Analysis: Erdoğan’s foreign policy faces rough road between landmark elections

In the wake of the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) success in the March 30 municipal elections and ahead of the upcoming presidential election this summer, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems intent on not letting anything get in the way of his presidential aspirations, so Ankara’s foreign policy will likely be subservient to his political agenda in the coming months.
Turkey’s relations with its war-torn neighbour Syria, which Erdoğan says is in a “state of war” with Turkey, a possible thaw with Israel, smoothing relations with Turkey’s strategic ally the US and Turkey’s path toward European Union membership will be the foreign policy issues to garner the most attention in the next few months.

If he runs for president in the Aug. 10 election, Erdoğan could become Turkey’s first president elected by popular vote. In the past, Parliament determined Turkey’s president. Erdoğan signaled his presidential ambitions in the victory speech he delivered after the AK Party achieved a solid success in the local elections.

The most intriguing foreign policy question at this point is probably whether tension over Syria will escalate in the near future, potentially dragging Turkey into the quagmire of war in the Middle East.

The Turkish military shot down a Syrian warplane on March 24 after it violated Turkish airspace along the Turkish-Syrian border near Yayladağı, a district in Hatay province, one week before the local elections in Turkey. After the incident, Syrian regime officials said that the warplane was targeting al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists in the Kessab region within Syria.

The timing and the motive of the act have been extensively discussed by analysts and the media, and many suspect the strike may have been an attempt by the Erdoğan government to divert public attention from corruption allegations targeting the AK Party.

The Turkish government blocked access to popular video sharing platform YouTube on March 27, hours after a leaked voice recording allegedly featuring the voices of Turkey’s foreign minister, intelligence chief and a top army general discussing a possible intervention in war-torn Syria was uploaded onto the site. The ban came a week after officials blocked Twitter, where users were sharing links to voice recordings that many held up as proof of graft allegations against Erdoğan as well as some of his family members and ministers.

The leak came after Turkish officials including President Abdullah Gül, Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on separate occasions warned that any attack on the tomb of Süleyman Şah, a Turkish exclave located within Syria, is tantamount to an attack on Turkey.

The voices heard on the leaked recording discuss staging an attack on the tomb, possibly as a pretext for starting a war with Syria.

During his election victory speech, Erdoğan said Syria and Turkey are in a “state of war.”

“I believe tensions will continue with Syria,” Vice President of Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Jonathan Schanzer told Sunday’s Zaman. “This is a very easy way for Mr. Erdoğan to assert regional leadership among Muslim Brotherhood supporters specifically, and the Sunni Arab world, more broadly. Occasional conflict with Syria at a low level can also serve the important function of distracting the Turkish public from the ongoing corruption scandal and leaks,” he added.

Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst for the US Treasury, warned that the AK Party leadership will need to walk a fine line “to ensure that occasional low-level conflict does not deteriorate into the more significant confrontation — something Turkey simply cannot afford.”

Cenk Sidar, the founder of Sidar Global Advisors (SGA), a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, told Sunday’s Zaman that he does not expect foreign policy issues to play a major role in the country’s politics in the next few months. “However, the Syria crisis has enormous potential to impose on Turkey significant security risks which may affect the election process in the country in the upcoming months,” he said.

“I believe this was an irresponsible statement that may have some security and legal implications for the country,” Sidar said, referring to Erdoğan’s assertion that Syria is at war with Turkey.

Turkey and Israel; a possible thaw?

Erdoğan may visit Israel in the wake of the March 30 local elections in an effort to improve Turkish-Israeli relations, which turned sour after Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship in a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in March 2010, Turkish dailies reported on March 26.

The raid resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American, and Turkey downgraded its ties with Israel, with the Israeli ambassador being expelled from Ankara in September 2011 after Israel refused to apologize for the killings.

Israel formally apologized in 2013 for what it called “operational mistakes” that might have led to the deaths of the victims. Turkey has asked for three things from Israel in light of the incident: an apology, compensation for the victims’ families and the lifting of the Gaza blockade. Currently, Turkey and Israel are negotiating a compensation deal but an agreement has not yet been reached.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said on March 26 that a compensation deal with Israel was likely to be signed after Turkey’s local elections, signaling a possible thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations.

Schanzer said that he finds it hard to imagine that ties between Turkey and Israel will improve, occasional reports of rapprochement notwithstanding.

“Erdoğan insists that Israel ease the blockade of Gaza. Israel will not do so, for fear that Hamas will use that as an opportunity to stockpile more weapons or material that could be used for weapons,” he said.

Schanzer went on to say that that Erdoğan has lashed out against Israel and its supporters, blaming them for the corruption charges against his government. “It’s hard to imagine rapprochement under these circumstances,” he added.

According to a report published Wednesday by US-based think tank Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Turkey remains interested in normalizing the relationship with Israel, especially on energy issues.”

The report, which summarized remarks by former US Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey and Turkey expert Soner Çağaptay at a conference titled “Turkey’s Elections: Vote of Confidence or Game-changer?” said, “Turkey can provide Israel with the closest viable market that has a substantive energy demand. Normalization will thus move forward as long as the issue does not become politicized within Turkey.”

Turkey’s relations with US and EU

“There should be no great expectation of improvement in US-Turkey relations. It will probably stay on the same track, with dialogue continuing on geopolitical issues but also serious criticism coming from Washington on Turkey’s problems in its democracy. It is difficult for Erdoğan to restore its image in Western capitals,” Sidar told Sunday’s Zaman.

Washington is displeased with recent limitations on freedom of expression in Turkey and the government’s banning of social media sites.

Agreeing with Sidar, Schanzer said that Turkey’s relations with US and the EU are likely to suffer moving forward.

“The US and EU have been watching Erdoğan consolidate power through the shuttering of Twitter and YouTube, the firing and reassignment of prosecutors, and refusing to even investigate the many troubling allegations of corruption and illicit financial transactions that have emerged since December 2013,” said Schanzer.

He stressed that there is also the question of Turkish support to terrorist groups, individuals and other designated entities.

“It is only a matter of time before the West begins to ask Erdoğan to respond — and to do so publicly,” Schanzer said.

The Washington think tank’s report says that “the fact that that Erdoğan is not a dictator but a democratically elected leader shows that democratic values are rooted in Turkey’s political culture.” According to the report, Erdoğan’s success in the local elections “indicates that the country’s authoritarian tilt will persist, further polarizing Turks.”

“Their frustration at continued electoral defeats could also lead to more civil unrest. This would in turn feed into Erdoğan’s underdog rhetoric, boosting or at the least maintaining his popularity,” the report said.

“Even so, Erdoğan will require continued economic growth to secure enough votes for the presidency,” the report said, adding that “to maintain such growth, Turkey needs to remain open for business, which means being a country of law, where social media is not banned, courts are independent, and the media is free.”

“If civil liberties are not guaranteed, the courts and media lose their independence, and rule of law is violated, Erdoğan’s own political strategy will jeopardize his vision for Turkey’s future,” the report said.

According to the Voice of America news service, former US Ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz said on Thursday that the EU and US might become more vocal in expressing their displeasure of Turkey’s policies of limiting freedoms in the country, but he said he would not expect a radical change in their approach toward Turkey.


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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