Turkey revises its foreign policy to gain more friends

Published 22.06.2016 22:26

PM Yıldırım's speeches show that a new era has started in Turkish politics. Now, Ankara would like to see its former allies again as new friends while focusing more on domestic peace and unity

It has been almost a month since Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım's first address to ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputies in Ankara. The speech itself was cautiously optimistic and was to reassure both the party establishment and its supporters that his government would continue to follow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's path. However that was not the story. He sent a very clear message to the media and whoever follows Turkey abroad. "Turkey has a lot of problems. We have regional problems," he said. "The unrests in the EU, Cyprus and Caucasia and in our region are naturally increasing the importance of Turkey's regional position. We are aware of this, what are we going to do? It is very simple, we will increase the number of friends we have and decrease the number of enemies."

I believe Yıldırım's speech briefly explains Ankara's logic for repairing relations with Israel and, most recently, Russia. The ruling party once again is trying to prove that it did not pursue an ideological foreign policy agenda in the past, but an honorable one. Now, new maneuvers are needed in the region to balance the enmity against Turkey from former allies and friends. This does not mean though that there is a split between the new government and the former one. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's administration also vigorously tried to reach a rapprochement with Israel while approaching Moscow.

Erdoğan, as in the past, plays a leading role in this new foreign policy momentum. He was quick to respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin's warm messages while he was in Greece. He and Yıldırım sent congratulatory letters to Moscow in celebration of Russia Day and the Russian ambassador to Ankara attended an iftar (fast-breaking dinner) hosted by Erdoğan. But no one is delusional. Ankara and Moscow's disagreement on Syria will continue, but it is and had been manageable until Russian planes heavily bombarded Turkmens in northern Syria and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. Russia's strategy against Ankara has proven itself very costly for both countries. As Turkey is losing income from tourism and trade, Russia lost a valuable partner that in many cases helped the Russian economy's recovery. As Yıldırım said, due to its historical, social and even ethnic ties, Turkey has a say over the Caucasus, Ukraine and Russia's other immediate neighbors. This is why Putin decided to soothe its propaganda outlets, which have been very anti-Turkey in the recent months. Turkey also needs Russia to isolate the Syrian Kurdish militia Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, mostly because of American President Barack Obama's appeasement policy toward Iran and Moscow in the country.Although Erdoğan made clear that he would risk the entire refugee deal if Turkish citizens are not granted visa-free travel to Europe, Turkey's new EU minister and chief negotiator, Ömer Çelik, is a positive sign for bilateral relations. Ankara has always seen EU membership as a strategic goal, and Çelik, who has Erdoğan's trust, shows the government aims to deepen relations. Çelik said this month that Turkey is open to discuss new ways to amend anti-terrorism laws in a way that would not decrease Ankara's anti-terror capacity, which is a key EU demand to grant visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.

Yıldırım's administration signified its enthusiasm to revise Turkey's foreign policy by dispersing the diplomatic elite that was very effective in policymaking in the recent years. The Foreign Ministry's powerful undersecretary, Feridun Sinirloğlu, dispatched to New York as Turkey's new U.N. envoy while deputy undersecretaries were assigned to different capitals as ambassadors. Even the Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Tanju Bilgiç, was appointed ambassador to Serbia.

I believe the recent chaos and violence in the region has greatly weakened Turkey's soft power, which had been key to its success in the recent past, both economically and politically. Ankara, as a NATO ally and traditionally non-interventionist country, realized that without risking its core national interests, it is impossible to cope up with the autocratic regimes that are eager to undertake every illegitimate act to preserve its survival and influence in the region. They are not interested in the cost of human life and they do not have a constituency that can hold them accountable for their disastrous actions.

I think Turkey also would like to see its former allies again as new friends while keeping them in check with manageable frictions. This strategy can preserve Turkey's immediate national interests and also open a new way of leverage with these former allies while Ankara can focus more on domestic peace and unity.

Washington, absent from the region and indifferent toward Russia and Iran's aggressive policies, is one of the main reasons for the change in Turkey's foreign policy thinking. The Obama administration has left Turkey and its traditional allies in the region alone while pivoting to Iran and cooperating with Russia. No one should ever forget this.

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