Erdogan’s foreign policy ‘reset’

Unless Erdogan clarifies his position vis-à-vis jihadists, tourism sector in Turkey will not be healing from huge setbacks.

2016/07/03 Issue: 63 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly
Yavuz Baydar

It seems Turkey’s controver­sial president has hit the reset button on his foreign policies, renewing ties with Israel and almost apologis­ing to Moscow for the downing of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border last year.

On the heels of Ankara’s foreign policy shift came the bloody attack on Istanbul Ataturk International Airport by at least three terrorists, setting off gunfire and explosions that killed more than 40 people.

With the normalisation agreement with Israel containing a retreat on Ankara’s long-term “red line” demand that the Gaza blockade be lifted and an apology expressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embarked on a new regional policy journey.

In a nutshell, it means a reset — a return to the “factory settings” of Ankara’s decades-long traditional line marked by non-interventionism.

The rift between Turkey and Israel had marred a relationship between the region’s two strongest powers and ruptured the Palestinian peace process, stripping Turkey of the pivotal role in the region to which it had aspired. The bloody Mavi Marmara incident off Gaza in May 2010 put an end to that.

The disruption of traditional ties worked mostly to the disadvantage of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. It lost the support of the critical Jewish lobby in the United States, became alienated with the Palestinian Authority and, with the addition of leadership change in Egypt, found itself first adrift and soon dragged into the vortex of the Syrian horror.

As with all things erratic, one thing led to another, and the downing of the Russian warplane by the Turkish Air Force last November marked, perhaps, the end of Ankara’s pursuit of grandeur — beyond its diplomatic and military capabilities — to claim regional supremacy, articulated as in its desire for regime change in Syria.

Erdogan had no choice but to step back, given the international isolation he faced and the strategic damage caused by acrimonious rifts with two countries whose foreign policy architecture and intelligence craft Ankara failed to match.

The result of the previous “Zero Problems with Our Neighbours” policy left Turkey with a rubble made of failures: It raised suspicion among Arab countries that Ankara’s real agenda was to reproduce an Ottoman hinterland in the Middle East rather than building benevolent economic interdependency; the exercise to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria proved to be damaging with a massive influx of Syrian refugees; and the misreading of the global battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) led Ankara to open a front against the Kurds in Turkey and Syria.

The new, mild-spoken prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, said: “We shall now minimise our enemies and increase friends.” That seems easier said than done.

Although Putin is reported to have promised to lift sanctions and allow Russian tourists to return to Turkey, the terror attack at Istanbul airport is a lucid indication that, unless Erdogan clarifies his position vis-à-vis the jihadists and reopens peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at home, the tourism sector in Turkey will not be healing from huge setbacks.

Not only that, with Russia having the upper hand in the Syrian chess match, Ankara will find itself sharply revising its policy on the Assad regime as well.

As for Israel, close relations between Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Moscow makes Ankara’s hand vulnerable in the regional political game.

Also, perceived as unable to have the Gaza blockade lifted despite a load of anti-Israeli rhetoric, it is clear Erdogan lost popularity within the Arab masses and, more seriously, at home.

A potentially lucrative aspect of the deal is the natural gas off Israeli shores but it will require a solution, for geopolitical reasons, on Cyprus, yet another strain on the AKP government.

In many ways, it seems clear that Turkey’s muscle flexing ended in its disfavour, yet the shift on its foreign policy creates new ground for opportunities to decrease tensions.

An abortive cycle may be ending but questions on the region’s two troubled peoples — Kurds and Palestinians — remain as problematic as before.

Yavuz Baydar is a journalist based in Istanbul. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) and a news analyst, he won the European Press Prize in 2014. He has been reporting on Turkey and journalism issues since 1980.

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