A Brief Overview of Türkiye’s Foreign Relations

September 19, 2022

The Middle East:

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”, at the time a fashionable label for Türkiye’s relationships with other nations. 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 Türkiye were serving as a model for regional partnerships and that the two countries were aiming at total economic integration with neighbors.

Two years later, aspiring to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Damascus, Ankara took a leading role in the regime change project in Syria. And Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership changed the Syrian President’s name from Esad to the derogatory Esed.

President Assad called this broad reversal of Turkish policy a betrayal.

Apparently, the AKP leadership under pressure from Moscow, is now ready to meet him but appallingly, he is still being referred to as Esed.

Moreover, we now have, reportedly 15,000 Turkish troops in harm’s way in Syria. For months, “suddenly one night” has become the motto of another military intervention which under the current circumstances remains an impossibility. By contrast, Damascus has sent five million refugees to Turkey. Troops will come back at some point but a vast majority of the refugees will stay. So which country has invaded the other is a relevant question.

In brief, a decade later, Gulf states except Qatar are our adversaries. There is no progress in relations with Egypt. Ankara and Israel are now close to resuming ties at the ambassadorial level but that is the easy part of rebuilding the relationship. Restoring mutual confidence is the bigger task.

Relations with the EU:

Five years ago, under the title, “Obituary for Turkey’s EU Accession Process”, I had written:

“Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth famously said, “what is done cannot be undone”. Beyond the EU accession process, Türkiye’s eight-year democratic decline and a series of major foreign policy mistakes, particularly our involvement in the Syrian conflict, have done irreparable harm to our global standing and its national interests.

“Can this damage be undone? At best, partly. In principle, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Indeed, if there is a will, we can start by returning to the democratic path which means going back to the parliamentary system, restoring the rule of law, and fulfilling the obligations we have assumed under the European Convention of Human Rights. The problem is there is no will. We are polarized and half the nation believes that we are doing just great. Regardless, laying Turkey’s EU project formally in its grave will be an unpleasant task even for this government.”

At the time, President Macron said that recent developments and choices did not allow for any headway in the accession process. By “developments and choices” he meant the decline of Turkish democracy and the referendum marking the end of our parliamentary system. While stressing the importance of Turkey remaining “anchored” in Europe, he stated that the EU and Türkiye need to put behind the hypocrisy of pretending that the process could move forward through the opening of new negotiating chapters. Choosing his words carefully, he also criticized the EU for having led Türkiye to believe in things that were impossible, meaning accession. Finally, he expressed his preference, in the light of today’s realities, for concentrating on what was doable, “a new partnership”.

At present, the only option is “transactional cooperation”.

Relations with the US:

Today, Turkish-US relations are at their lowest point ever. Washington’s policy to contain Russia has yielded some benefits for Athens in its confrontation with Ankara but these come at a price in Greek-Russian, Greek-Turkish, and Turkish-American relations. President Biden could not care less. His priority is Russia and bypassing the Turkish Straits. And if Ankara is concerned, so much the better. Last Friday, Secretary Blinken certified to Congress that the Republic of Cyprus has met the necessary conditions under relevant legislation to allow the approval of exports, re-exports, and transfers of defense articles to the Republic of Cyprus for the fiscal year 2023.

Washington is continuing to support and cooperate with the PKK/YPG. State Department spokespersons’ continuing references to Türkiye as “a vital and key NATO Ally and partner” are glaring misrepresentations of the current state of affairs. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Relations with Russia:

A decade ago, Türkiye enjoyed a mutually rewarding relationship with Russia. Ankara and Moscow knew exactly where they stood but made the most of the opportunities offered through cooperation. On November 24, 2015, a stunning development changed the picture. Turkish air force shot down a Russian Su-24 military plane for having violated our airspace for 17 seconds.  This was no “accident”. It was a tragic “incident”. Then everything changed and the balanced character of the relationship started to falter to Ankara’s disadvantage.

It appears that Moscow, given the downturn in Türkiye’s relations with the US and Europe has chosen to invest in an irreversible estrangement, perhaps a rupture between Ankara and the West. This has been Russian policy for centuries. And under current circumstances, such a policy only makes sense from Russia’s perspective. This is not to say that Moscow would tolerate Ankara’s every move on issues between the two countries. But it would be patient. It would not engage in unnecessary public criticism or rhetoric. It would convey its messages in frank language behind closed doors. Because it has a strong tradition of diplomacy with long-term perspectives. President Putin would not let Ankara go easily.

Had Türkiye remained on the democratic path, President Erdogan’s attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit could be perceived as a step towards expanding Ankara’s horizons in Asia. But today, it is a subject of speculation regarding Türkiye’s shift of axis. After all, Turkish democracy is in steep decline and the 2002 Charter of the SCO does not mention the word “democracy”. Among the principal goals and tasks of the Organization is “jointly counteracting terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations”. This almost perfectly fits in Ankara’s public discourse. However, its close relations with certain Islamist Middle Eastern groups which constitute the major obstacle to improved relations with Middle East countries may prove a challenge in its relations with the SCO as well.

The official website of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs says:

“Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey together with Mr. Dmitry Mezentsev, Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) signed the Memorandum on the cooperation that may be carried out with the SCO as the Dialogue Partner of the organization…

“Speaking at the signing ceremony Foreign Minister Davutoğlu emphasized that the Memorandum is a declaration of “common fate” and also the beginning of a long road where Turkey and SCO walk hand in hand.” [i]

This was in April 2013, less than a year after Ankara decided to confront its former “strategic partner” Syria. And last Saturday, President Erdogan, in response to a question regarding Ankara’s long-term perspective of its relationship with the SCO, said this is full membership.

Prospects for the future:

In less than a year, Türkiye is supposed to hold presidential elections. At present, the top item on the national agenda is our economic freefall, symbolized by the dramatic loss of value of the Turkish currency. Thus, if an opposition candidate were to win the election ending two decades of AKP rule, his principal tasks would be restoring the economy and ensuring an immediate return to the parliamentary system. But putting foreign policy on the right track would also be a huge challenge.

During the past decade, the opposition has largely remained trapped by the government’s nationalist public discourse. It has tried hard to be one step ahead of the government in daring our Western allies. Thus, anti-Western sentiment among people is extremely high. Moreover, Turks across the spectrum are furious that the processing of their visa applications has become a lucrative business for Western countries.

In case of a regime change in Ankara following the presidential election, the restoration of what is now a broken relationship would not depend only on Türkiye’s new government but on our Western allies and partners as well. If they were to continue their policy of confronting Ankara on every issue and condition their support for Türkiye’s return to democracy and restore its economy on unacceptable concessions, then further estrangement with the West and a change of axis could become a certainty.

No matter who is in power in Ankara, genuine improvement in relations with the Biden White House is mission impossible.

It seems that 2023, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic, would be the time of reckoning for our country in the grip of acute multiple polarization. Hopefully, we would prove worthy of Ataturk’s legacy.

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[i] https://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey-and-the-shanghai-cooperation-organization-dialogue-partnership-memorandum-was-signed-in-almaty.en.mfa

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