Unfortunately, describing or analyzing Turkish foreign affairs as rooted in ideological affinity – Islamism – or style – authoritarianism – is a very popular position among Washington-based think tanks. Since spring 2016, the Turkish government has not only changed the leading decision makers in its cadres, but it has also sought a more realist and pragmatist policy that heavily relies on temporary partnership and rapprochement while trying to maintain traditional alliances.
The departure of former officials, who previously positioned Turkey as a regional power with idealistic ambitions, had a direct impact on the policy-making process. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his close circle of advisers and ministers now evaluate the situation based on realpolitik calculations and act on solely Turkish national interests, not with too good to be true missions and objectives.
In this sense, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey's analysis of President Erdoğan and Turkish foreign policy perfectly captures the current pragmatic state of affairs in Ankara. Jeffrey believes Erdoğan is partly like Putin, looking at the world through a 19th-century lens and mostly former French President Charle de Gaulle, who wants to underline how independent Turks are of the United States.
Jeffrey, at a panel hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations last month, said: "We have the U.S. supporting role in the fight against Daesh in Syria, building up a PKK-offshoot-led major army right in Turkey's south. Turkey rails against this every day, but the aircraft support that force against Daesh to some degree, coming from largely Turkish bases. Erdoğan lets this happen every day. He is sitting with the Iranians in Astana to talk about the future of Syria, at the same time the NATO ballistic missile system we have put in place to protect us from Iran is dependent upon a radar that Erdoğan personally approved in eastern Turkey. He is buying S-400 missiles from Russia, but at the same time, NATO considers Turkey one of the four key countries for what we are doing in Afghanistan. And while EU-Turkish relations are always in the gutter, there is an agreement between the EU on stopping refugee flows – probably one of the most important things stabilizing Europe. There is always a tremendous area for cooperation."
As Jeffrey explains, Turkey is going after narrowly defined policy objectives and trying to work with its allies as much as possible. For example, recognizing the threat posed by Daesh against Turkey and the region, Turkey has become an active member of the military coalition and opened its airbases. This was made possible by U.S. President Barack Obama's personal assurances despite the fact that Turkey was far more concerned about a PKK statelet in Syria.
Similarly, the main reason Turkey started to look for ways to cooperate with Russia and Iran was the Obama administration's appeasement policy towards these two regional powers, while abandoning traditional allies such as Turkey. When Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2015, both the U.S. and NATO member countries were reluctant to defend Turkey's security. The Obama White House also decided to do almost nothing to prevent an Iranian invasion in Syria and sided with the U.S. designated PKK terrorist group's Syrian armed wing – the People's Protection Units (YPG).
These steps made it very clear to Ankara that the U.S. was retreating from the region, and now the Syrian civil war and regional problems were destined to be resolved through regional powers and actors. This is why Turkey tried to restore relations with Israel and Russia and decided to repair relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. The new tune for Ankara is maintaining relations with all the regional actors no matter what the disagreement is.
The Erdoğan administration tried to reset relations with the U.S. following the election of President Donald Trump. But Turkey's hopes were shattered when Trump also decided to go with the YPG option in Raqqa, and for the first time directly arm the group. Sadly, the Trump administration still has no Turkey policy or a properly defined Syria policy.
An emerging PKK statelet following the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor countryside operations reminded Turkey once again that it needs to cut deals with Iran and Russia for the state of post-Daesh Syria, which can protect Turkish interests along with the Syrian oppositions. The U.S. has become increasingly irrelevant to Turkish concerns and the civil war in the country.
A pragmatic Turkish approach still hopes that the U.S. comes to its senses about Syria after Turkey's Afrin operation and understands that a solution in Syria without taking Turkey beside Washington won't be favorable to American interests.
This is why before the Afrin operation, Erdoğan publicly reiterated the fact that after all the unkept American promises, Turkey was still ready to work with the Trump administration, if they can reach a common course in the country.
So, if Trump calls Erdoğan tomorrow and offers a good deal that makes sense, Erdoğan probably won't hesitate to take it.
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