international analysis and commentary

The challenges and contradictions of a new foreign policy for Turkey


“More friends, fewer enemies,” is the foreign policy slogan that Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced after taking office in May. As foreign policy mantras go, it sounds more like bland diplomat-speak rather than a serious effort at foreign policy thinking. Indeed, it has a worrisomely similar ring to the “zero problems” foreign policy mantra advocated by previous Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, under whose leadership Turkey healed few of its long-standing disputes with neighbors and began several prominent new ones. Recycling that old policy is hardly what Turkey needs.

Given this mantra, therefore, one might suspect little substantive change to have accompanied Yildirim’s appointment by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In fact, the “more friends, fewer enemies” policy is already remaking Turkish diplomacy. In the past month, Turkey has restarted diplomatic relations with Israel, explored improve ties with Egypt, and apologized to Russia for shooting down its fighter jet. The failed military coup against Erdogan of mid-July will only accentuate these shifts. What is driving them? And what impact will they have on Turkey’s relations with other Western countries?

Since the Syrian civil war began, that conflict has been the main focus of Turkish diplomacy. Given the geography, commercial ties, and personal connections between the two countries, such a focus was inevitable. Yet since the rise of ISIS in 2014, the Syrian war has presented Turkey with a painful dilemma. On the one hand, Turkey supported the Sunni Arab anti-Assad militias, especially around the city of Aleppo. On the other hand, however, Ankara strongly opposed any fracturing of the Syrian state, which might lead to semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in Syria. Turkey understandably fears that this would embolden separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish populations.

Before ISIS, Ankara found this dilemma manageable. Yet as soon as ISIS began seizing large chunks of Syrian territory, the United States and other Western powers decided to back Syrian Kurdish militias in their fight against ISIS. That meant Turkey’s NATO allies were supplying arms to groups that Ankara considered to be terrorists. Few people in the West were willing to listen to Ankara’s arguments about the real ties between Syrian Kurdish groups and the PKK terrorist organization in Turkey.

Russia’s entry into the Syrian war exacerbated this contradiction. Moscow backed the Assad government—Turkey’s enemy—but also appeared to support Syria’s Kurds—Turkey’s other enemy. One Syrian Kurdish group even opened an office in Moscow, an event which received widespread publicity, and which was probably intended as a message to Ankara. The meaning was simple: unless Turkey assented to some of Russia’s goals in Syria, the Kurdish dilemma could grow.

In November 2015, Turkish fighters shot down a Russian bomber over Turkish airspace. The extent to which this was a calculated decision by Ankara is still not clear. The result, however, created new problems. Russia slapped sanctions in Turkey’s economy, limiting Turkish food exports to Russia, curtailing the activities of Turkish construction firms, and reducing the number of Russian tourists who visited Antalya’s beaches.

Combined with the strategic risk that Russia would actively support Kurdish groups, the economic sanctions convinced many Turks—apparently including the president—that the country’s policy in Syria was over-reaching. Ankara’s goals in Syria were more expansive than the means it was willing to employ. In early July, therefore, Erdogan issued an embarrassing apology to Russia, which in exchange agreed to lift sanctions. Though there is little concrete information about what, exactly, was agreed upon, there is much speculation that Turkey is scaling back its goals in Syria, focusing less on toppling Assad and more on limiting the power of Syria’s Kurds.

Scaling back in Syria is a rational policy in Ankara, but it is one that will likely increase tension with the West. Turkey’s NATO allies cheered Ankara’s decision to restore ties with Israel earlier this month, a disagreement that had interrupted longstanding military and security relations. The rapprochement with Russia, however, is different – and not only because of the West’s standoff with the Kremlin over Ukraine.

The bigger issue is that Turkey and the West are as divided on Syria as ever before. So long as Turkey supports Sunni Arab rebels around Aleppo, that creates at least some agreement with the Western powers, which are also backing some Sunni rebel groups in the area. Yet if Ankara begins scaling back its anti-Assad policy, its main remaining goal in Syria would be opposing the country’s Kurds—the very militias that Washington is building up as an anti-ISIS force.

In the aftermath of last week’s failed coup, Turkish frustrations with the West are already running high. Many sensible Turks feel that the West did not sufficiently support their elected government against the putschists, and that Western governments remain blind to the severity of the domestic threat. Many other Turks blame the CIA for the coup.

A battle is brewing over the extradition of religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and who Turkey’s government says organized the coup. Already this is an environment ripe for conflict. Turkey’s improving ties with Russia—and the prospect of an implicit deal with Russia over Syria—increase the scope for tension between Ankara and the West. Expect turbulence ahead.