Turkiye’s trio of preelection foreign policy challenges
In the past few months, much of the focus in terms of Turkish foreign policy was on the Middle East, as Ankara engaged in normalization efforts with key regional actors such as Egypt, Israel, the Gulf states and, most recently, Syria. However, given its proximity to the Caucasus and Europe, Turkiye cannot avoid the challenges that are also emanating from these regions. In recent weeks, the developments taking place in the Caucasus and Europe are likely to not only affect Turkiye’s foreign policy, but also its domestic politics ahead of the critical elections that the Turkish presidency has announced will take place on May 14.
Turkiye is a significant player in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. In particular, it played a crucial role in the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, supporting the former both militarily and politically. The recent relatively calm atmosphere in the Caucasus is seemingly changing due to the latest developments taking place in one of the hottest confrontation zones in the world.
Political tensions between Baku and Yerevan have resurfaced after Azerbaijani activists began protesting along the Lachin road, aka the Lachin corridor — a vital land link in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. They are rallying against what they call the illegal exploitation of the area’s natural resources by neighboring Armenia. However, Yerevan complains that the demonstration has led to the closure of the road since Dec. 12, and the situation is now threatening to derail the Russian-mediated talks between the two former Soviet states.
Amid these tensions, the first move came from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He held a phone call with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to urge an immediate reopening of the Lachin corridor. It is most likely that, following Washington’s move, Russia and Iran will also get involved in this issue if it continues to escalate.
While tidying up the issues at home, Ankara will not be able to avoid being dragged into the Caucasus imbroglio
Meanwhile, a deadly gun attack took place at the Azerbaijan Embassy in Tehran on Friday. Tensions between Baku and Tehran were already high due to several disagreements on diplomatic and regional issues, including Azerbaijan’s support for Israel and Iran’s backing of Armenia in the dispute over the Armenian-majority breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
Within this context, while approaching critical elections and tidying up the issues at home, Ankara will not be able to avoid being dragged into the Caucasus imbroglio, as one of its closest allies, Baku, is seeing tensions rise with both Yerevan and Tehran.
The second area where Turkish foreign policymakers’ eyes should be fixed is the Middle East. Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, on Thursday paid an unannounced visit to Ankara and held a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During a visit to Turkiye by Barzani last year, the possibility of a natural gas pipeline and supply agreement between Turkiye and Iraqi Kurdistan was discussed, according to a statement from Erdogan’s office. However, most of the gas fields are located in areas controlled by the rival left-leaning Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, where Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party has no authority.
Ankara is obviously with Barzani rather than the leader of the PUK, Bafel Talabani, whom Turkiye has accused of supporting the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, and its wings in Syria. A few weeks before Barzani’s Ankara trip, Talabani paid a visit to Rojava — the de facto autonomous region in northeastern Syria, consisting of PKK extension groups in Afrin, Raqqa, Manbij and Deir Ezzor. It is not hard to guess that Talabani’s meetings with groups Turkiye considers to be terrorist must have raised eyebrows in Ankara, meaning that Barzani’s unexpected visit now makes more sense.
Lastly, the situation is also heating up in the Tukey-EU-NATO zone. Turkiye has canceled indefinitely a trilateral mechanism meeting with Sweden and Finland scheduled for February, saying it would be “meaningless” to hold such a dialogue to discuss these countries’ NATO bids. The move followed an anti-Muslim provocateur burning a copy of the Qur’an in front of the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital. Erdogan said that, if Sweden “does not show respect to the religious beliefs” of Muslims in Turkiye and around the world, it would not receive any support from Ankara for its NATO bid.
As long as Turkiye — a NATO member for more than 70 years — voices objections to Sweden and Finland’s bids to join the alliance, the issue will remain on top of the Turkish foreign policy agenda in the coming months. NATO’s enlargement process is one of the hottest topics and it became even more relevant after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. It is not difficult to guess that the recent tension between Turkiye and Sweden, which blocks NATO’s enlargement process, is most likely playing into the hands of Russia.
Thus, the tensions in the Caucasus, the developments related to Kurds in the Iraq-Syria zone and the process regarding NATO enlargement are likely to dominate the government’s foreign policy agenda and test Ankara’s hard and soft power alike.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz