The Gordian knot of Turkey’s foreign policy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems determined to improve his country’s foreign relations with various landscapes.

European Union sanctions that were threatening Turkey have apparently been postponed. There is talk of possible rapprochement with Egypt, while a shy dialogue has begun with neighbouring Greece. There are also gunboat policies and friendly messages being sent to Arab countries.    

There are expectations in Turkey that all problematic issues will also be resolved, one after the other. However, the impasses of the country are not isolated ones that can be handled separately; they compose clusters, each containing a series of problems, and each cluster being in confrontation with other ones.

For example, even if Turkey transcends the Russian S-400 missile system crisis with the United States with a brave U-turn, there are other issues that wait to be resolved, such as the state-owned Halkbank trial, Syria, Libya, the east Mediterranean conflicts, as well as human rights violations. Each of these has political and economic repercussions. The F-35 fighter jet deal is a security problem. To pull back from Libya incurs the problem of accommodating thousands of mercenaries. And on top of all, Turkey would be required to reconsider its relation with Russia.    

Shaky relations with Russia may cause problems for Turkey in Syria. Trying a balance between NATO and Russia would impair Turkey’s relations with Washington and the EU. Even if western governments were to ignore the human rights violations in Turkey, many western organizations and media would not. On the other hand, to improve human rights and to secure democratic free expression within Turkey may mean the end the government’s monopoly on supplying information, which may signal the end of its reign. These are situations that are difficult to handle since they all contain risks of losing the present-day political hegemony.   

A precondition of improving relations with the Arab countries is not to interfere in their internal affairs. Egypt clearly voiced that. Not to be on the side of Muslim Brotherhood means to be against Hamas, which would be a new source of headache. Not to intervene in Syria will be a problem for Turkey since the moves of the Kurds in that area are seen as an “existential problem” for Ankara. A step back by Erdoğan on this issue would mean challenging his coalition partner and far-right Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli with unforeseen consequences. How will the Turkish military forces cope with a humiliating withdrawal? As can be evidenced, each step in improving a situation brings to the fore some new problems.

To improve Turkish-Israel relations would mean losing prestige among the Muslims worldwide. But within Turkey, too, the image of the “determined and uncompromising” president would be impaired. Relations with Iran will also worsen, and this may be felt in Iraq and Syria.  

All these U-turns will defy the existing political discourse in which a big section of the Turkish society participates. According to this “worldview” the “West” is against Turkey, the Muslims, the existing government and it is behind the enemies of Turkey: the Kurds, the Gülenists, the Greeks of Cyprus and Greece, the Armenians, etc. How can this “ideology” be explained and compromised with new good relations with yesterday’s rivals? Can Erdoğan face this challenge and risk all this?

It seems that a few tactical positive steps do not secure easy solutions. The solution for Turkey may be to decide finally where it wants to belong to, what kind of a country it wants to be, what values it will serve and to which destination all these will guide the country. Unless this is decided its relations, especially with western world will be indecisive and tense.

Being close to Russia and also a member of NATO, trying to be close to the EU without recognising one of its members (Cyprus) or trying the patience of the democratic world by ignoring the basic principles of law and justice or keeping active armies in Arab countries without being invited, trying to be a good partner of Russia and a friend of the United States simultaneously, will alienate many countries and organizations involved. Similar opportunist choices eventually cause reservations by many.   

In short, Turkey on one hand sends messages of rapprochement and friendship, but at the same time follows a contradictory route. This policy is seen as unpredictability and insecurity by the countries involved. The worst is that these ups and downs cannot be understood and explained by the interested parties. Are these planned moves or are they decisions taken in a hurry or in panic?

How should one explain that a declaration of democratization is followed by banning a political party, suing members of the Parliament and withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention pertaining to the protection of women’s rights? And how long can such a wavering policy last?

Much will depend on the unofficial coalition partner of Erdoğan, Bahçeli. If he is able to cope with the new u-turns for the sake of enjoying his advantageous political position, the two partners will keep Turkey on a zigzag trail for some time.

The oft-repeated ''existential problem” may be referring to their selves.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.