Turkey’s ideologically inspired foreign policy is shifting to concentrate more directly on bolstering domestic nationalist support and highlight its regional religious identity. Ankara seeks to divert attention from its policy setbacks in Syria, as well as its internal and economic problems, while continuing to blunt U.S. efforts to crush ISIS.
Turkey’s foreign policy approach has few successes to show. For the last five years, the government has seemingly ignored standard practices to enhance a country’s national security. A standard approach to improving national security is to push threats as far from its borders as possible. That has not been Turkey’s approach.
President Bashar al-Assad posed no military threat to Turkey when Ankara pressed him to share power with Turkish-backed Sunni Islamists. Up until March 2011, Syria enjoyed strong ties with Turkey and was willing to serve as a conduit for Turkish influence in the region through deepened economic relations and the removal of visa and trade barriers. Instead of enhanced Turkish power through Syria, Turkey is faced with 2.7 million Syrian refugees on its soil, a surging Kurdish nationalism, and ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Kurdish nationalists all straddled along its southern border. Resorting to more extreme measures against Syria, Turkey has been cited repeatedly for allowing ISIS fighters to transit to the Syrian front while establishing recruiting and operational cells within Turkey, which has now turned into a domestic terror problem.
Syria is not the only bridge Turkey burned. Israel also had solid relations with Turkey until Ankara inspired a relief cruise to break the Gaza blockade in 2010. Those relations remain cool. Turkey’s courtship of the Kurds in northern Iraq has weakened the Iraqi state, which is now a de facto ally of Iran. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter in 2015 has forced Ankara to look for alternatives to reduce dependency on Russian gas supplies. These gambits, individually and collectively, seem to have brought greater insecurity to Turkey.
A country normally leverages its alliances to enhance its own security. Ankara, however, has alienated Cairo, Baghdad, Tel Aviv, and Washington with its policies, which has only reduced its ability to influence events and issues. Though the refugee agreement with the European Union appears—at least on the surface—to open up new opportunities for Ankara, Turkey’s authoritarianism, to be enshrined in a new constitution if Turkey’s ruling party succeeds in its plan, will block any genuine progress to E.U. membership. The United States and Turkey are as far apart as ever as Ankara’s interest is clearly to protect itself against new Kurdish strength rather than to defeat ISIS.
In the face of these developments, Ankara this week launched two new initiatives to give the appearance that a major leadership role for Turkey is both desired and needed in the Middle East. In his opening address to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a collective effort by Muslim countries to deal with terrorism. In a related move, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for a united Muslim commitment to liberate Muslim populations under occupation, linking the Crimea, Gaza, and Nagorno-Karabakh explicitly, but leaving a door open perhaps for Muslims ‘under occupation’ in yet unnamed countries.
The first initiative is an attempt to cast Turkey as a champion of the ideals of Islam and, with that role, a leader in defining terrorism. Such a new perspective would strengthen Turkey’s campaign against the United States working with Syrian Kurds to defeat ISIS, and would provide cover for Turkey’s labelling of domestic dissenters as terrorists. This new role would also allow Turkey to purge its body politic of all supporters of its former intimate political ally, the Gulen movement, and to intimidate the European Union into accepting Turkey’s views on how to deal with its internal security threats from Islamic extremists.
The second initiative is a Turkish invitation for Middle Eastern countries to engage in security issues that involve active wars or frozen conflicts. Some may wonder how a call for liberation of Muslim populations in non-Muslim countries fits in with a broader need to resolve regional differences peacefully, and how it will be viewed in Moscow, Tel Aviv and various E.U. capitals. It is also difficult to envision how such a religiously-focused Turkish policy could be reconciled with NATO principles.
The Turkish government continues to search for a way to return to the days before the Arab Spring, when Turkey was held up as a model by some, including the United States, for the Middle East. It might be more beneficial for security purposes in 2016 for Turkey to draw up a clear-eyed assessment of where it stands today. That might include reverting to those standards nation-states have historically adopted to improve national security.