August 25, 2022
In the military context, the word “retreat” means “the usually forced withdrawal of troops from an enemy or from an advanced position”. In a broader context, it is defined as “an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable”. [i] For obvious reasons, the word is anathema to politicians. They prefer expressions like “revision” or “updating” of policy. But in Türkiye, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) avoids even using such expressions as they might be conceived as an admission of error. It prefers to refer to its foreign policy reversals as “normalization of relations”. How we ended up having an abnormal state of relations with others is not an issue.
In reality, these reversals extend from relations with Israel, UAE, and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and add up to a staggering retreat across a broad diplomatic front. And now, it appears that “normalization” of relations with Syria is on the agenda marking the end of the government’s endless “suddenly one night” military intervention rhetoric. Because a new incursion would contradict “normalization” to start with.
The roller-coaster pattern of our relations with Israel, the UAE, Egypt, and Syria offers good lessons.
Türkiye and Israel enjoyed good relations for decades. With the AKP 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 Türkiye. Diplomatic representation was brought to the lowest level.
Türkiye and Israel are now “normalizing” relations. What has changed? Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinians? Israel’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization? Nothing has changed. But, in the meantime, as Türkiye’s relations with Arab countries and Israel soured, Israel succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
On November 24, 2021, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi visited Ankara. In February 2022, 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 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 at the UAE for supporting FETO. One may again ask, therefore, if anything has changed. And again, nothing has changed but Ankara chose to “normalize” relations. Because loneliness is not as precious as the AKP once claimed and Türkiye needs funds.
Our 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 Türkiye had no inhibitions to expanding 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.”
In recent months, there are signs of a thaw, but it appears that “normalizing” relations with Cairo 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.
Nearly four years after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, President Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia to make peace with MBS who soon returned the visit. Thus, relations were “normalized”. Saudi funds and foreign currency could help Erdogan shore up support ahead of elections, analysts said but it seems that there is no money flow even though Saudi oil giant Aramco has broken its record with a 48.4-billion-dollar profit for the second quarter of 2022.
But the most striking example of our erratic foreign policy is our relationship with Syria.
In 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”, at the time a most fashionable label for Türkiye’s developing external relationships. It mentioned common threats and challenges confronting the two countries. A year later, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in remarks to the press with his Syrian counterpart in Latakia, underlined that the exemplary relationship between Syria and Türkiye was serving as a model for regional partnerships and that the two countries were aiming at total economic integration with neighbors.
Two years later, the AKP government decided that President Assad was a dictator and Ankara joined hands with the US, other Western countries, and the Gulf states to oust him from power.
The so-called “Friends of Syria Group”, now history, held its first meeting in Tunis on February 24, 2012. On April 1, 2012, it met for the second time in Istanbul.
Later that month in 2012, Mr. Davutoglu delivered a major foreign policy speech in the parliament. Emphasizing the genuine desire for change underlying the Arab spring, he declared that attempts to explain the current developments with plans imposed from abroad and external conspiracies were primarily an insult to the honorable peoples of the region.
“The Friends of the Syrian Group represents the conscience of the international community and it was formed as a result of our determined efforts… We organized the second meeting in Istanbul with the participation of eighty-three countries and international organizations. It’s clear that these 83 nations did not come here to say ‘let’s keep the Assad regime in place’… As Turkey, we shall continue to direct and lead the massive wave of change in the Middle East. The people of the region see Turkey not only as a friend and a brother but also as the leader of a new and powerful vision to shape the future, and create a new regional order… Lastly, I wish to stress the following: The new Middle East is being born. We shall continue to be the owner, the leader, and the steward of this new Middle East.”
In 2016, President Erdogan said that Türkiye is not after territory in Syria, but after justice and ending the rule of cruel Assad.
But recently he said that political dialogue or diplomacy cannot be cut off between states and that defeating or not defeating President Assad is not our problem.
In remarks and answers to media questions following his talks with Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Faisal Mekdad in Moscow on August 23, 2022, Foreign Minister Lavrov said:
“The Russian Federation has been involved in normalizing relations between Syria and Türkiye for many years – since the Astana format was set up. Russia, Türkiye, and Iran are the guarantors of this process. Syria is a participant as represented by pro-government and opposition delegations. Representatives from Damascus and Ankara meet on the sidelines of international meetings on Syria (a regular meeting will take place in Nur-Sultan); there are several platforms. The entire implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and of the Astana format agreements is aimed at the full normalization of relations between the neighboring countries in the context of restoring the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of the SAR.” [ii]
In brief, Ankara is ready to “normalize” relations with Syria but unlikely to admit that it is retreating.
The sad reality is that AKP’s misguided Syria policy has only brought five million Syrian refugees to Türkiye, and united Washington, Moscow, and Tehran in their opposition to further Turkish incursions into Syria. Moreover, a decade ago, Ankara did not have a YPG problem, today it has.
Many analysts share the opinion that the AKP government’s efforts to “normalize relations” with adversaries are primarily designed to serve its domestic agenda before the upcoming presidential election. In some cases, these “normalization” efforts are designed to “project” Türkiye as a valued regional partner, while others are only efforts to get funds for the staggering Turkish economy.
Irit Lillian, Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Ankara, recently told The Times of Israel that it was clear from the beginning that they were building a process in which the parties agreed to disagree. “We know we are not going into a perfect marriage,” she said. [iii]
She is right. With AKP’s unwavering support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, these so-called normalizations are unlikely to go much beyond the exchange of ambassadors. Because the primary challenge for Ankara remains the restoration of confidence, and the narrowing of the gap between what we say and do. Thus, for regional countries and Türkiye’s Western allies, the period up to the Turkish presidential elections will essentially be a time to “wait and see”.