Turkey’s Vicious Circle of Foreign Policy

October 5, 2021

In late September,  President Erdogan traveled to New York and addressed the UN General Assembly. He also hoped to have a face-to-face meeting with President Biden. When such a meeting failed to materialize, President Erdogan vented his pent-up frustration with Washington.

On September 29, he met with President Putin in Russia’s Black Sea city of Sochi, their first for a year and a half.

Before the meeting, the two leaders delivered remarks to the media.[i]

Mr. Putin mentioned the positive aspects of bilateral cooperation, but also said, “Our talks are sometimes not easy, but their outcome is always positive. Our agencies have learned to find compromises that benefit both parties… We are cooperating quite successfully on the international stage… However, there are very many unsettled matters…”

President Erdogan struck a positive note and avoided mentioning any differences.

Then the two Presidents had a three-hour one-on-one meeting with interpreters. And, contrary to usual practice, they declined to speak to the media after the meeting.

On the way back home, President Erdogan told the accompanying media that issues ranging from Syria to Afghanistan, Libya, Nagorno-Karabagh, construction of two more nuclear plants, production of aircraft engines, space cooperation, construction of naval vessels including submarines, tourism, trade, agricultural cooperation were taken up. He stressed that there would be no stepping back on the S-400s. But considering the need for translation, one can only assume that in depth talk focused on Syria and defense cooperation, with  the rest mentioned in passing.

Mr. Erdogan admitted that sometimes there are differences with Russia on complex regional issues, but at this particular meeting there was agreement almost on everything. He made an oblique reference to  his dissatisfaction regarding a PYD/YPG visit to Moscow while directing harsh criticism to Washington for its continuing support to the same group.

He also said that Mr. Putin has accepted his invitation to come to Turkey before the end of the year for a meeting of the Turkish-Russian High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC).

Thus, during the past week, pundits in Turkey were gazing into the crystal ball to assess the visit, particularly its implications for the Syrian conflict and Ankara’s relationship with the Biden White House. The broad picture might become clearer towards the end of the year after a  Biden-Erdogan meeting likely to take place in Rome on the margins of the G20 Summit at the end of October, and then President Putin’s visit to Turkey for the HLCC. Developments in Syria might offer earlier clues.

Understandably, Mr. Putin remains determined to take advantage of differences between NATO allies. And as the souring of Turkish-American relations and the prospects for expanded defense cooperation with Ankara show, he is on the right path with Turkey. Like it or not, one has to respect Russian diplomacy.

Yesterday, Russia sent yet another message regarding Idlib. At a joint news conference following talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Moscow, Foreign Minister Lavrov, underlining Russia’s expectations from Ankara, stated the following:

“… Russia unequivocally confirms the need to implement the agreements between President Putin and President Erdogan on isolating the terrorists, primarily Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (no matter what new attire it might use), with the ultimate purpose of suppressing these terrorist groups. This is our approach. The sooner this is done the better. In practical terms, we will insist on the full implementation of these agreements…”[ii]

Moreover, with reference to UN Security Council Resolution 2254, he again said that only the armed forces of countries that are invited by the lawful government of Syria, a UN member, have the right to be on Syrian territory. “This applies to the American units, ” he added, sending an indirect message to Ankara also.

Under article 90 of the Turkish Constitution, the ratification of treaties concluded with foreign states and international organizations on behalf of the Republic of Turkey is subject to adoption by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey by a law approving ratification. That is the principle but there are exceptions. The reality is, neither the parliament nor the government has any saying, let alone authority, over foreign policy. Under New Turkey’s presidential system, the President increasingly rules by decree, a case in point being Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. In brief, he has acquired exclusive personal power on foreign policy.

Turkey ranks number 104 on the Economist’s Democracy Index 2020 putting it among hybrid regimes. Under the same index, the US ranks number 25 among flawed democracies, reflecting the decline under President Trump. In a recent Foreign Affairs article Larry Diamond said:

“Once a political system loses bipartisan consensus respecting the rules of the democratic game, it can be a short slide to autocracy. The world has watched this happen in Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela. It is not inconceivable that it could happen in the United States.”[iii]

Does this parallel democratic decline bring Ankara and Washington any closer? No. On the contrary, President Biden has stressed, on more than one occasion, that respect for human rights and rule of law would be at the center of his foreign policy. Middle East leaders, knowing that it will always be business as usual, pay no heed to such public discourse. But in the case of Turkey, a Council of Europe and NATO member, this adds to an overarching problem of chemistry negatively impacting the resolution of a mountain of problems with Washington.

Presidents Biden and Erdogan may meet in Rome, but a genuine reset in Turkish-American relations remains mission impossible in the short term. The Biden-Erdogan meeting  would focus more on containing the rising cost of our differences than give-and-take. No matter what is said publicly, and one should not expect much, it will not end mutual frustration. And it will lead to further speculation regarding Turkey’s shift of axis as Ankara’s Hamidian foreign policy of playing major powers against one another gets closer and closer to a dead-end.


[i] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66800

[ii] https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4877388

[iii] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/americas/2021-07-02/world-without-american-democracy

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