After its foundation in 1923, the Turkish Republic adopted an official policy of neutrality, becoming a member of the League of Nations in 1932 and signing regional pacts with its neighbours (the Balkan Pact of 1934 with Greece, former Yugoslavia and Romania, the Saadabad Pact against the Kurdish armed opposition with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in 1937). This official neutrality was transformed into a pro-German stance during World War II, after ‘Operation Barbarossa’ began on 22 June 1941. As many German documents attest, the Turkish Prime Minister Şükrü Saraçoğlu (1887-1953) expressed the wish to see the Soviet Union wiped off the map by the German forces.
The Soviet threat in the wake of World War II forced Turkey to seek Western protection: the country become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO, 1951), participated in the Korean War (1951-1953), hosted American military bases and, in spite of diplomatic and cultural relations with the Soviet Union, remained one of the most important buffer zones of the Western Bloc during the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War created many opportunities, but also constraints on the Turkish foreign policy. The spectacular rapprochement with the Central Asiatic ‘Turkic Republics’ seemed, at the beginning, as a sign of the emergence of a Turkish bloc, but it was short-lasting; instead, the leaders of these Republics, who were keen to protect their own rule, sought Russian protection to ensure their own durability. The Turkish support to Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia did not prevent the Armenian victory in the High Karabakh region (1988-1994). The Syrian support to the Kurdish armed organization PKK, as well as the emergence of a Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991, created other constraints on the Turkish foreign policy, forcing it to concentrate almost exclusively on the Middle East.
Under AKP government
The formation of an AKP (Justice and Development Party) government did not immediately change Turkish foreign policies in the Central Asian region, Caucasia or in the Balkans, where a long-lasting status quo seemed to be quite viable. But while remaining a member of NATO, Turkey has gradually developed an autonomous regional policy in the Middle East, advocating inter-state relations. The AKP government has, indeed, developed, particularly since the appointment of Ahmet Davutoğlu (born in 1959), a professor of international relations as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2009, a very active foreign policy in the Middle East. Davutoğlu’s so-called ‘strategic deepness’ theory described Turkey as the main strong power in the former imperial/Ottoman space. According to Davutoğlu, Turkey needed, in order to reinforce its position in the region, to develop a ‘zero problem’ policy with all her neighbours. This policy was, however, severely challenged by the regional realities as one can observe in Israeli-Turkish conflicts as well as in conflicts with immediate neighbours as Iran and particularly Syria.
Foreign Policy Amid Regional Crises
The kidnapping of 49 Turkish diplomats and their families by the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Iraqi city of Mosul on 11 June 2014 has exposed the deep flaws of Turkey’s recent foreign policy. In spite of early warnings, the Turkish government appears to have underestimated, perhaps for ideological reasons, the danger posed by this extremist Sunni group.
In recent years, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his proactive foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu sought to follow a diplomatic line that was more independent of the West. As the prospect of EU membership lost some of its appeal in the face of vocal opposition from France and Germany and the economic downturn in Europe, they entertained dreams that Turkey might become a leading power in the Middle East.
After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government sidelined the country’s Kemalist institutions, Turkey’s star did indeed rise in the region, for a while. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu promoted a policy of “zero problem with neighbors,” and Ankara was mending ties with former foes such as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. But Turkey’s initial success was based on ties with strong governments.
The political turmoil that followed the Arab uprising and the fall of autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, combined with the prideful self-confidence of Turkey’s leaders, have, left Ankara at odds with most of its neighbors.
Today, it is a measure of Turkey’s isolation that the Iraqi Kurds, who used to be seen as a threat, are now one of the country’s closest regional allies. Relations with Israel, which had earlier allowed Turkey to act as a mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, had already broken down over the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla events, which caused the death of ten Turks in May 2010.
In August 2011, as unrest engulfed Syria, Prime Minister Erdoğan severed ties with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, expecting its imminent collapse. As months turned into years and a more fractured picture of the opposition emerged, in which jihadist groups were gaining prominence, Western nations that had initially encouraged Turkey’s involvement adopted a more cautious approach. Turkey, on the other hand, continued to bank on Assad’s fall. Along with Qatar, it is believed to have provided assistance to extremist Sunni groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as ISIS, allowing their fighters to cross its territory.
Turkey’s foreign policy has been increasingly influenced by the Sunni leanings of the country’s leaders. Ankara’s ties with Baghdad broke down after Turkey supported opponents of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ahead of the 2010 elections. Tension recently escalated further after Turkey, ignoring objections from Washington, concluded an oil agreement with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), allowing it to export oil through its Ceyhan terminal.
The Turkish government was also vocal in his support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. When President Mohammed Morsi was deposed in an army takeover led by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in July 2013, Prime Minister Erdoğan blamed Israel for the intervention. Turkey’s head of state, President Abdullah Gül, seeking to improve damaged relations, congratulated al-Sisi after his election to the presidency in May 2014.
In June 2014, the Turkish government was forced to evacuate hundreds of its citizens from Libya, as well as diplomats from its Benghazi consulate, after supporters of retired General Khalifa Hifter, who launched an offensive against Islamists in May 2014, issued a warning to Turkey, accusing it of supporting terrorism.
The Turkish authorities appear to have realized belatedly that extremist Sunni groups pose a threat in the region. In June 2014, the Turkish government updated its list of terrorist organisations and added Jabhat al-Nusra as an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group operating in Syria and Iraq. Its support for radical groups not only fuels sectarian divisions in neighboring countries but risks importing the problem to Turkey, at a time when the country grapples with over a million Syrian refugees who have poured across the border since the conflict began.
The turbulence in Turkey’s neighborhood have resulted in major diplomatic shifts. With Iraq now perilously close to partition, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani recently announced that the Iraqi Kurds would seek independence. Such statements, and the Kurds’ quiet takeover of the oil city of Kirkuk, also claimed by Turkmens and Arabs, would have elicited a strong response from the Turkish authorities in the recent past. But while Turkey may not welcome the prospect of an independent Kurdish state, it is no longer inconceivable that it would tolerate it.
Ankara has also revived peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdish politicians at home, in order to address its own Kurdish problem. Eager to get the Kurds’ support for his presidential bid, President Erdoğan recently introduced new laws to ease the process, but the concessions that Ankara is prepared to make remain constrained by the need to avoid alienating Turkish nationalists. The Kurdish issue has also acquired a new dimension with the Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), affiliated with the PKK, now controlling border areas in northern Syria.
Common concerns about the rise of extremist ISIS in Iraq and Syria could promote more cooperation between old rivals Iran and Turkey. The two neighbours maintain strong economic ties, but those connections have been strained since they have found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict. During a visit to Ankara in June, Iran’s President Rouhani stated his intention to improve trade and diplomatic relations with Turkey.
Boosting trade has been an important aspect of Ankara’s foreign policy in recent years, as Turkey looked for alternative markets to compensate for the slowdown in Europe. Iraq has become Turkey’s second largest trading partner, after Germany, with Turkish exports totalling USD 12 billion in 2013. Turkish goods also pass through Iraq on their way to the Gulf. The ongoing instability might therefore harm Turkey’s economy.
Turkey remains an important regional player, but recent events have demonstrated the limits of its influence. Security concerns are likely to encourage NATO-member Turkey to rely more on its long-term Western allies, even if relations have been undermined somewhat by Prime Minister Erdoğan’s anti-Western rhetoric and growing concerns about Turkey’s democratic standards.
Time will tell if the latest diplomatic setbacks will encourage Turkish leaders to adopt a more cautious and realistic approach. In view of the increased volatility in the region, their main focus should be on limiting the damage and preventing Turkey from being sucked into the chaos and sectarian tensions at its southern borders.