By Altaf Moti
The new Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his third term faces a complex and challenging foreign policy environment. Turkey’s relations with its traditional allies in NATO and the European Union have been strained by various issues such as the Syrian conflict, the refugee crisis, the Eastern Mediterranean dispute and the S-400 missile deal with Russia. At the same time, Turkey has sought to expand its influence and interests in regions such as the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus, often clashing with other regional powers such as Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel.
In this context, what are the new Turkish government’s foreign policy priorities? Based on the recent statements and actions of Turkish officials, as well as the analysis of experts and observers, some of the main priorities can be summarized as follows:
Improving ties with the United States: Turkey and the US have been allies for decades, but their relationship has deteriorated in recent years over a number of disagreements. These include Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system which Washington considers a threat to NATO’s security and has imposed sanctions on Ankara; Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria against Kurdish forces that are backed by the US as partners in the fight against ISIS; Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan civil war and its support for the internationally recognized government in Tripoli against the US-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar; and Turkey’s exploration for natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean which has sparked tensions with Greece and Cyprus, both members of the EU and NATO.
The new Turkish government has signaled its willingness to mend fences with Washington and find common ground on these issues. For instance, Turkey has offered to form a joint working group with the US to resolve the S-400 dispute and has expressed its readiness to cooperate with the US on Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American troops. Moreover, Turkey has welcomed the Biden administration’s recognition of the Armenian genocide as a historical fact and has refrained from escalating the rhetoric or taking retaliatory measures. The new Turkish government hopes to leverage its strategic partnership with the US to advance its interests in other areas and to balance its relations with Russia.
Re-engaging with Europe: Turkey’s relations with Europe have also suffered from mutual mistrust and dissatisfaction over various matters. These include Turkey’s accession process to the EU, which has been stalled for years due to political obstacles and lack of reforms; and Turkey’s assertive foreign policy in regions such as the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Somalia which have often put it at odds with European interests and values.
The new Turkish government has indicated its desire to re-engage with Europe and to revitalize its EU membership bid. For example, Turkey has resumed talks with Greece to de-escalate tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and to explore ways for cooperation on energy and security issues. Turkey has also expressed its support for a political solution to the Libyan conflict based on the UN-backed roadmap and has participated in regional dialogues with Germany, France, Italy, and Egypt. Furthermore, Turkey has pledged to uphold the rule of law and human rights standards and to implement judicial reforms that would address some of the concerns raised by Europe.
Strengthening regional cooperation: Turkey has also pursued a more active and diversified foreign policy in its neighborhood and beyond, aiming to enhance its regional influence and leadership. Turkey has been involved in several conflicts and crises that affect its security and interests, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Qatar, Palestine, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Turkey has often adopted a proactive approach that relies on its military capabilities and soft power tools.
Turkey has also sought to build alliances and partnerships with various actors that share its vision or interests. For instance, Turkey has forged close ties with Qatar as a strategic ally in the Gulf region; Turkey has supported Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh; Turkey has backed Somalia in its fight against terrorism and development efforts; Turkey has mediated between Sudan’s military and civilian leaders after a coup; Turkey has defended Palestine’s rights against Israel’s aggression; and Turkey has offered to host peace talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban. The new Turkish government intends to continue and expand its regional cooperation and to play a constructive role in resolving conflicts and promoting stability.
Managing relations with Russia: Turkey and Russia have a complex and ambivalent relationship that is characterized by both cooperation and competition. On the one hand, Turkey and Russia have developed strong economic and energy ties, as well as political dialogue and coordination on various issues. For example, Turkey and Russia have cooperated on the construction of the TurkStream gas pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant; Turkey and Russia have worked together on the Astana process to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis; Turkey and Russia have reached a ceasefire agreement to end the fighting in Libya; and Turkey and Russia have established a joint monitoring center to oversee the implementation of the peace deal in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On the other hand, Turkey and Russia have also clashed over their divergent interests and agendas in regions such as Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and the Black Sea. For instance, Turkey and Russia have supported opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, with Turkey backing the rebels and Russia backing the regime; Turkey and Russia have intervened in the Libyan conflict, with Turkey supporting the government in Tripoli and Russia supporting Haftar’s forces; Turkey and Russia have expressed different views on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and NATO membership; and Turkey and Russia have competed for naval dominance and access in the Black Sea. The new Turkish government faces the challenge of managing its relations with Russia in a way that balances its cooperation and competition, as well as its alignment with NATO and its autonomy.
Turkey’s foreign policy on China: It is pragmatic and balanced, aiming to benefit from China’s economic opportunities and strategic partnership while also managing its political values and regional interests. Turkey faces a dilemma between its economic interests and its support for the Uighurs in Xinjiang, who face repression by China. Turkey also seeks to leverage its relations with China to enhance its strategic autonomy and influence in its relations with other powers, such as the US, Russia, and Europe. However, Turkey and China also have divergent interests and agendas in some areas, such as Iran, Israel, NATO, and India. Turkey and China also face challenges in managing their public opinion and perceptions of each other, which are influenced by various factors such as culture, history, ideology, and media.
In conclusion, the new Turkish government’s foreign policy priorities reflect its ambition to pursue a multidimensional and independent foreign policy that serves its national interests and values. Turkey seeks to improve its ties with its traditional allies in the West, while also expanding its influence and interests in other regions. Turkey also seeks to strengthen its regional cooperation and leadership, while also managing its relations with other major powers. Turkey’s foreign policy is likely to remain dynamic and pragmatic, adapting to changing circumstances and opportunities.
Altaf Moti writes from Pakistan