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Oct 14, 2013 | 14:45 GMT

In Turkey, an Inevitable Shift in Foreign Policy

In Turkey, an Inevitable Shift in Foreign Policy
(SCOTT HALLERAN/Getty Images)
Summary

Turkey's Middle East policy under the ruling Justice and Development Party has broadly focused on two ambitious objectives: deepening influence in the Arab world through the empowerment of moderate Sunni Islamist forces and a visibly antagonistic relationship with Israel, and using political and economic appeasement to contain Kurdish separatism. These policies, closely linked with the leadership of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, may be expiring. Turkey simply lacks the internal political coherence and the regional influence to stick to foreign policy positions that collectively run against U.S. and Iranian interests.

Turkey will be driven toward a more moderate foreign policy by a number of factors, including a developing U.S.-Iranian dialogue, Washington's willingness — at least temporarily — to work with Russia in the Middle East, the proliferation of battle-hardened jihadists in Turkey's immediate region and a growing list of political and economic distractions to deal with at home. This shift will occur in smaller, tactical adjustments at first, but a more visible recalibration of Turkey's foreign policy will likely come with a reshuffle of the country's political leadership in 2014 elections.

Turkey is encountering obstacles on all sides. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Turkey's ruling party empathized with and ardently supported against the military, has seen many of its members imprisoned and has been barred from politics. In the Gaza Strip, where Turkey has demanded that Israel lift a blockade in return for normalized relations, both Egypt and Israel are clamping down with the intent of neutralizing Hamas. In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, which Turkey has been backing in order to develop an independent export pipeline for crude oil, is embroiled in political infighting. In Syria, the Sunni rebels who Turkey was hoping would replace Bashar al Assad have been eclipsed by jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra. Both groups are actively recruiting impoverished Turks from southeast Turkey. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, after recently taking over the town of Azaz near the Turkish border, has even threatened suicide attacks inside Turkey.

Disagreements With the U.S. and Iran

When it comes to regional diplomacy, Turkey's situation is not much better. Theoretically, the United States and Turkey share a number of strategic interests, namely, balancing against Iran and Russia in the Middle East. But the United States does not see Turkey as a partner strong enough or reliable enough at this point to manage the region. Even if Turkey were able to match its rhetoric with action when it comes to regional crises, Washington and Ankara still disagree fundamentally on many of the tactical details, from determining whether to arm a particular Syrian group to deciding what route an Iraqi pipeline should take. Unable to lean on Turkey, the United States is trying instead to work with its regional adversaries in search of an arrangement that will lighten the United States' burden in the region, leaving Turkey even more isolated.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Syria, where U.S. cooperation with Russia and a developing U.S.-Iranian dialogue are threatening to unravel Turkey's plan to raise a moderate Sunni government to replace the al Assad regime. The civil war in Syria will not end as a result of these negotiations, but Washington, Tehran and Moscow can, for varying reasons, agree on the need to sustain the regime in some sense.

At the same time, the costs associated with Turkey's sponsorship of the Sunni rebellion are escalating rapidly. Turkey is not only facing threats from Iranian and Syrian militant proxies but is also caught between rival opposition forces within the rebel landscape. When Turkey tries to extend its security operations along the border to compensate for the weakness of the Sunni moderates it is supporting, it invites the wrath of the jihadists. And if it tries to back local jihadists in northwest Syria to counter Kurdish militancy, then its multilayered negotiations with Kurds in Turkey and northern Iraq come undone. As the Syrian conflict continues to evolve, Turkey's ability to influence that evolution will dwindle.

Turkey's competition with Iran is far subtler in Iraq than in Syria, but it is showing similar signs of stagnating. The main battleground between Iran and Turkey in Iraq is in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Ankara has been trying to quietly support a Kurdish project to independently export crude to Turkey against Baghdad's will. With the project now entering its final stages, Turkey will have to decide whether it can risk triggering a confrontation with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad (and Iran, by extension), when the United States has already come out against the move and when the Iraqi Kurdish political scene is fracturing. So long as the United States and Iran are discussing various points of regional cooperation, it is unlikely that Turkey will be able to hold out unilaterally on a policy over Iraqi oil exports that could fundamentally threaten Iraq's territorial integrity.

Turkey's policy elsewhere in the region is less impactful but just as troubled. There is little Turkey can do to prove itself a champion for Palestinians in Gaza or Islamists in Egypt when the Egyptian military and Israel are broadly working in sync to neutralize the Brotherhood and its affiliates. And so long as Turkey's dispute with Israel persists over the Palestinian issue, Turkey will be edged out of discussions between Israel, Greece and Cyprus over eastern Mediterranean energy development.

An Inevitable Policy Change

Ideology alone cannot fuel Turkey's foreign policy under these constraints. As Turkey shifts its foreign policy into a more moderate mode it will address its most pressing issues while trying to get a better sense of the trajectory of U.S.-Iranian talks. This evolution will occur in fits and starts at first as Turkey tries to address its most pressing conflicts while also trying to get a better sense of the trajectory of U.S.-Iranian talks. In a sign that Turkey is already attempting to improve its relationship with its neighbors, Ankara has sent invitations to the Iranian and Iraqi foreign ministers to meet in Turkey at the end of October. Turkey also appears to be making headway in negotiations involving Iran and Syria over the release of two Turkish pilots who were kidnapped at gunpoint in Beirut in August, with rumors now circulating that the pilots could be released within days.

The tactical adjustments in Turkey's foreign policy will not necessarily be reflected in Erdogan's notoriously combative rhetoric. Even in the face of growing constraints, Erdogan and certain members of his team will be reluctant to loosen their ideological grip over Turkey's foreign policy vision and admit defeat in certain areas. However, with time, Turkey's internal political evolution may also work to temper Erdogan's approach.

Turkey's economic stresses are rising slowly along with political resistance to Erdogan from within his own party. Erdogan's plan to empower the presidency through a complex peace settlement with the Kurds has also fallen flat.

Erdogan remains a formidable figure in Turkish politics and still intends to run for the presidency in 2014, but he is also seeing growing competition from Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who has been distancing himself from Erdogan's policies on issues ranging from the Gezi Park protests to negotiations on a peace settlement in Syria, and he has been positively acknowledged by many Turkish observers for his more pragmatic approach. Even if Erdogan succeeds in containing Gul's rise in the coming election cycle, that success is unlikely to come without some modifications to Turkey's foreign policy strategy.

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