Change of Mind

Did Turkey’s foreign policy change or does it only appear so?

News about Turkey’s recent support of Iraqi troops in its fight against Daesh (or ISIS) came surprising for most experts (but not all1). Not only did Turkey change its opposing stance against the government in Baghdad, it also started to actively balance the self-proclaimed caliphate. To start with, change of mind (or rather change of tactics) towards Daesh isn’t hard to depict, as the organization is a menace to Turkey’s external relations, seriously damaging its trade with the region as well as posing a severe domestic threat. Turkey clearly could no longer uphold its stance as the only regional actor not directly acting against Daesh without menacing its position in the Near and Middle East. A clear sign of that tactical – and in my eyes probable strategic – alteration is the recent removal of the centuries old tomb of Suleiman Shah from Syrian into Turkish soil.

Regarding the other account, namely Turkey’s rapprochement towards the Iraqi government, the story is different and somewhat more complicated though. As I in my previous blog entries already have been writing extensively, Ankara’s intention is to become a, or rather the, regional hegemon and therefore is applying great power strategies in order to dwarf its neighbours into junior partners, whether by simply outgrowing them, or by aggressively subordinating them. But obviously Turkey needs partners as well, even the most hard-line Turkish nationalist would recognise that fact as given. It appears as if the government in Iraq since very recently seems to pose less a threat to Turkey’s ambitions in region than Daesh. The question is: why that change of mind?

First of all there is a new government in Baghdad, led by Haider al-Abadi, with a significantly less pro-Shi’a sectarian spin than the previous al-Maliki government. Although the Maliki faction is not completely disempowered, Maliki still holds the position of Vice President and seems to grab every chance to change the game to his favour2, sectarian tensions, at least on government level, were reduced significantly. This does not mean that sectarian strains at large are being reduced by the new government, nor that the influence of Iran has been abating. Rather the contrary can be observed: On one side there is the enormous empowerment of Shia militias since the attack on Mosul and advancement on Baghdad last summer, on the other side there is the therewith accompanied increased Iranian involvement, the ultimate cumulation of which is the deployment of the Iranian General Quassim Soleimani to spearhead3 the recent charge on the city of Tirkit. Phillip Smyth has given extensive insight in the role of Shi’ite Jihadism in this4 great report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Secondly, the fight against Daesh has changed in its nature, and the initially rather vague and powerless coalition to fight it has consolidated significantly. A number of countries have curbed up their effort, amongst them Jordan that tragically lost one of its Pilots which in turn empowered King Abdullah’s efforts against Daesh and led to a “rally around the flag” (or rather King) effect in the country. Another example is Egypt, which is well aware of its radical Sunni Jihadist problems and tries to militarily limit their influence, not only in the shaken Sinai Peninsula, but increasingly also in the area bordering Libya. Turkey thus was no longer able to play the role it intended to play, namely the one of an observer that did not want to get pulled into a conflict in a neighbouring country while keep on playing a larger game about regional hegemony. And Ankara could indeed play an important role in the efforts against Daesh as a Neighbouring country with the meaningful US air force base in close location to most operational (air) missions.

Thirdly Daesh started to get really annoying for Ankara. Since the beginning of the uprising against Bashir al Assad, Turkey could not really apply its “zero problems” policy. The putative lesson from the prior uprisings during the Arab Spring has been that the old leaders won’t hold long onto power and good relations with subsequent governments are key to build up good economic relations with the respective countries. After Turkey missed its chance in Libya, de facto losing billions in construction contracts, and for political reasons was not able to intermeddle in Egypt to the extend it wanted to (despite currying favour for the Muslim Brotherhood in all the region), the Erdogan government took its chances in Syria. Although the prospect of winning over the Syrian side by supporting moderate (or sometimes not so moderate) affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria seemed forlorn from the very beginning, Turkey had a hard time changing its tactics, let alone its strategy. That’s because events in Syria contradicted Erdogan’s and Davutoglu’s understanding of the conflict and its resolvability and they had the feeling they had already invested too much to be pulling out. That of course eventually happened, at the latest as Daesh split from the Al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and started taking over wide parts of Syrian soil bordering Turkey itself. But it was too late and Turkey was even accused of playing a substantial role in the deteriorating developments as it kept on supporting Syrian rebels, sometimes with lethal supplies that ultimately ended up in the hands of Daesh. Since the rapid rise of Daesh the Turkish government was more than terrified by the developments, especially after many of its staff in the general consulate in Mosul were taken hostage. The combinations of the hostage crisis, the Suleiman Shah Tomb problems and the complete failure of the AKP strategy thus led to the long delay of Turkey’s policy adaption.

After all though, Turkey seems to adapt its policy choices according to changes in realpolitik. A clear signal was Erdogan’s state visit to Riyadh, which was both a rapprochement effort by Erdogan towards Saudi Arabia itself, but moreover Sunni countries as a whole5. At the same time it can be seen as a support to Riyadh’s continued efforts to balance an increasingly influential Iran. Nonetheless, Ankara has increased its diplomatic activities in the region to counter the growing isolationism, without discarding the logic of realism.

Turkey’s relations with the United States are still at an all-time low6 and Washington has its difficulties in coping with the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Next to the continuous disagreements concerning Erdogan’s path of religious conservativism that is no part of official talks though, but nonetheless strains relations, there is the big case of Incirlik Air Base, which dates back as a strain to the relations between the two countries to operations Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The usage of the air base would substantially reduce costs for the anti-Daesh coalition and would allow much longer reconnaissance and combat flights, but Turkey had not yet agreed on any deal allowing coalition aircraft conducting military missions from there. More generally both countries still substantially disagree about how to deal with the crisis in Syria (and Iraq for that matter). Another issue that has come up recently and not got the attention it might deserve are disagreements about relations with Russia, which for Turkey only seem to increase (for more see my latest blog post), while the U.S. tries to contain the country. Recently there were two diplomatic mishaps, one was the U.S. trip of Turkey’s minister for EU affairs, Volkan Bozkir who did not get the attention he wished for and then there is the very recent trip of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to New York, together with the darling of the western Media and guarantor of sane politics in Ankara, Economy Minister Ali Babacan, in which they did not meet any high ranking U.S. official.

Conclusively said, it seems as if Turkey might finally start to make the foreign policy changes necessary to lift the country out of its current dire situation. Having said that, Turkey will not discard the realist foreign policies it applied so far, nor will the situation in the region become any less volatile in the near future. Turkey faces general elections this summer and Erdogan, who himself is in a kind of permanent election campaign since 2011, will unlikely admit any substantial foreign policy mistake, which in turn will make any changes more than difficult for his cabinet.