It is becoming harder and harder to ascertain who exactly are Turkey’s long-term allies. On July 26, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened that Turkey would simply look elsewhere for fighter jets if frozen out of the US F-35 program, of which it has been an integral part.
It came with the news that Turkey’s new Russian S-400 missile defense system is expected to be operational by 2020. Such news might appear on the surface to place Turkey thoroughly in the Russian orbit, but Turkish foreign policy is far more complex these days.
If Turkey were now a Russian satrap, it would be assumed that it would mirror Moscow’s foreign policy. But it most certainly does not. Turkey and Russia are on opposing sides in pretty much every Middle Eastern dispute, despite the Kremlin’s favored line that it is a neutral player in the region.
In Syria, Turkey has fought for the rebel opposition against the Russian-backed regime. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has been keen to foster ties with Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkey’s President Erdoğan is a vocal foe of the military leader who ousted the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013. In Libya, where the dynamics of Egyptian and wider Middle Eastern politics are playing out, Russia backs rebel General Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey supports and arms the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in the capital, Tripoli.
Only in terms of their relations with the Saudis and the Iranians do Russia and Turkey appear to both play similar roles. They are friendly where it is advantageous to be, especially in areas where the US is perceived to have vacated space and created a potential power vacuum.
No More Mr. Nice Guy
It has been several years now since President Erdoğan began dismantling the foreign policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had promoted cordial relations with near neighbors and major powers, such as the US and the European Union.
In that time, the spats with the US have been unceasing if often rather petty. They have involved the sanctioning of diplomats on both sides, the arrest of a US pastor and the latest threat to find arms dealers outside America. It has been mirrored in Europe by the freezing of Turkey’s long-running accession process to the EU, along with a similar series of spats with European nations over Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority, the question of Syrian refugees and issues around Erdoğan’s attempts to woo Turkish voters in Europe.
President Erdoğan’s position is nearly always combative and appears to stem from a deep antipathy to Western powers, and yet there is now an irony at work here, too. US President Donald Trump is a leader with many of the same characteristics as Erdoğan. The same could be said of the UK, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the helm.
As a result, Erdoğan is often railing against states, the leader of which he can often relate to far more than previous, more liberal incumbents. If the goal — like the one most media suggest that Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China are pursuing — is a more illiberal and autocratic world order, then things may appear on track.
But to return to our original question, where does that leave Turkish foreign policy? Who are Turkey’s long-term allies? A more illiberal and autocratic world order is one thing, but a state still needs friends.
Turkey’s relationship with Russia has oscillated wildly during Erdoğan’s tenure. Moreover, there is little indication from the Russian side that it is a relationship Turkey can rely upon for the long term. Turkey is convenient to Russia, particularly due to its role in NATO, which Moscow hopes to destabilize. Yet any long-term reading of geopolitics in the region will conclude that Russia and Turkey are ultimately rivals, and Ankara is decidedly the junior partner in any partnership.
Widening the Net
President Erdoğan has also flirted with alignment to the rising Chinese state, such as when he suggested Turkey would like to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Turkey currently has dialogue partner status and was granted the chairmanship of the SCO energy club in 2016. Yet a Chinese clampdown on the Uighur community in Xinjiang province — an ethnically Turkic people — has put Beijing on a collision course with Turkey, which harbors many exiled dissidents from the region. It is clear it will be hard for China and Turkey to become enduring allies beyond economic pragmatism.
In South America, Erdoğan has been friendly to the revolutionary Venezuelan state, chiefly due to its enmity to the US. Yet the fragile nature of Venezuela makes any long-term alliance weak. There have also been large Turkish inroads into Africa — particularly East African states such as Somalia and Sudan. Turkish investment would certainly suggest it aims to consolidate long-term alliances in the region. However, these are alliances where Turkey is the benefactor, providing it with much leverage within these states. But these are weak, poor states that do not provide much geopolitical cover on a global stage.
Perhaps the most conspicuous of Turkey’s alliances has been that with the Gulf state of Qatar, which has been embargoed by surrounding Arab countries since 2017. Turkey has been the chief ally providing vital economic and military assistance to Qatar, founded upon a shared vision of a role for political Islam in the Middle East. Here, Turkey has formed an alliance that appears strong and enduring, though it is an alliance with a small state that is currently encircled by hostile neighbors intent on fundamental policy change, if not regime change.
The broad picture of Turkish foreign policy under President Erdoğan is conflicting and seemingly bereft of strong, long-term allies. Of course, a change of leadership in Turkey might change all that.
The world is certainly becoming less ordered and less secure. That may well mean that old alliances break down. But it is a brave middleweight country indeed that would attempt to go it alone in such a volatile region as Turkey’s without the support of states and systems larger and stronger than its own.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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