January 23, 2023
Although not yet officially announced, it appears that Türkiye will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, 2023. President Erdoğan is running for a third term and the group of six opposition parties known as the “table of six”, still has to agree on a candidate for president. To use two popular phrases used to define the changing global order, Türkiye is also at an “inflection point” or at a “defining moment”. Because in these elections, the people of Türkiye will judge the two decades of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) increasingly authoritarian rule. And the world would judge them accordingly since these elections are the last exit for democracy, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and accountability.
With Türkiye’s shattered economy, and the rate of inflation for 2022 officially 64,27 %, but more than double that according to independent sources, President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government desperately need success stories to distract attention. Thus, during the past year, they have invested heavily in writing success stories in Turkish foreign policy. To achieve this, they have used a two-pronged approach combining tough language coined in the phrase “suddenly one night” and “normalization of relations” with regional countries among them Israel, Egypt, the UAE, and Syria. What has been achieved so far is only some credit for the Black Sea grain deal and the exchange of Russian and Ukrainian POWs.
So far, we have fortunately not gone anywhere “suddenly one night”, and unfortunately there is scant progress in normalizing relations with regional countries. Because regaining their trust is a tough task, particularly after years of open support for the Muslim Brotherhood which has been the main reason for the downturn in relations. Moreover, these countries are reluctant to offer Ankara any diplomatic victories ahead of the May 14 elections. Thus, they have put relations with Türkiye in the freezer until the announcement of the election results.
Recently, the Turkish side has mentioned the possibility of a meeting between Presidents Assad and Erdogan but it is clear that the former is not yet ready for such an encounter and has set two conditions for progress in the “normalization of relations”. The first is the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria and the second is Türkiye’s stopping its support to what Damascus calls “anti-regime terrorist groups”. Moreover, President Assad would be more than happy if the May 14 elections would eliminate the prospect of a meeting with President Erdoğan, once a good friend and the leader of Syria’s “strategic partner” Türkiye, later the archenemy.[i]
Last week Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu met with Secretary Blinken in Washington. In remarks to the press before the talks, Mr. Blinken said that the two countries are close allies and partners; that doesn’t mean that the two don’t have differences, but when they have differences, precisely because they are allies and partners, they work through them in that spirit.
Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu specifically mentioned Türkiye’s expectations regarding the upgrade of its F-16 fighters saying that this is also important for NATO and the US. He also referred to the fight against terrorism, including Daesh and the PKK.
A statement was released by the two countries on the occasion of the meeting of the US-Türkiye Strategic Mechanism.[ii] The statement reiterated the commitment to a concrete and results-oriented positive bilateral agenda. In this connection, it mentioned the modernization of Türkiye’s F-16 fleet, implementation of the trilateral memorandum signed by Finland, Sweden, and Türkiye to advance Finland and Sweden’s application to join the NATO Alliance, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the importance of preserving stability and channels for communication, the plan to hold counter-terrorism consultations as part of the Strategic Mechanism, and the commitment to a Syrian-led political process under UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
This Resolution was adopted on December 18, 2015. After its adoption, Secretary Kerry referred to it as a milestone since it sets out specific concepts with specific timeframes. But he also added that the Council was under no illusions about the obstacles that existed. And Foreign Minister Lavrov said, “I’m not too optimistic about what has been achieved today.” [iii]
A year after the adoption of Resolution 2254, President Erdoğan said that Türkiye was not after territory in Syria but ending Assad’s cruel rule. Seven years on, Ankara is after the normalization of relations with Damascus and obviously, Washington is not happy. But if the Biden administration were to take a different attitude toward the Syrian conflict and genuinely engage in peacemaking, this would not only bolster its standing in the region but may even have a positive impact on the war in Ukraine.[iv]
Small surprises aside, groundbreaking progress or a reset in Türkiye-US relations remains unlikely. If President Erdogan and his AKP were to emerge as the winners from the May 14 elections it will be more of the same. What may change in Turkish foreign policy should there be a leadership change in Ankara is another story.