In search of a reset with the West

At any given time in Turkey’s modern history, its foreign policy has never confronted so many countries and power centers simultaneously. The Erdoğan administration’s policy of attempting to control an entire region from Libya to Iraq by implementing a nationalist/Islamist project has now reached its limits. Thus, Erdoğan is now attempting to switch from the policy he has pursued so far and, in a way, wants to reset relations with the West.

For some time now, Turkey has had a troubled relationship with the West. Yet within the past 50 years, there hasn't been a time when Turkey’s ties with both the U.S. and the European Union were strained to the extent they are now. Beyond the West, Turkey has damaged its relationship with a great number of countries including Syria, Egypt, Israel, the Tobruk Assembly in Libya, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This comes as a result of wrongheaded foreign policy decisions.

In recent times, Turkey has played a role in close to all of the region’s conflicts. But it appears like this is not sustainable. In a yet unprecedented move, it was decided that the EU would coordinate with the U.S. to enact sanctions against Turkey. Those sanctions, along with the Trump administration’s decision to impose CAATSA sanctions against Turkey before he hands over the presidency to Joe Biden, demonstrate that Turkey’s policy toward the West has failed.

Three moves undertaken by Erdoğan’s government are behind Turkey’s deteriorating ties with the West. First, Erdoğan and his party have formed domestic alliances with the nationalist and Eurasian forces since 2015 and 2016, respectively. That is how Erdoğan was able to make up for losses within his own circle and maintain his grip on power. But this alliance entailed certain obligations. Cooperation with the nationalists led Erdoğan’s government to adopt a more nationalist approach, both domestically and internationally. While Erdoğan implemented his own Islamist and pro-Muslim Brotherhood policies in Syria, Egypt, Israel and Libya, under the influence of the nationalists, he also began pursuing a gunboat diplomacy in the East Mediterranean and opted for more military power in Libya and northern Syria. The impact of these two ideologies on foreign policy brought ever more problems to Turkey.

Second, in the East Mediterranean, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has upset relations with both Egypt and Israel, disturbing the balance that had been reached within the past 50 years. While Turkey’s deteriorating relations with two of its neighbours across the sea has bothered the U.S., its adoption of a more assertive policy in the East Mediterranean has annoyed the EU. Greece and the Republic of Cyprus quickly filled the gap, noticing that Turkey was losing ground in the region. France and the United Arab Emirates joined the bloc later on, which initially began with cooperation in the fields of energy, diplomacy, trade and the military between Greece, Israel, Egypt and the Republic of Cyprus. The Blue Homeland doctrine, which calls for Turkey to defend its rights in in maritime zones by using military force when necessary and is promoted by the nationalists and Eurasianists within the administration has further complicated the matter.

Accordingly, Turkey attempted to respond to this block by making two deals with the Sarraj-led government in Tripoli. Yet while this has changed the situation on the field in Libya in favour of the Tripoli government in the short term, in the long run, it did not provide Turkey with a permanent solution. In fact, Turkey was sidelined in Libya particularly during diplomatic efforts. As a result of the US and the EU’s opposition to Turkey's growing tendencies to use military force, Turkey was bound to an isolation hitherto unseen. 

What is more, a large block of countries in the region and the strongest non-regional actors united to counter Turkey. For the first time in 50 years, the U.S. relinquished its balanced stance on Turkey-Greece relations and on the Cyprus issue to openly support Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.

Third, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia had the most serious adverse effect on its relations with the US. It seems like decision-makers in Turkey were unable to predict such a harsh reaction from the US as a result of this purchase. They opted to consider the issue as a question of sovereignty and presented it to the public as such, creating the image of a government and a leader resisting to the whims of the US.

However, this purchase has proven the most strategically problematic move in Turkey’s history as well as the costliest - considering its economic and military consequences. This missile defence system cannot be integrated to NATO’s air defence network and its function will be very limited as a stand-alone system.

While the justification of leaving the Patriot missile systems was that technology transfer was denied, the purchase from Russia was carried without any technology transfer. In order to buy the S-400 system, Turkey was denied delivery of the F-35s, even though it had paid for them, the world's most advanced fighter jet project, the one whose production process Turkey took part in.

Moreover, Turkish companies that were supplying parts to this project were removed from the supply chain. The total loss of Turkey is estimated at $12 billion. In addition to that, Turkey has undermined its relations with the US and is facing sanctions.

Turkey has not received any diplomatic support from Russia as it confronts the US and the EU in Libya, in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the northeast of Syria. In fact, Russia has taken a stand against Turkey several times, thereby contributing to Ankara’s diplomatic and military isolation. Meanwhile, only Qatar has continuously supported Turkey, but Doha is also seeking to overcome a blockade it is facing in the Gulf and cannot make a significant contribution to Turkey in a strategic sense. 

At any given time in Turkey’s modern history, its foreign policy has never confronted so many countries and power centers simultaneously. Turkey now has a widespread military presence and is diplomatically isolated. The Erdoğan administration’s policy of attempting to control an entire region from Libya to Iraq by implementing a nationalist/Islamist project has now reached its limits.

The Erdoğan government is aware of this situation, and particularly since Trump lost the presidential elections, the figure Erdoğan was conducting a "leaders’ diplomacy" with. 

The most concrete example of this was experienced in the Eastern Mediterranean, as it is the first location in which Erdoğan’s administration has backed down.

The AKP-led government did not send the Oruç Reis seismic research vessel to the Greece-Egypt EEZ (exclusive economic zone) area, taking a step back from the position it was advocating. It has also sent a message to the EU by restricting the Oruç Reis vessel’s exploration area to the bay of Antalya until June 2021, thereby keeping it away from the disputed maritime areas.

Besides, Turkey has declared that the diplomacy route is open. These developments have irked certain domestic nationalist circles who monitor the situation closely. Turkey’s position on this issue was that there were no disputed areas in the Eastern Mediterranean, islands did not have maritime jurisdictions and that there were thus no issues to be discussed.

Erdoğan is attempting to switch from the policy he has pursued so far and, in a way, wants to reset relations with the West. He is thinking of ways to prevent the EU from deciding on sanctions during its summit to be held in March 2021 and to harbour good ties with the Biden administration. That is why Ankara is considering to send an ambassador to Israel and is trying to reach out to the U.S. through Israel and to the EU through the U.S.

This policy will come at a price. Relations with the domestic nationalist and Eurasian segments and internationally, relations with Russia will be redefined. Erdoğan now wants to conduct new negotiations with the West. He wants to do it without introducing domestic reforms for democracy and rule of law, in fact, only through moves in the East Mediterranean to make up with the West and to normalize relations with Israel. He wants to carry out negotiations at a strategic level, avoiding the subject of democratization, as much as he can. However, in a context of economic fragility and diplomatic isolation, Erdoğan’s tools are limited.