After setback to Erdoğan, will Turkey's foreign policy change?
President Erdoğan's party is reeling in the wake of the loss of its parliamentary majority in elections Sunday. What that could mean for his ambitious and overtly Islamist foreign policy agenda.
Istanbul, Turkey — It seemed nothing could stop the transformative march of Turkey’s foreign policy in 2011, when then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was welcomed to Arab Spring capitals like a rock star as he preached Islamic democracy.
On a visit to Libya that year, the Turkish leader knelt down for Friday prayers in Tripoli’s Martyrs' Square, basking in the flag-waving fanfare.
“After we thank God, we thank our friend Mr. Erdoğan, and after him all the Turkish people,” the Libyan prayer leader told the cheering crowd.
But today such moments of triumph could not feel more remote, as Erdoğan – now president – and his AK Party reel from weak results in parliamentary elections Sunday that will force it either into a coalition government for the first time since 2002 or to call new elections.
Analysts say the result also marks the end of an ambitious and increasingly ideological “imperial” foreign policy – the word “failure” comes up repeatedly – that bogged down in the Syria war and witnessed Turkey’s influence shrivel.
A once-vaunted policy of “zero problems with neighbors” has in recent years turned combative and overtly Islamist. Turkey now has no ambassadors in five Middle Eastern countries, among them Israel, a former friend, and Libya and Egypt, where Erdoğan was lionized in 2011.
To be sure, AKP officials have sought to portray Turkey’s new isolation as the result of taking courageous moral stands on international issues, resulting in a state of “precious loneliness,” but this is a minority view. Sunday’s election is likely to yield a “shift of axis” in foreign policy, because the AKP “overextended its capabilities and resources,” says Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.
“What Turkey intended to do in the Middle East, the opposite emerged,” says Mr. Bagci. “There is no democracy, there is no security, there is no stability, and they were promising all this. But they miscalculated, they misread developments.”
Here are three areas where Turkey’s foreign policy could change, under a new coalition government.
Perhaps the most dramatic change could be in neighboring Syria. Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have aimed to topple President Bashar al-Assad by clandestinely allowing jihadists of all stripes and weapons to cross from Turkey, and by seeking to make their cooperation with the US-led alliance against the Islamic State (IS) contingent on the US adhering to a similar anti-Assad stance. (Mr. Davutoğlu resigned Tuesday in a procedural move but is being asked to stay on as a caretaker and most likely will be asked to form a coalition government.)
After four-plus years of war, IS or Al Qaeda-affiliated militants control much of the other side of the border, and the conflict has created 1.7 million Syrian refugees, with no end in sight.
The manifestos of all three opposition parties promised to stop arming these Syrian rebels. A coalition government “will not be able to continue to support groups like IS and other extremist groups in Syria,” Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), said to CNN.
Turkey over the past four years “has been part of the problem,” says Behlul Ozkan of Marmara University in Istanbul. He says Syria has become Turkey’s Afghanistan, with Turkey playing the role of Pakistan – facilitating radical groups across the border that risks humiliation and destabilizing blowback back home.
“Now with the change of government, Turkey can play an intermediate role between the moderate opposition and the Assad regime that might change the whole balance of the Syrian crisis,” says Mr. Ozkan, of one possibility. Either way, he says, “Turkey is going to face serious problems with” Islamic State.
The Islamic world
As the Arab Spring uprisings toppled dictators, Turkey portrayed itself as a new model of a modern, secular-yet-Islamic-leaning state. But Turkey soon took a pro-religious turn and developed ties directly with Islamist political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
“They became in their foreign policy part of the Muslim Brothers,” says Bagci. “Even today the president is supporting the Muslim Brothers. It became an ideological foreign policy, [that] was not anymore rational [or] interest-based.”
In Turkey, the history of Islamic parties like the AKP was very different from other countries in the region. Turkey’s Islamists began cutting their political teeth in the 1970s, took part in elections, and served as government ministers. But in Arab Spring nations, Islamic parties had been banned for decades and therefore proved too inexperienced to rule, says Ozkan.
“The AKP expected that, similar to Turkish Islamists, Egyptian, Syrian, and Tunisian and Libyan Islamists will come to power. But Turkey’s experience is completely different; it’s an exception – they made a wrong analogy,” he says.
“They thought that Turkey could be an imperial power in the region, [but] because Islamist parties failed, for different reasons, this pan-Islamist AKP foreign policy also collapsed,” says Ozkan.
The manifestos of the other parties give only general guidance as to their specific policies, but the conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the AKP's most likely coalition partner, talks of Turkey as the "regional leading country" and declares that it will pursue a policy of regional stability and "will not take part in any global projects that destabilize the region and cause bloodshed and tears."
The United States
Turkey-US ties have been fractious over a number of issues, from the refusal of Turkey – a NATO ally – to permit the US-led anti-IS coalition to use the Incirlik airbase for bombing raids into Syria and Iraq, to its troubled relations with Israel since Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Mara, a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship, killing nine on board in 2010.
“The United States has avoided involving Turkey in any strategic discussions over Iran’s nuclear program, over future developments in Syria, over the current implosion in Iraq,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert with the Chatham House think tank in London.
Erdoğan and the AKP still control much of the state security apparatus in Turkey, “and that has not changed in these elections,” notes Mr. Hakura.
Still, Turkey “will not entertain any major regional foreign policy agenda” because Erdoğan and Turkey after the election “will be so convulsed [and] inward-looking,” he says.
Despite other changes likely in Turkey’s post-election foreign policy, root ties with the US will continue, though it remains unclear how far new coalition partners will be able to change long-held AKP policies.
The MHP's manifesto blandly states: "Our relationships with the USA will be carried out on the basis of equality and reciprocity to serve mutual interests of both sides with their economic, political and security dimensions."
“America will remain the most important security, strategic partner of Turkey,” says Bagci of Middle East Technical University. “Like a roller coaster, it is going up and down, but always coming back to square one. You scream, you laugh, up and down, and the ride always ends where it began.”