baku which was not part of the agreement negotiated between Yerevan and Ankara. Given that Erdogan has already underlined the importance of Azerbaijan for Turkey it is unlikely he will risk upsetting Baku again. For Turkey to have a real role in the region Ankara first needs to concentrate on implementing « zero problems” within regional countries. Therefore as long as Turkey does not normalise relations with Armenia Ankara will be unable to have such a role.

While Turkey’s new approach to foreign policy is aimed at making Turkey a significant regional player Turkey also want to go beyond this and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu took several initiatives in different regions of the world over the last two years. Turkey continues to strengthen ties with Russia Ukraine and China while also quickly moving into Africa and even South America.

Although there is no doubt Turkey is playing an increasingly important role in its region Ankara needs to be careful not to spread itself too thinly by trying to be everything to everyone. Regional developments may require Turkey to focus on a few strategic issues which may have direct consequences for Turkey and the regional balance. Furthermore while Turkey has positioned itself as an active regional player it has not managed to solve any of the most thorny regional issues Cyprus Armenian issue the Aegean issue Iran nuclear issue the Middle East conflict . If not final solutions at least some concrete improvements in some of these issues will be required in order to preserve the consistency and validity of « zero problems with neighbours” and « pro-active foreign policy” approaches of AKP.

* Demir Murat Seyrek Managing Partner of Glocal Communications
** Amanda Paul Policy Analyst for the European Policy Centre in Brussels


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