Turkey shows signs of mending bridges through shifts in foreign policy
In an attempt to redress frosty international relations, those responsible for foreign policy in Turkey apparently are working to improve relationships on a number of fronts with countries and entities such as Israel, the EU, Russia, and the US.
Following domestic and international criticism of its foreign policy, the Turkish government is showing some signs of progress on the issue — however, national interests remain the priority.
There is sometimes a tendency among analysts to overstate the significance of relationships between countries and their contribution to respective national interests, when reality is seemingly different. The coming days and weeks will reveal a clearer picture of whether the efforts taking place behind closed doors are paying off.
Regarding a possible thaw in relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara, it was reported last week that the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan, has been holding secret talks with Israeli officials as part of an effort initiated by Turkey to normalize relations. Sources cited in the news reports confirmed meetings had taken place in recent weeks, with Fidan participating in at least one of them, but did not say where.
Their respective ambassadors have been absent from each other’s countries since 2018, when Ankara ordered the Israeli envoy to leave after the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Fidan, a significant figure in Turkey who carries out diplomacy behind closed doors, is believed to have had close contact with his Israeli counterparts several times to discuss mutual challenges to the security of both countries, including the effects of the war in Syria. However, the latest report underlines the fact that the aim of the most recent interactions is to focus on restoring diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level.
Throughout the past decade there have been reports of a possible restoration of ties between Turkey and Israel, who were once close allies. Such reports are no longer surprising, since commercial and security ties have persisted despite the diplomatic tensions and harsh rhetoric from their leaderships.
Aside from the regional challenges they face, Ankara and Tel Aviv now have another mutual concern: The incoming Joe Biden administration in Washington. During Donald Trump’s presidency, despite tensions between Turkey and the US on some matters, the former nonetheless carried out three military operations in Syria, sent troops to Libya and Azerbaijan, and confronted Greece and France in the eastern Mediterranean.
Meanwhile Israel signed agreements to normalize relations with two Gulf countries, the UAE and Bahrain, and the US Embassy was moved to Jerusalem thanks to the support of the Trump administration.
Both Turkey and Israel, two US allies in the chaos-torn Middle East, have a vested interest in Biden’s likely policies on the region, which are as yet not entirely clear. Despite differences in geopolitical matters with Russia, Iran and the US, Turkey has managed to ride the wave, pursuing pragmatic policies in its dealings with those countries. There is therefore a window of opportunity for a possible thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations, as well.
Another diplomatic front for Turkey is its relationship with the EU. Ankara recently withdrew its seismic survey vessel, the Oruc Reis, from the eastern Mediterranean, which has been a confrontation zone for Ankara and EU nations for months as a result of disputed claims to energy resources there. The withdrawal happened ahead of an EU summit due to be held on Dec. 10 and 11, during which sanctions against Ankara will be considered.
Germany, which currently holds the presidency of the EU, welcomed the departure of the Oruc Reis and said relations with Turkey and tensions in the eastern Mediterranean will be among the major topics of discussion during the summit.
“We have put a great deal of effort into the EU’s relations with Turkey but there are many different obstacles and difficulties that reoccur again and again,” said German Chancellor Merkel.
An EU spokesperson made it clear that the 27 member nations will assess relations with Turkey based not on any single action but on its actions over time. Therefore, whether the withdrawal of the survey ship will influence the summit remains to be seen.
Aside from the regional challenges they face, Ankara and Tel Aviv now have another mutual concern: The incoming Joe Biden administration in Washington.
There are some within the EU that are not impressed by it. At the same time, however, pragmatists such as Germany consider Turkey an invaluable partner in the region. Therefore, there should be room to find some middle ground on the issue of the eastern Mediterranean, which has severely damaged Turkey’s relations with the EU, its largest trading partner.
The removal of the ship was also welcomed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who is seriously concerned about the escalating tensions between member nations Turkey and Greece. Turkey took a further step, while NATO foreign ministers were meeting on Dec. 1-2, by reiterating its call for Greece to resume exploratory talks.
Meanwhile, Turkey is also engaged in discussions about the establishment and responsibilities of a Turkish-Russian joint center in Nagorno-Karabakh, where military delegations from both countries will control and monitor the recently agreed ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
There are clearly external drivers for the latest developments in Turkish foreign policy. However, there are also domestic influences. The economy is a crucial focus for the Turkish government, the opposition and the public. A more pragmatic approach to foreign policy, if it continues, would likely result in economic and political benefits at home.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz