Turkey’s Diplomatic Flurry

February 21, 2022

Although being overshadowed by the standoff in Ukraine, Turkish foreign policy has entered a remarkably busy period. Our leaders are paying visits to or receiving visitors from countries long considered adversaries. Ambassadors are probably getting ready to pack for their new posts. Moreover, Ankara is offering its good offices to Russia and Ukraine. All we hear is good news. The 0-15 age group could be impressed because, for the past ten years, they have only seen conflict, confrontation; they have only heard rhetoric, bravado, and talk about centers of evil trying to prevent Turkey’s rise as a global power.

But for some, belonging to older generations, whose memories go beyond the past decade, this is about Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy coming full circle. Because for them “building” is about forging new relationships, opening new paths of cooperation, whereas “rebuilding” means “making extensive repairs to, restoring to a previous state”. Thus, they see the AKP government’s latest diplomatic campaign not as building but “rebuilding”, as an endeavor to recover some of what has been lost in the past decade as a result of AKP’s misguided foreign policy.

The roller-coaster pattern of our relations with Israel, the UAE, Egypt, and Syria offers good lessons.

Turkey and Israel enjoyed good relations for decades. With the AKP’s coming to power in 2002, an element of uncertainty was introduced into our relationship. However, there was no major disturbance until the “one minute” incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 30, 2009, where Prime Minister Erdogan, in the presence of President Shimon Peres, strongly denounced Israel for its attitude towards the Palestinians. This marked the beginning of the downturn.

The Davos incident was followed by the “Mavi Marmara” tragedy. A Turkish NGO organized a flotilla to take humanitarian assistance to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli maritime blockade. Israel warned them that it would not allow this, but the organizers were determined. The Turkish Government chose to let the initiative run its course. Finally, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) boarded the flagship of the flotilla, Mavi Marmara, and killed nine Turks. There was uproar in Turkey. Diplomatic representation was brought to the lowest level.

Now we are all excited because President Isaac Herzog will pay an official visit to Turkey in March. What has changed? Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinians?  Israel’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization? Actually, nothing has changed. But, in the meantime, as Turkey’s relations with Arab countries and Israel soured, Israel succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

Israeli officials are saying that they would be careful in the rapprochement with Turkey. According to the Times of Israel, an Israeli diplomat has confirmed reports that Turkey is granting citizenship to a dozen members of the Hamas terrorist group. “Some are in the process, some already got (the documents), but we are talking about around a dozen,” Roey Gilad, chargé d’affaires at Israel’s embassy in Turkey, told the Reuters news agency.

On November 24, 2021, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi visited Ankara. Last week, President Erdogan visited the UAE for the first time in nearly a decade to revive relations. He said, “We are planning to take steps that will bring relations back to the level they deserve.”

Indeed, these two visits were about repairing, restoring a broken relationship. What took the relationship to unprecedented lows was AKP’s unreserved support for the Muslim Brotherhood and UAE’s fight against it. Thus, for a good number of years, pro-government media directed the harshest criticism towards the UAE. One may again ask, therefore, if anything has changed. And again, nothing has changed but the two countries have come to realize that despite differences, there are areas where their interests would be better served by cooperation than confrontation. This is the dictate of common sense.

Turkey’s relations with Egypt soured exactly for the same reason: Ankara’s unreserved support for the Muslim Brotherhood. For years the Turkish-Egyptian relationship remained on the right track. Cairo saw itself as the Arab world’s leader and perceived Ankara as a regional competitor, whereas Turkey had no inhibitions to expand cooperation.

The Arab Spring, the fall of President Mubarak, the election of Mohamed Morsi as President, and his ouster changed everything. The AKP government was outraged.  In June 2019, after Morsi’s death, President Erdogan said, “The late Morsi was tried and sentenced to death by the coup courts and drew his last breath in a courtroom again, which is a symbol of the years of long persecution against him and his people. The oppressors may make attempts against the lives of the oppressed and may even lead them to be martyred, but they can never harm the glory of their struggle.”[i]

In recent months, there are signs of a thaw, but it appears that it will take time. What has changed? Again, nothing. But, in the meantime, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Jordan established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.

The most striking example of our erratic foreign policy is our relationship with Syria.

In December 2009, the communique issued at the end of the Damascus meeting of the “Turkish-Syrian High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council” referred to a “strategic partnership”, using the favorite label for Turkey’s valued external relationships. It mentioned common threats and challenges confronting the two countries.

A year later, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu, in remarks to the press with his Syrian counterpart in Latakia, underlined that the exemplary relations between Syria and Turkey were serving as a model for regional partnerships and that the two countries were aiming at total economic integration. Relations among leaders could not be warmer.

But only two years later, the AKP government found out that President Assad was a dictator. And a few years later the Prime Minister promised to guide Turkey toward the standards of an advanced democracy. And a year later Turkey left the parliamentary system behind and adopted a presidential one. So much for those standards.

Today, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman are taking steps towards normalizing relations with Syria, thus making the latter’s return to the Arab League more likely.  Despite the embarrassment of reaching out to President Assad, Ankara should not be the last capital to take a similar step.

Two days ago, a New York Times article by Jane Arraf carried the title, “Conflict and Climate Change Ravage Syria’s Agricultural Heartland”. It is time to go back to the days of the “Friends of the Syrian People Group” days, this time to rebuild not to destroy.

Raising diplomatic representation to the ambassadorial level is the easy part of restoring channels of dialogue and cooperation. The rebuilding of trust would be a more demanding task and take time. For Ankara, restoring Turkey’s traditional policy of non-involvement in inter-Arab conflicts would be a good start.

Unfortunately, that would not be all. Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems was an issue from day one, leading to questions about a shift of axis.  Now, with or without Russian military action against Ukraine, the problem will become a bigger predicament for AKP’s foreign policy.

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[i] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkey/morsi-is-martyr-for-his-cause-turkish-president/1507166

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