By Omair Anas*
The suspense over Turkey’s presidential election is over. Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won a clear majority in the 24 June elections. Elections in no other country in the West Asia had received such a global and regional attention as was Turkey’s last few polls, especially this one. And , with every election, Turkey’s western allies find themselves in a rather more difficult situation to deal with Erdogan who has somehow managed to secure a greater strategic autonomy from its NATO security umbrella. As Barrack Obama’s Deputy National Security Ben Rhodes had revealed recently, dealing with Erdogan was very difficult for Obama, and it will be so for Donald Trump too.
For most of the western media, the election is just about the survival of democracy and the rule of law. Reputed economist, professor and columnist, Paul Krugman, has gone to the extent of calling Erdogan Turkey’s Trump. While the media reports talk about an extreme polarisation or the challenge of the rule of law, the main challenge for Turkey’s western allies is rather Turkey’s rapidly changing behaviour towards its western allies. This election is likely to give Erdogan more power to take decisive steps towards rewriting the country’s foreign relations. With Erdogan in a powerful executive presidency, its European Union neighbours and its NATO allies have to find a way out for their ongoing crisis with its crucial NATO ally.
There are three templates that Turkey has previously and in future may employ for its foreign policy. A completely West centric security and foreign policy which began with Turkey’s joining of the NATO and the CENTO in 1950s. This policy had seen its limits when Turkey faced security crises in Cyprus, Greece and with Armenia. The secular and nationalist Turkey, prior to Necmettin Erbekan and Erdogan’s Islamic Turkey, found Turkey isolated and insecure. Consequently, Turkey’s unilateral military intervention in Cyprus in 1974 by a staunch secular CHP Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit had prioritised the country’s security over its West centric foreign policy. The military intervention has created a fait accompli followed by negotiations to find a favourable outcome. This template still seeks a greater accession into the EU market and politics, NATO security cover, and a limited role for the West Asia under the western umbrella. However, the “western foreign policy template” has long died in Turkey, much before the arrival of Islamists on the stage during the Democratic Party and Justice Party’s rules in the 1960s and.
The second is the Eurasian template. This required Turkey to look to the north and find new security assurances from Russia and become the part of greater Turkic and Central Asian family. The Eurasian tilt of Turkey started mostly as a result of disenchantment from its failing western template, to fill the security gaps. Moreover, Turkey, being the only secular and transparent democratic country, compared to the authoritarian regimes around its Eurasian neighbourhood, and its increasing interest in Eurasia, has always been seen . Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia still remains a major challenge as it needs to reconcile two competitive relations.
The main opposition candidate Muharrem Ince comes from the Kemalist party (CHP) which had laid the foundation of country’s foreign and security designs. Is there a third template? Apparently, Erdogan is accused of advancing a Neo-Ottoman foreign policy, an oft-used phrase to indicate Turkey’s West Asia ambitions. But who is really a Neo-Ottoman? When Necmenttin Erbekan was the Prime Minister, he had advanced a new foreign policy, aiming to find a new place for Turkey among the rising Islamic nations — in the Central Asia and the West Asia. But he failed to find a supporting economic policy for his template. Erdogan, however, has succeeded in finding new economic opportunities all over Asia, especially West Asia, though not enough to replace the EU.
Interestingly, in the recent election, the political parties advocating these three different templates were less vocal on foreign policy issues. The ruling AK Party has been able to club all of them in the past when the former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had advanced a “zero problem in the neighbourhood”.
Now, there are three main reasons why Turkey can no longer stay a “western” or a “European” power in the strict sense, created by the early Kemalist governments. The current foreign policy direction is largely irreversible, even if the opposition candidates had won the election.
Once a pro-EU and pro-NATO , Erdogan came under immense pressure from his own military, domestic politics and increasing terrorist attacks inside Turkey’s urban centres. Until now at loggerhead on the Syrian crisis, Russia-Turkey relations had come to a standstill after Turkey downed its fighter jet in November 2016. Both Russia and Iran had used the Obama administration’s ambivalence to rescue the Assad regime and the Syrian state from complete collapse.
As Erdogan sought to repair his relations with Russia, there was a failed coup attempt, having a murkier western role. Then Turkey and Russia reached a long term understanding on not just their bilateral relations but also to resolve the Syrian crisis and protect Syria’s territorial integrity. It was followed by Turkey’s decision to buy Russia’s S400 Air Defence System. Erdogan then favoured the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, giving a clear sign of Turkey’s drift from the West. The Astana Peace Process brought Turkey, Russia and Iran together to find a common roadmap for de-escalation, political process and drafting a new constitution.
Turkey’s confidence building with Russia or the trust deficit with its Western allies was more than evident in its decision to buy the Russian missile system which the NATO members objected, citing incompatibility with the NATO’s systems. The delaying of Turkey’s purchase of F-35, though for different excuses, should not be seen separately.
Moreover, the US has been advancing a bilateral approach in the West Asia and has abandoned a regional approach in which it took its regional allies along. The US’ unilateral approach towards the Persian Gulf, Syria and Iran has rattled Turkey’s perception of the US as an ally.
The western response to Turkey’s fundamental security issues, especially the emergence of a sovereign Kurdish state, is something that no Turkish leader or the security establishment can afford to accept. The Turkish military perhaps has a more decisive position than the political leadership on the issue of Kurdish corridor. Turkey’s military is still in favour of a non-sectarian and a secular future for , indeed without Assad whose gradual exit is still part of Turkey’s Syria policy. The Turkish military found the collective security umbrella of NATO non-responsive and to large extent favourable to the Kurdish militant groups. Even the opposition and its supporters were aware that the NATO would not automatically switch from its position if an opposition candidate were elected as the president.
With an unpredictable US administration, Turkey has learnt not to be over-optimist of Trump’s promises and deliveries. Whatever limited cooperation Turkey has secured on limiting the Kurdish militant groups’ presence in Syria, Turkey will continue to work under the Astana framework. Turkey too will keep engaging bilaterally with its neighbours as well as with major powers, including China and India, to find a place among Asian powers.
*Dr. Omair Anas, a JNU alumni, is Assistant Professor at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, Turkey. His views are personal and do not reflect his employer’s opinion.