Making sense of Turkey’s ever-changing foreign policy

Making sense of Turkey’s ever-changing foreign policy

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the Extraordinary Congress of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara. (Reuters)

In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal included the following quote at the beginning of one of his books: “Vérité en-deçà des Pyrenées, erreur au-delà.” This translates as “There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees (the mountain range along the border between France and Spain) that are falsehoods on the other side.”
In other words, the quote — which was based on a statement by Michel de Montaigne, one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance — is saying that what is good and right to some might be bad and wrong to the others.
When I listen to or read statements from the ruling and opposition parties in Turkey about the country’s foreign policy strategy, this famous quote comes to my mind; what is right for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is, indeed, wrong for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
The wave of protests that began in Tunisia in 2010 created a knock-on effect in neighboring countries and resulted in the fall of regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya. And then there is Syria, which represents a massive challenge for the region and the world.
March 14 will mark the end of the ninth year of the Syrian conflict, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 380,000 people to date and displaced millions. It has also become AKP’s toughest test in its foreign and domestic policies, and a main focus of criticism by opposition parties against the government.
Last week, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu vowed to bring peace and stability to the Middle East by establishing a regional organization that would work to end the years of conflict in the area.
“We will establish the Organization for Peace and Cooperation in the Middle East,” he said during a party meeting. “Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria will come together under this organization. It will say, ‘We don’t want proxy wars in our region. We will resolve our problems together.’”
Kilicdaroglu also strongly criticized the AKP government for damaging Turkey’s ties with neighboring countries and giving the major world powers room to expand their influence in the Middle East.
“This organization will manifest by saying, ‘We don’t want to be the tool of the major powers. We will build the peace through rational policies,’” he added.
This is not the first time the CHP leader has criticized the government or vowed to bring peace to the region under the motto “peace at home, peace in the world.” Nor is it the first time he has proposed the formation of such an organization. It is not a new idea. Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy was inaugurated by the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose policy for the region reached its zenith with the signing of a nonaggression agreement, known as Sadabad Pact, in 1937 between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thus, the CHP proposal can trace its roots to this old regional agreement. Whether the CHP can bring peace to the region is not the question I want to consider in this article. The party’s recent criticisms have come at a time when Turkey is experiencing tough challenges in Idlib, and they coincided with statements by former AKP allies, including former President Abdullah Gul and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, about the government’s foreign policy ideas.
Foreign policy has become one of the top priorities of all parties in Turkey. This is very much a result of the AKP era, a period in Turkish history during which domestic politics and foreign policy have been deeply intertwined. Turkey’s current foreign policy is not only determined by external factors, but often by internal circumstances as well. Domestic considerations therefore have significant foreign policy implications, and vice versa. Also, public opinion about foreign policy issues does play a crucial role in the foreign policy-making process.
According to the annual Public Perceptions on Turkish Foreign Policy survey by Kadir Has University in Istanbul, 42.1 percent of respondents believed that Turkey should pursue a hands-off policy in Syria and should not intervene, and only 13.3 percent said that Turkey should help refugees. When asked about Turkey’s current policy on refugees, 57.6 percent of those polled said the country should stop accepting them, while only 7 percent appeared happy about the Syrians already in Turkey.
Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrians and the opposition parties criticize AKP refugee policies for creating a huge economic, social and security burden.

Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrians and the opposition parties criticize AKP refugee policies for creating a huge economic, social and security burden.

Sinem Cengiz

AKP has been in power since 2002, so to accurately comment on its approach to foreign policy, which has significantly changed over that time, it is necessary to divide it into three eras. Between 2002 and 2010 the party espoused more pro-Western policies, promoting liberal policies to the Middle Eastern countries that enjoyed positive relations with Turkey.
With the start of the Arab uprisings in 2010, a second era began during which the government embraced policies that promoted political Islam. During an interview in 2015, former President Abdullah Gul argued that political Islam has collapsed in the region.
During the third era, beginning in 2015, Turkey embraced policies of hard power, particularly in Syria, rather than a soft power-only approach. All of these versions of foreign policy have attracted harsh criticisms.
Both the external circumstances that are increasing the pressures on Turkey and the domestic divisions within the country have played significant roles in shaping the current government’s foreign policy for almost two decades. While the opposition parties continue to criticize the government’s foreign policy, it seems to have entered a fourth era. It appears to be the toughest yet, as a result of the deteriorating situation on several fronts, including Idlib, Libya, Turkey’s relationships with the US and Russia, the refugee issue, and Cyprus.

  • Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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