With multiple conflicts raging in the Middle East and an official national security strategy of pivoting away from the region, the United States could use the help of a reliable regional partner. In the past, Turkey might have been expected to play that role. It is, after all, not only a NATO ally but has also devoted the last decade to building its regional influence. Currently, such expectations are likely to be disappointed. Wittingly or unwittingly, Turkey has had a hand in both the disintegration of Syria and Iraq and in the rise of radical Islamism from the shores of the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. If the question being asked in Western capitals was, until recently, how much would Turkey be able to shape the Middle East in its image, the question should now be how will Turkey insulate itself from the destabilization of the Middle East.
Turkey’s upcoming presidential election, on August 10, is an opportunity for the country to answer that question. With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the dominant Prime Minister running for President, this could be the moment for Turkey to reconsider and reset its approach to the Middle East. Erdogan oversaw the foreign policy that has left Turkey surrounded by chaos – its two southern neighbors, Iraq and Syria, have to all intents and purposes disintegrated, and Turkey has no friends in the region other than the Kurdistan Regional Government, Hamas and Iran.
With Erdoğan all but assured victory, however, a turn inward is more likely than a fundamental reorientation of Turkish foreign policy. The one factor that might change this outcome is as much a domestic as an external issue: the Kurdish demand for greater rights and autonomy in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
From Zero Problems to Causing Problems
Over the course of their 11 years in power, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have fundamentally reoriented Turkey’s foreign policy posture away from the West, focusing it instead on the Middle East. This foray into the Middle East was never independent of internal dynamics. Indeed, it was driven by the Islamist ideology of the AKP, its pursuit of economic clout and business interests across the region, and domestic political concerns, primarily the Kurdish issue. Ankara attempted to establish Turkish regional hegemony first by pursuing a policy of “zero problems with neighbors” resting greatly on pan-Islamic solidarity, and then by pursuing an interventionist Sunni policy when it appeared that the seemingly imminent fall of al-Assad in Syria, along with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, could bring about a regional order in line with the ideological preferences of the AKP.
But the collapses of first Syria and now partly Iraq have cast serious doubt on the AKP’s claims of regional influence or solidarity, whether pan-Islamic or pan–Sunni. They have also shut Turkey off economically from its “hinterland.” During a period of turbulent changes, Ankara has been unable to steer regional developments anywhere—not in Egypt, not in Syria, and not in Iraq. Moreover, the Sunni coalition it had hoped to build has disintegrated. Instead, in a dramatic turnaround, it is Sunni groups, not the Iranian-led Shiite bloc, that are now the greatest source of Middle Eastern turmoil. Economically, too, Turkey has suffered: It is no longer able to export goods to its southern neighbors, and, as a consequence, it is shut off from most other Arab markets as well.
Turkey is now largely reaping what it has sowed. The Turkish authorities have not only allowed Islamist militants to freely traverse the Turkish-Syrian border, there is also clear evidence of active Turkish logistical support for the militant groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. There are multiple records of Turkish arms shipments to Syria, including one intercepted by Turkish police. Turkish authorities have also allowed southern areas of Turkey to become places where wounded militants receive medical care and recuperation before returning to the fight—and this has included “moderate” as well as jihadi fighters. These activities have been so common across southern Turkey that it’s exceedingly unlikely that they were not permitted by the government.
Foreign Policy Reset?
The challenge for Ankara today is figuring out how to respond to the instability it has helped to bring about. The three primary options before it are: 1) to seek to limit the fallout of past blunders by rebuilding Turkey’s Western alliance; 2) to seek out opportunities to play a regional role elsewhere; or 3) to press ahead and retool its Middle East strategy, yet again.
Ankara’s first option is to essentially admit defeat in the Middle East and return to the pre-Davutoğlu foreign policy—one of nesting Turkey unconditionally in the Western alliance, reaffirming its European vocation, and coordinating regional policies carefully with the West. This policy could serve Turkey very well, and would certainly be in America’s interest. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely. To begin with, the entire thrust of foreign policy under Erdoğan and Davutoğlu has been to unmoor Turkey from the West and make it an independent power. They have shown an inclination to maintain the key security elements of the Western alliance, as seen in the agreements with the U.S. on missile defense, but every proactive step Turkey has made has been in the other direction. Furthermore, Turkey’s domestic trajectory does not make this scenario likely. Erdoğan’s domestic authoritarianism reduces his option in Europe, as the EU would require considerable domestic reform to re-engage Turkey in a meaningful way. The only scenario in which this is likely would be a serious economic crisis that acted like a cold shower for Turkish elites, forcing them to swallow their pride and re-engage Europe. But in all likelihood this scenario would no longer feature Erdoğan as Turkey’s undisputed leader.
Ankara’s second option is to seek a new path for its foreign policy, and there may be an opening for such a path to Turkey’s East: As America disengages from Afghanistan, the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia are desperately seeking options to avoid being caught between an advancing Russia and China. The AKP’s Islamist orientation has carried with it a tendency to favor the core Islamic Middle East over the Turkic-dominated Eurasia, which Turkish nationalists tend to prioritize. But as avenues kept closing in the Middle East, Ankara has begun to rediscover this region. Following a rough spot four years ago over its rapprochement with Armenia, Turkey has rebuilt and expanded its relations with Azerbaijan, the economic powerhouse of the Caucasus. It has also taken the lead in building the trilateral strategic partnership between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, which is reinvigorating an east-west axis conceived in the 1990s, and which includes considerable energy and transport infrastructure.
Turkish leaders have also shown a growing interest in Turkic cooperation further afield. This interest has been well received in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. But if Ankara continues down this road, it will inevitably have to decide how much it is willing to antagonize Moscow. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia will certainly look askance on Turkey’s taking a greater role in Eurasia. But the Syrian crisis provides some guidance as to how Turkey might mange that. Erdoğan went out of his way to maintain a dialogue with Putin, even as Turkey and Russia stood on opposite sides of the Syrian war. Thus it is entirely feasible that Turkey would increase its engagement with Eurasia, all the while trying to maintain cordial relations with Moscow. But even so, Turkey faces long odds. It could certainly emerge as a leading force in the Caucasus, despite a problematic relationship with Armenia. But in Central Asia, Turkey is simply too far away to challenge the pre-eminence of Russia and China as those powers begin to increase their competition over the region.
If Erdoğan is elected President, a third option would be to restart Turkey’s Middle East policy. Recent signals suggest that he understands the need for a reset, but that understanding is unlikely to run deep. Erdoğan recently asked European governments to make sure that jihadists are hindered from traveling to Turkey. The Turkish government has also belatedly designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group, something that it had refused to do in spite of repeated requests from the United States over the past 18 months. On June 27, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly acknowledged that what is happening in Iraq means that “a huge crisis is at the door.” He observed that “we as neighbors are feeling the effects.” But it is abundantly clear that Turkey does not recognize its own responsibility for the turmoil in the Middle East. Davutoğlu blamed the Shiite regime in Bagdad for the crisis, saying that its policies had “isolated” “moderate Sunni politicians.” Similarly, Turkish leaders are laying the entire blame for the Syrian crisis on Bashir al-Assad. AKP officials still refuse to acknowledge the extent to which Turkey’s own actions in Syria and Iraq have contributed to the isolation of moderate forces by empowering Sunni radicalism.
Davutoğlu’s June 27 speech indicates a shift in Turkish foreign policy. Since the AKP came to power, its guiding assumption has been that Turkey is a regional great power, and it has endeavored to shape the regional order, molding it according to Turkey’s economic and strategic interests. As Davutoğlu memorably put it in May 2012,
We will manage the wave of change in the Middle East. Just as the ideal we have in our minds about Turkey, we have an ideal of a new Middle East. We will be the leader and the spokesperson of a new peaceful order.
Turkey was supposed to become the hegemonic power. Now, Davutoğlu has revised Turkey’s regional status downwards. It is a “neighbor” that “feels the effects” of what is taking place south of its borders, instead of the dominant power that enacts changes in the region. Thus Turkish leaders may have realized that their ability to affect developments in the Middle East is limited. But the notion of righteousness remains present, notably when Erdoğan and Davutoğlu discuss Syria, Iraq, or Egypt.
Erdogan’s electoral campaign provides some clues; in fact, his divisive Sunni rhetoric is alive and well. The renewed fighting in Gaza is a case in point. Whereas Erdogan had bowed to U.S. pressure and taken reluctant steps to tone down his anti-Israeli rhetoric, he is once again breaking new records in over-the-top rhetoric. At the very least, his campaign provides no indication that a major change is imminent in Turkish foreign policy.
…Or Turn Inward?
All in all, President Erdoğan will probably find none of his options palatable, should he win the election. And this means that Turkey might instead turn inward. Indeed, since the Gezi Park protests, followed by the intense confrontation with the Fethullah Gülen movement, Erdoğan has been fighting for his political life. To outsiders, it may seem like he is cementing his position by running for the presidency. But it should be noted that he has failed—though not for lack of trying—to turn Turkey into a presidential system. Instead, he sought the presidency under the present constitution, in which most power is vested in the Prime Minister. Erdoğan doesn’t seem to see this as a problem, apparently convinced that he will be able to run the country by the sheer force of his personality. He may for a while, but in the long run, his many challengers aren’t going away. This may force Erdoğan to continue to focus on domestic affairs, making foreign policy an afterthought.
There is one important exception, however—an area where foreign and domestic policy intersect: the Kurdish question. The conjunction of regional and internal dynamics has been on full display in the run-up to the presidential election: its fallout is to a very large extent going to hinge on how the participants in the Turkish-Kurdish “great game”—Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq—manage their political exchanges. The Kurdish card is of crucial importance for Erdoğan—he will depend on the Kurdish vote to secure his election to the presidency, while the Kurds in Syria and Iraq are the one force that can check the rise of a Sunni radicalism that could, if it were to get further out of hand, become dangerously unmanageable for Turkey. The latter development is paradoxical, as part of Turkey’s rationale for supporting the Islamist groups in Syria was that they were engaged in battle against the Kurds, whose aspirations for autonomy in Rojava, the Syrian part of Kurdistan, set off alarm bells in Ankara. The Kurdish forces there have continued to hold their positions against ISIS, while the forces of the Kurdish self-governing region of Iraq—which by contrast is an ally of Turkey—have succeeded in denying ISIS full control of northern Iraq.
As Turkey’s neighborhood unravels, the Kurds and their future are issues from which Turkey cannot run, and which will force Turkey to remain engaged in the Middle East, simply because they affect Turkey’s domestic affairs and—perhaps of more practical importance—Erdoğan’s own aspirations for power. Further afield, Turkish leaders have been somewhat humbled by the missteps of their Middle East policy. But given the investment they have made with Sunni causes, as well as the ideological worldview they manifestly hold, their rhetorical pitch is likely to remain high, while in practice, Turkey is almost certain to gradually retreat from its lofty goals of regional dominance.