Turkey’s next turn

Karam Said, Sunday 11 Jun 2023

Anticipating Turkish foreign policy in the wake of Erdogan’s win.

Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan in his inauguration ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara (photo: AFP)


On 3 June, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sworn into office for another five-year term. Attended by nearly 80 international and regional leaders, the inauguration and subsequent ceremony suggested significant shifts in store for Turkish foreign policy thinking. Analysts predict that the Turkish president will follow through on his recently launched policy of “neutralising” problems abroad and boosting cooperative relations with countries in the region.

On 31 May, several days after his electoral win, he stated: “Our goal is to establish a belt of security and peace from Europe to the Black Sea, from the Caucasus and the Middle East to North Africa.” He went on to note how his government has been working to resolve problems with “brotherly and friendly nations,” strengthening relations in the Turkic world and improving relations in the Islamic one. 

In terms of relations with the Arab region, observers anticipate that Erdogan will attempt to accelerate a thaw in relations with Egypt while strengthening relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Turkey is in desperate need of investments from the Gulf at this point and it certainly welcomed the $5 billion that Riyadh deposited in the Turkish Central Bank, injecting much needed cash into the Turkish economy and helping to stabilise the lira.

The recent boom in Turkey’s commercial relations with the UAE is another indication of the strategic importance Ankara attaches to improving relations with Arab countries. It is particularly keen to manoeuvre itself into an advantageous position in which the patterns of Middle East relations and power balances are undergoing quantum shifts, as epitomised by the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, on the one hand, and the Abraham Accords between Israel and a number of Gulf countries on the other.

Many observers also believe that, in his third presidential term, Erdogan will stay the course on rapprochement with President Bashar Al-Assad, especially now that Damascus is back in the Arab League. Erdogan certainly has incentives to do this, not least the need to ensure the safe repatriation of Syrian refugees in Turkey. 

In the framework of the “belt of security and peace,” Ankara will strive to resolve pending problems with Greece and Armenia. Athens was one of the first European countries to rush to Turkey’s side following the Kahramanmaras earthquakes on 6 February, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attended Erdogan’s inauguration ceremony. 

Turkey will also maintain inevitable relations with Moscow, in the framework of its policy of neutrality on the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The policy has been useful, as it has enabled Turkey to advance itself as an impartial mediator, gaining it an important notch in its belt in this capacity after its success in securing the Russian-Ukrainian grain deal.

Although Ankara has condemned the Russian military operation in Ukraine, it has opposed the Western sanctions regimes against Russia. Accordingly, Ankara is still expected to continue its policy of playing the US and Russia off of each other, reaping benefits from both sides. This applies to the geostrategic politics surrounding Central Asia, an area of strategic interest to the West and, simultaneously, an area of Turkish and Russian rivalry. 

Although Turkey is a member of NATO, Erdogan is unlikely to do anything to jeopardise his close relations with Moscow, which supported him politically in the lead-up to the elections by postponing Turkish gas payments and agreeing to extend the Turkish-brokered Ukrainian grain deal. Russia is one of Turkey’s most important trade partners.

The volume of bilateral trade, according to official figures, has exceeded $33 billion and Russians make up a significant portion of the Turkish tourism industry which has begun to pick up pace since the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Russia is also partnering with Turkey in the implementation of a number of major energy projects, most notably the TurkStream natural gas pipeline and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power plant.

Erdogan will also continue to forge closer relations with China. As of 2021, China became Turkey’s second largest trade partner and Ankara is keen to boost bilateral trade further. China has around $4 billion in investments in Turkey in energy, infrastructure, logistics, finance, telecommunication and livestock. Turkey is a supporter of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and is situated at a key position for it, and is keen to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. 

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s relations with the US-led West are likely to grow more fraught. The Western-Turkish strategic partnership is close thanks to Turkey’s NATO membership and the presence of a US/NATO military base in Incirlik. The US and Europe also have major investments in Turkey which grew after Western companies closed up shop in Russia following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Western powers have made no secret of their dissatisfaction with Erdogan and their support for his rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, during the presidential campaigns, and Erdogan’s resentment of the “political engineering” he alluded to in his speeches will carry over into the upcoming period.

There also remain ongoing sore points, such as Ankara’s continued exclusion from the Pentagon’s F-35 programme and US opposition to the sale of advanced F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. European criticisms of Erdogan’s authoritarianism and anti-democratic domestic policies, as well as continued EU opposition to Turkish accession will also continue to be sources of acrimony. 

Sweden’s NATO membership bid has been another source of tension between the collective West and Turkey due to the latter’s refusal to approve it unless Sweden meets Turkey’s demand that Stockholm turn over Kurdish journalists and activists whom Ankara claims are affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which Turkey has designated as a terrorist organisation. Tensions over this issue could reach a head later this month when Sweden and Finland are due to meet with Turkey with the aim of persuading Ankara to ratify Sweden’s membership.

Another source of discord between Turkey and the US relates to the Kurdish controlled region in northeastern Syria. While Ankara claims the American-backed Kurdish forces there are affiliated with the PKK and, therefore, “terrorist,” the US sees them as its main ally on the ground in the battle against IS.

Turkey and the US may well be headed for a clash over that area, since Erdogan has made it clear that the Turkish military will continue strikes into Iraqi Kurdistan and move forward on another planned military incursion into northeastern Syria. Despite President Al-Assad’s insistence that he will not meet with Erdogan until Turkey withdraws its forces from northwestern Syria, Ankara has given no sign that it is ready to do so. 

Some have gone so far as to claim that Erdogan intends to establish a permanent presence in Idlib and Afrin under the rubric of a “security and peace belt.” He will certainly try maintain the Turkish military and political presence in Libya, despite the provisions of the Libyan ceasefire agreement calling for the removal of all foreign mercenaries, forces and personnel from Libya.

Ankara has signed a maritime border demarcation agreement and a number of military protocols with the government in Tripoli, and Turkey still operates a base to the west of the city. Turkish firms are also involved in a range of major infrastructure and energy projects in western Libya, not least natural gas drilling and extraction projects off the Libyan coast. 

Having demonstrated his ability to secure his position at the helm of the Turkish state for a third term, Erdogan may feel he has the strength and manoeuvrability to advance his foreign policy agenda in the coming period. In view of the many different and sometimes conflicting interests Turkey has regionally and internationally, Erdogan will have to perform some deft juggling if he is to “neutralise” problems with partners, many of whom do not see eye to eye with many others. But he has proven himself a deft juggler in the past. So, for example, as he resets relations with countries in the Arab region, this may help him offset and contain pressures he is likely to encounter from the West. 

Among the thorniest foreign policy issues on Ankara’s plate are those with a direct impact on domestic policies, as is the case with the question of the Kurdish regions in Syria and Iraq and the emotionally charged Kurdish question in Turkey. The declarations of support from those regions for Kilicdaroglu and their appeals to Kurds in Turkey to vote against Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party show how palpable the overlap is. Erdogan will undoubtedly notch up the militarisation of policy towards the Kurdish regions, in counterpoint to the de-escalatory trend he has shown in all other foreign policy areas.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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