Monday, 11 July 2011

Turkey Faces Difficult Challenges in a Volatile Foreign Policy Environment

Published in Articles

By Richard Weitz (vol. 4, no. 14 of the Turkey Analyst)

Foreign and defense policies did not figure prominently in the recent general election in Turkey. Most Turks seem satisfied with the more assertive role that their government has assumed in recent years, while Turkey’s weak opposition parties have yet to offer a coherent foreign policy alternative to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Still, Turkish leaders will not be able to escape foreign and defense issues given Turkey’s dependence on its foreign economic ties and its location as a “front-line” state bordering the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Balkans. The situation in Syria is the most sensitive one for Turkey, and it could notably disrupt Turkey’s otherwise harmonious relations with Iran. Another crucial question is how much pull NATO will exercise over Ankara’s foreign and defense policies.

BACKGROUND: An immediate question is how the events in the Middle East will affect Turkey’s external policies. Despite Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s much vaunted “zero-problems with neighbors” policy, it is hard to see how this goal can be anything more than an aspiration given the challenges Turkey faces in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring has already led the AKP government to change some of its policies, though these revisions have been largely rhetorical. AKP representatives have gone from embracing political stability to endorsing changes that lead to greater democracy in the Middle East, with the notable exception of Iran. Immediately after the election, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed his reelection represented as much a victory for Turkey’s neighbors as for the Turkish people, stating that “Today, the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans have won as much as Turkey.” Affirming his intent to continue Turkey’s recent elevated profile in the region, Erdoğan pledged that “We will take on a more effective role. We will call, as we have, for rights in our region, for justice, for the rule of law, for freedom and democracy.”  

For several reasons, the situation in Syria is the most sensitive one for Turkey. The two countries share a lengthy border, and Syria adjoins the Kurdish-majority localities of southeast Turkey that already present major security problems for Ankara. Having overcome decades of hostility resulting from tensions over water resources and terrorism, the Turkish government is loath to return to a state of protracted confrontation with Damascus. These considerations initially led Erdoğan to chide rather than challenge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s response to the protests sweeping his country. But the continuing chaos on Turkey’s border has led the AKP government to pursue more assertive policies in recent weeks, including by allowing thousands of Syrian refugees to cross into Turkey’s border regions. The Syrian military has responded by moving armed units to the Turkey-Syria frontier. A clash could ensue should the Syrian opposition try to use Turkish territory as a base of operations for an insurgency or if Syrian troops employ violence against the refugees in front of Turkish soldiers and the Turkish media.

The Syrian crisis could also disrupt Turkey’s otherwise harmonious relations with Iran. The Iranian media has notably joined with the Syrian government in accusing Turks of supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, there are numerous claims that Iranians and their Hezbollah allies are also shooting unarmed protesters. It would be truly ironic if Turkey joined with its NATO allies in confronting Iran over its support for Syria’s repressive policies after having declined for years to criticize the Iranian regime’s massive suppression of its own protesters and Iran’s controversial nuclear policies.  

Thus far, the political disturbances in Iraq have proven less severe than in many other Arab countries, but how long this immunity will persist is unclear. The impending withdrawal of most if not all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of the year could certainly lead to an unraveling of the security situation there. Chaos in yet another Arab neighbor will present new problems for Turkey, whose economic interests in Iraq have soared in recent years.

Another complication is that Iraqi Kurds might claim additional autonomy if chaos grows in Baghdad. A particular concern will be preventing the Kurdish rebels of the PKK from exploiting the withdrawal. The Turkish military might intervene again in northern Iraq to establish a buffer zone to shield Turkey from the chaos—presenting Washington with the difficult dilemma of having to choose between its longstanding if strained bilateral military alliance with Ankara and its new if inchoate strategic partnership with Baghdad.

Over the longer term, Turkey’s pre-crisis economic goals for the region still seem applicable. A Middle East of more open borders, including visa-free travel and free trade, combined with an improved and integrated regional infrastructure, would obviously serve the interests of Turks and their neighbors. Turkey’s thriving economy, its “Muslim democrat” government, and popular leadership give it great influence in many Arab nations. Yet Egypt’s new government, should it consolidate its power, might become a competing source of influence given Egypt’s traditional dominant role in the Arab world. 

No matter what developments ensue, it is hard to imagine a near-term recovery in Turkey’s relations with Israel. AKP leaders’ newfound commitment to democracy and human rights in the region will reinforce their animosity regarding Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. Meanwhile, Israelis will continue to perceive the AKP as supporting provocations by Islamist militants acting under the guise of humanitarianism. 

IMPLICATIONS: The Middle East will invariably be a current priority, but other regions will require Turkish national security decision makers to respond as well. EU membership is a lost cause for Turkey; the accession negotiations have made little progress since 2005. Still, continuing to press for it might prove useful for the AKP since the inevitable rejection can justify turning away from the West. For this reason, it would not be productive for Washington to press for EU membership for Turkey, which irritates Europeans while contributing to Turkish frustrations. Ironically, many of the achievements of the AKP, including Turkey’s exceptionally high economic growth rate in recent years, are due to Turkey’s adopting EU standards during the past decade.

European and U.S. pressure can be more profitably applied to reducing tensions between Turkey and Armenia, with the aim of securing Ankara’s help of preventing a renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There was some movement in this direction in 2009, especially with the signing of two protocols between Turkey and Armenia. Since then, progress has stalled. Meanwhile, armed incidents and other developments threaten renewed fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Russian diplomacy could play a useful role in this area, though Moscow is contributing to the problem by ceasing to participate in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Turkey will likely continue joining with its NATO allies to press Russia to resume participating in the CFE process since the suspension could eventually lead to the treaty’s unraveling, which would risk exacerbating the arms race between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But Turkey’s overwhelming energy dependence on Russia will likely constrain Ankara’s willingness to confront Moscow on almost anything. 

Fortunately, Turkey’s ties with NATO will help anchor Ankara to the West in other dimensions as well. Western leaders showed visible relief when Turkey declined to disrupt the solidarity of the November 2010 summit by blocking a consensus decision in favor of making ballistic missile defense (BMD) a core NATO mission. Turkey has also assumed an important role in NATO’s stabilization mission in Afghanistan within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Ankara is a much more disinterested party than Islamabad as a potential mediator between those elements of the Taliban that might seek a political reconciliation with the government in Kabul.

Still, the AKP government has yet to commit to host NATO BMD assets such as an early warning radar. The Turkish government is also unenthusiastic about NATO’s war in Libya. The AKP government’s policies toward Iran and Turkey’s arms purchases—choosing non-Western systems creates interoperability problem for NATO—will also make clearer how much pull the Alliance’s will exercise over Ankara’s foreign and defense policies. NATO might also play a useful role in resolving the territorial dispute between Turkey and Greece over the Aegean Sea, which seems ripe for final settlement.

CONCLUSIONS: Two areas to watch are relations between Turkey and Central Asia as well as between Turkey and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since overreaching in the early 1990s, Turkish governments have focused on developing commercial and cultural ties in the region. Surprisingly, Turkey has not yet formally applied to become an official observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Still, Turkey is now a much more economically powerful country than two decades ago and may seek to help fill the gap created by the decline in Western influence that is likely to occur during the next few years as NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan. The improvement in Russian-Turkish relations during the past two decades probably mean that Moscow will be more open to an increased Turkish presence than in the past.

The PRC’s influence in Turkey will almost surely increase during the next few years due to China’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military potential. The Turkish and Chinese armed forces are already engaged in joint military exercises. In the diplomatic realm, the two governments could well join with Russia as a third force in the Middle East. Despite its recent emphasis on promoting human rights and democracy, the Turkish government seems eager to cooperate with the China despite Beijing’s authoritarian government and repressive policies towards the Turkic Uighurs’ aspirations for political autonomy.

Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute. 

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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