Toward an Inflection Point

November 28, 2022

President Erdogan’s handshake with President al-Sisi has once again triggered criticism about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership’s foreign policy U-turns. On the list were the relations with the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Last Wednesday, in response to questions after the party group meeting, he said he could meet Presidents al-Sisi and Assad and there is no room for bad blood and rancor in politics.

The problem is a U-turn does not automatically restore a relationship. Despite the fine talk and the cheering by the pro-government media, Ankara’s relations with those four countries are still far from where they were a decade ago. Because countries take time to decide whether Ankara’s policy reversals represent a genuine change of heart or remain a façade. Moreover, our regional partners, Western allies, and others are all waiting for Türkiye’s presidential and parliamentary elections to see if they are to continue with President Erdogan or his successor.

This election will take place on June 18, 2023, at the latest. And until the day of the election, the AKP will do everything within its power to convince the electorate firstly that the country is on the path to economic recovery, and secondly that it remains a much sought-after actor of global diplomacy, and thus secure another election victory.

With Türkiye’s present rate of inflation “officially” at 85%, the first is next to mission impossible. So, the government is likely to focus on the latter and encourage people to forget about the cost of the past decade including the incalculable toll of our involvement in the regime change project in Syria, the emergence of an anti-Turkey bloc in the eastern Mediterranean, money lost in trade, and the decline in our international standing.

If President Erdogan and his AKP were to emerge victorious from the elections it will be more of the same.

If the elections were to lead to a change in power, both Ankara, and Ankara’s regional partners, and Western allies would seek a reset in relations. This, however, would take time. Because the new leadership’s priority would be dealing with enormous domestic challenges such as Türkiye’s staggering economy, its multi-dimensional polarization, and administrative reform.

The new leadership would restore, without delay, Ankara’s traditional foreign policy of dialogue with regional partners, non-involvement in inter-Arab affairs, and not getting involved in regional conflicts beyond a peace-making role.

Relations with Western allies would be a bigger challenge. To start with, these allies would be wise not to come up immediately with lists of suggestions or demands but allow the new government time to make a full assessment of the opaque foreign and security policy of the past decade. What a new administration would expect from Europe would be meaningful engagement.

With a long list of differences extending from the Syrian conflict and US support to the PYD/YPG to disagreements over military cooperation, a reset in relations with Washington would not be an easy task.

Six months later, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine would still be high on the world’s agenda. Despite Ankara’s role in the Black Sea grain initiative, Washington has not been happy with Türkiye’s stance on the war in Ukraine and Russia sanctions. But this policy is unlikely to change under any government because, after centuries of an adversarial relationship with twelve major military campaigns and Russian designs regarding the Turkish Straits and Istanbul, Türkiye and Russia were able to build a mutually beneficial relationship during the years of détente and three decades of the post-Cold War era. And, Türkiye has already paid an extremely high price for the sanctions targeting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Someday, President Putin will be gone but Russia will always be there.

What reminds me of the elections to be held in another six months and their foreign policy implications is not an absorbing election campaign or in-depth discussions about competing political and economic programs but a glance at the new 2023 calendar.

Yet this election will be an inflection point for Türkiye. It will determine whether we move forward on the path of Atatürk, the founding father of the Republic, or metamorphose into President Morsi’s Egypt.

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