Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu gestures during a news briefing in Tbilisi, Georgia, February 17, 2016. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
Order from Chaos

Is Turkish foreign policy becoming pragmatic again?

Kemal Kirişci

Only two months have passed since Ahmet Davutoğlu was dismissed as Turkey’s prime minister, but Turkey’s foreign policy is already seeing major shifts—U-turns, in fact, especially in its stance towards Israel and Russia. Three former Turkish foreign ministers and three retired undersecretaries—whom I interviewed in May—agreed that Turkish foreign policy had hit a wall, and that Davutoğlu’s departure might open room for realism and pragmatism to make a comeback. Pragmatism—something that had traditionally characterized Turkey’s foreign policy—seems to have finally come to the fore.

But why? And will it persist?

Pragmatism was a key tenet of Davutoğlu’s famous “zero problems with neighbors” approach while he was an advisor in the prime minister’s office and later as minister of foreign affairs. This policy helped Turkey construct stronger bonds with its neighbors—and thereby expanded the nation’s soft-power clout in the region. Guided by this principle, Turkey supported a U.N. plan to unify the long-divided island of Cyprus; came close to mending its rift with Armenia and opening their shared border; mediated between Israel and Syria; and built lucrative economic relations with almost every country in its neighborhood.

However, Davutoğlu’s later conviction that the Arab Spring offered an opportunity for Turkey to spearhead a new order in the Middle East shifted the nation onto a completely different trajectory. Pragmatism was set aside in favor of an ideological commitment to the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East to achieve an “imperial fantasy.” As the Arab Spring dissolved into social flare-ups and civil wars (with the exception of Tunisia), Turkey found itself embroiled in the internal affairs of Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The situation in Syria—namely the international fight against the Islamic State and conflicting opinions on the fate of the Syrian President Bashar Assad—put Turkey at loggerheads with its traditional Western allies as well as with Russia and Iran. Furthermore, the chaos in Syria has triggered a wave of more than three million refugees into Turkey and has dramatically jeopardized Turkey’s internal security, as the recent terrorist attacks at Istanbul airport and other places have demonstrated. With Turkey’s web of export markets shrinking and its income from tourism decreasing, the nation’s economy is also in tatters.

Re-friending Israel

Late last month, Israel and Turkey managed to normalize relations after a six-year hiatus sparked by the attack on the Mavi Marmara in June 2010. The ferry had been commissioned by Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a conservative NGO with ties to the Turkish government, and had that government’s tacit approval to embark on a humanitarian trip to challenge Israel’s blockade on Gaza. After the Israeli attack, Turkey withdrew its ambassador and demanded an official apology, reparations for damages, and the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

Barack Obama pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May 2013. It took another three years to agree on a reparations deal for the victims’ families and reach a compromise on the future of the Gaza blockade. Most challenging was reconciling Israel’s security concerns with Erdoğan’s political ones: The final agreement kept in place Israel’s blockade, while permitting Erdoğan to extend humanitarian assistance to Gaza just in time for Eid al-Fitr celebrations—and therefore appeal to the religious sensitivities of his support base.

Warming up with Russia

Almost simultaneously, Erdoğan sent a carefully-worded letter to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, conveying his heartfelt sorrows for the damages caused by the shooting down of a Russian warplane that had strayed into Turkish airspace from Syria in November 2015. He mentioned that Turkey was ready to pay compensation to the families of the pilots. At the time, Putin called the shoot-down a “stab in the back.” He called for a series of economic sanctions on Turkey that went into effect at the start of this year, as well as demanded compensation and prosecution of those responsible for killing one of the pilots.

Moscow interpreted Erdoğan’s letter as an apology, which Putin accepted. Following a phone conversation, the two agreed to resuscitate economic relations by lifting the embargo on trade and tourism. There are now reports that Erdoğan and Putin may meet in July or August.

In a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Sochi on July 1, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that there may be some shifts in Turkey’s Syria policy. He announced Turkey’s willingness to cooperate more closely with Russia to tackle the situation in Syria. A number of commentators concluded that Assad’s departure was no longer a top priority for Turkey, and that a “transition period” with Assad in power would be acceptable. It also seemed that Çavuşoğlu was prepared to increase bilateral cooperation by allowing Russia to use Turkey’s military facilities—including the Incirlik airbase, from which the United States mounts its attacks on ISIS targets. However, he quickly denied those claims. Together with Davutoğlu’s successor Binali Yıldırım, Çavuşoğlu also expressed that they would work towards building more lucrative commercial ties with Egypt.

Ripe for a comeback

A number of factors played a role in triggering this return to pragmatism. Economic considerations top the list.

Russian sanctions—combined with the loss of Middle Eastern export markets—has cost and is still costing Turkey dearly. Turkey’s exports to Russia dropped by 40 percent between 2014 and 2015, and its exports to the Arab world dropped 11 percent. In the first four months of 2016, there was an even more dramatic drop, with exports to Russia falling 60 percent compared to the same period in 2016, and exports to the Arab world falling 17 percent. This has spelled disaster in some areas, particularly AKP strongholds in Anatolia—called the Anatolian Tigers because they have transformed themselves into export hubs under the AKP leadership. In contrast, Istanbul-based companies with closer EU trade ties—and whose success is therefore less contingent on Erdoğan’s goodwill— maintain smaller operations in the Middle East and are more active in Russia (at least among sectors that have not been severely hit by Russian sanctions).

There is a similar picture in tourism, which accounts for 6.2 percent of Turkey’s economic output and 8 percent of employment. The impact of the fall in tourism—from Russia and more broadly—has been dramatic, and felt especially acutely in Istanbul and Antalya, Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations. Hotels and travel agencies have reported cancellations, and tour companies have removed Turkish ports from their itineraries based on “safety and customer sentiment” considerations. Hotel occupancy rates have fallen to a historical low of 20 percent to 40 percent. However, the rapprochement with Russia has already triggered an increase in bookings by Russian travelers. Improving relations with Israel is likely to yield a similar outcome.

Security concerns emanating from the chaos in Syria is another reason for the foreign policy U-turn. Almost 300 people have reportedly died in 17 bomb attacks in the last two years. Some attacks have been ISIS-led, and others have been perpetrated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The PKK-affiliated splinter group known as Kurdistan Freedom Falcons has hatched a number of terrorist attacks, and together with the PKK, has led a major armed insurgency in Turkey’s southeastern, Kurdish-populated provinces, causing massive destruction and displacement. The PKK is closely allied with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, and has even inflicted damage on Turkey’s military hardware with weapons made in Russia. Furthermore, Russian citizens rank among ISIS foot soldiers—even more alarmingly, perpetrators of the attack on Istanbul’s airport were from the north Caucasus. This situation is now compelling Turkey to overlook its political preferences in Syria and address security challenges by cooperating with Israel and Russia.

A greater dose of pragmatism?

Many have welcomed the new degree of pragmatism that brought about the U-turn in Turkey’s relations with Israel and Russia. However, it is yet to be seen whether it will persist, and whether it will bring about an improvement in Turkey’s economic performance and domestic security situation. Will it help resuscitate Turkey’s famous “zero problems with neighbors” policy and improve Turkey’s relations with its Western allies? Furthermore, will pragmatism in foreign policy translate into actions that may help improve the dire state of Turkish democracy?

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