The recent agenda of Turkish foreign policy has been dominated by steps towards normalization of relations with several regional countries, which has been spectacularly highlighted during President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the UAE on 14 February 2022. As several other initiatives are underway with countries such as Armenia, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, after a period of bitter rivalry and confrontation involving the region’s militarized disputes, the question arises as to whether we are entering a new era in Turkish foreign policy.
Periodizing and labelling various phases has been an intriguing exercise for the observers of Turkish foreign policy. There has been some speculation that government circles are referring to this new ‘phase’ as an attempt to create a “problem-free circle” surrounding Türkiye. This has not been officially acknowledged as the new motto, yet insiders to the decision-making circles acknowledge that normalization is the new game in town as it is the best way to preserve Ankara’s interests in a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. They even go as far as presenting normalization with the UAE and Israel as scuttling the attempts to isolate and encircle Türkiye in the region.
The question of reset in Turkish foreign policy
It is not the first time that revision or reset, i.e. the attempt to reduce regional tensions and end outstanding disputes with adversaries, has topped Ankara’s priorities in the MENA region. Türkiye’s ambitious foray into Middle Eastern affairs during the AK Party’s first decade in power was epitomized, among others, by the principle of ‘zero problems with neighbors’, conceived by the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Drawing on its economic dynamism and soft power assets, Türkiye deepened and widened its engagement in the region, which continued into the initial years of the Arab uprisings. As has been widely analyzed elsewhere, this proactive foreign policy agenda was thwarted by the securitization of the Arab Spring, and Türkiye started to experience the fallout from the regional turmoil. It encountered a growing number of bilateral disputes not only with regional actors, but also with some of its traditional western allies, which set into motion Ankara’s gradual “alienation” both regionally and internationally.
Against this backdrop of mounting bilateral disputes and deadlocks, the need for a “reset” of some sort has been a constant theme in Turkish foreign policy agenda. The current normalization drive can be traced back to the reset debates of 2012 and 2013. As Türkiye started to encounter major challenges in its policies on Iraq and Syria, the coup in Egypt heralded the ascendance of counter-revolutionary forces hostile to Türkiye. The onset of the first round of the Qatar crisis in 2014 and the subsequent wedge between Türkiye and other Gulf actors complicated things further. The failed normalization attempts with Israel since the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010 added yet another layer of isolation. Arguing that Türkiye has tested the limits of its power, the opposition parties in the parliament and many foreign policy experts have called for a major revision, in the sense that Türkiye should abandon the proactive vision in favor of a more defensive approach. The main opposition Republican People’s Party, among others, constantly argued for the mending of ties with the Syrian regime, which was supported by other nationalist and secular groups. Despite the heavy criticism, Ankara maintained its cross-border interests and commitments and remained engaged in Iraq, Syria and other regional hotspots through all means at its disposal. The resumption of PKK’s terror campaign, combined with the threat of ISIS, has forced Türkiye to rely increasingly on hard power assets, which has culminated in a ring of cross-border military operations in Syria and Iraq since 2015.
The new wave of securitization of Turkish domestic politics in the wake of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt has somehow eroded the conceptual foundations for a reconciliation agenda in foreign policy-making toward the region. Moreover, the widening specter of regional polarization following the 2017 Gulf crisis and the outbreak of the East-Med crisis, including the conflict in Libya, further accelerated the trends towards a militarized foreign policy outlook, which eventually was exercised in the Caucasus. During the Second Karabakh War in the Fall of 2020, Türkiye’s military assistance played a decisive role in Azerbaijan’s defeat of Armenia.
Already aware of the unsustainability of the mounting tensions with regional actors and gradual isolation, Turkish governments have from time to time embraced a rhetoric of revision or reset. For instance, in 2016, when incoming prime minister Binali Yıldırım replaced Ahmet Davutoğlu – who was associated with the problems encountered in the foreign policy realm – he declared “reducing enemies and increasing friends” as the new motto. Noting the recent steps towards normalizing relations with Israel and Syria, he even went as far as calling for normalization with Syria and Iraq. Shunning any substantial revision, however, AK Party governments have introduced at best conjunctural readjustments of tactical nature, while disputes with regional actors have continued to linger, if not deepen further. The unfolding of the East-Med crisis, in particular, has led Türkiye to rely increasingly on hard power assets, resulting in direct confrontation with the European actors and the United States.
The recent normalization drive
The resort to hard power instruments and coercive diplomacy definitely paid off, as Türkiye changed the calculus in Libya and other critical issues. Türkiye’s military assistance and intervention in support of its ally the Government of National Accord at a critical juncture helped prevent the fall of Tripoli, raising Türkiye’s profile in regional affairs. Meanwhile, the maritime agreement with Libya has helped Türkiye block Greek attempts to make expansionist claims in the maritime disputes. Nonetheless, the East-Med crisis has also increasingly revealed the actual and potential costs of a unilateralist foreign policy course centered on military instruments and the inability to fix disagreements. In addition to the economic losses or missed political opportunities at the bilateral level caused by this foreign policy agenda, Turkish actions started to produce new geopolitical challenges, triggering a nascent “anti-Türkiye” grouping, if not alignment, among a ring of regional actors with whom Türkiye had been experiencing problems. As a result of the burgeoning ties between the Gulf countries and Greece, Türkiye’s disputes with the former also became truly regionalized and intermingled with other conflict dynamics.
These challenges have grown much more acute, as it increasingly became clear that the defense of Türkiye’s declared vital national interests in some files is contingent on acquiescence of, if not partnership with, some of the regional countries with which Ankara has been unable to mend ties for a long time. An obvious example is the prospective reconciliation with Egypt, which emerged as critical to sustaining Türkiye’s own claims in the delineation of maritime boundaries in the East-Med disputes. These developments have naturally intensified the pressure on the government, not only from the opposition but also from some of its nationalist allies, to genuinely engage in a normalization agenda.
The watershed came with the new regional reality that has been unfolding since 2020. On the one hand, by late 2020, Türkiye had already stepped back from its coercive diplomacy and instead undertaken steps towards de-escalation in the East-Med disputes with Greece and Greek Cypriot administration, as well as in Libya. It has stated its willingness to turn a new page with Europe and reinvigorate the stalled membership process with the EU. On the other hand, triggered partly by the new alignments in the wake of the Abraham Accords and the incoming Biden presidency, there has been a new drive towards bridging the intra-Gulf divisions, which was accelerated by the Al Ula Summit of January 2021. The easing of regional polarization certainly created a more permissive environment for Türkiye’s prioritization of a normalization agenda with the Gulf, as it removed a major source of irritant. Nonetheless, the talks with adversaries progressed at a slow place. While Türkiye reached no reconciliation deal, the coordination among Türkiye’s adversaries continued. Only in late 2021 was there a breakthrough, which was highlighted by the UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit to Ankara to meet President Erdoğan in November 2021. The successive high-level contacts within a short timespan culminated in President Erdoğan’s visit to the UAE on 14 February 2022.
The main drivers of the current normalization agenda
Currently, there are ongoing attempts to mend ties with a number of countries. Each normalization process is driven by unique factors, as they involve different substantive issues. They will also proceed at their unique case, as the stakes involved vary for Türkiye and its counterparts. Granted, there seem to be some common drivers of these simultaneous steps. Türkiye’s recent initiatives towards normalization seem to be related to several interrelated considerations.
First, as much as the resort to military instruments have helped Türkiye thwart some outcomes that would be detrimental to its interests throughout the regional hotspots, it has also reached the limits of coercive diplomacy. On the one hand, consolidating the gains achieved through hard power requires it to rely more on diplomatic muscles and reach deals with other stakeholders. On the other hand, many conflicts have resulted in mutually hurting stalemate for both Türkiye and its adversaries, which has alerted them to the urgency of mending ties sooner than later.
Second, while the US retrenchment from the region has been a topic of endless discussion, its withdrawal from Afghanistan and inconclusive talks on the Iranian nuclear program have thrown serious doubts on the reliability of the American security anchor. Particularly considering the ongoing instability internationally and regionally, all actors are increasingly realizing the high stakes involved in maintaining a confrontational approach to regional problems. For its part, the widening instability around Türkiye, as was seen in the Ukraine crisis once again, has reminded Türkiye of the necessity to diversify its relations and reduce tensions in its neighborhood. Hence, the search for security cooperation at the regional level, which has been a long-time motto of Turkish foreign policy, is emerging as an imperative to avoid deadly collisions.
Third, the speed with which relations have progressed recently suggests that beyond the new permissive regional environment, conjectural factors – chiefly among them the rapid deterioration of Türkiye’s economy – have played a major role as well. The progress of Türkiye-Gulf relations prior to the Arab Spring was centered on an economic rationale, which was facilitated by the Gulf countries’ economic-minded approach to international relations on the one hand, and the growing place of commercial considerations in the making of Türkiye’s foreign policy, on the other. Today, Ankara’s need for hot currency, investments and export markets has created imperatives to revisit political disputes and prioritize economic and strategic diversification. Türkiye and its Gulf partners could expand the boundaries of economic rationale, which could be further boosted after the pandemic recovery, if they could progress in reconciling political disagreements.
Fourth, as regards the specific case of the Türkiye-UAE normalization, the fact that they experience no essential geopolitical bilateral dispute is worth noting. They already had a flourishing partnership ranging from investments to defense exports before the onset of the problems brought by the Arab Spring, but the political fallout thwarted the exploitation of full economic potential. They have both tested the limits of assertive policies. The window of opportunity opened by the current normalization agenda may have finally created factors conducive to fully capitalize on dividends from economic cooperation, of which they are already aware.
The emerging parameters of the current normalization agenda
Overall, economic and strategic rationales are already there to make normalization a sustainable project. As all parties have stakes in creating a stable neighborhood through cooperative security, Türkiye and its regional counterparts have incentives to explore areas of common interest and adopt reconciliatory policies towards each other. The full parameters of this new normal have yet to emerge, but a number of observations about this unfolding period are in order.
First, while some observers argue that the recent wave has ushered in a new era in Turkish foreign policy, perhaps it might be premature to expect a total reversal of Ankara’s priorities and instruments. As much as the external conditions might have forced Ankara to rethink its position and devise a “new” approach to regional affairs, in its essence this new normalization drive bears the elements of the strategic culture, such as pursuing strategic autonomy and adopting a dynamic, pro-active foreign policy posture. Overall, the official narrative argues that while Türkiye always remained loyal to the regional solutions to regional problems paradigm, the tensions of the recent past were the making of others’ choices. In this narrative, the normalization is mostly attributed to the others’ appreciation of Türkiye’s vision. Such a Türkiye-centric reading suggests that Ankara will seek to paint normalization in line with its overall strategic needs, so that it proceeds on its own conditions, especially when it comes to some of the substantive issues such as relations with Qatar or support for certain non-state groups in the region. Contrary to some suggestions, Ankara will be unlikely to compromise on those files. Nor will it shun away from using the full range of assets at its disposal along with diplomacy, which suggests we cannot discount altogether the kind of coercive diplomacy or cross-border applications of military force.
Second, while the structural imperative for reconciliation between Ankara and Abu Dhabi is strong, it may also be premature to expect a wholesale normalization in the realm of geopolitical issues beyond the areas of economic cooperation. Indeed, many of Ankara’s bilateral problems have mostly been caused by the repercussions of other conflicts or proxy dynamics, and the changing regional conditions and balance of power is already breeding a convergence on the parties’ positions or rendering their disputes irrelevant. For instance, declining viability of the East-Med pipeline may undermine the severity of the geopolitical conflict surrounding it. Nonetheless, there remain other crisis spots on which Türkiye and the UAE have yet to bridge substantive differences. Moreover, while Turkish government circles tend to present the ongoing reconciliation process with the UAE and Israel as a successful response to scuttle Greek efforts to isolate Türkiye, the nascent anti-Türkiye platforms are unlikely to disappear overnight. The UAE and Israel may not disavow the unfolding relationship with Greece or its allies in Eastern Mediterranean. At best the parties are likely to experiment a fragile reconciliation process with trial and error, with the possibility of reversals, which suggest that compartmentalization may be the new mode of operandi in Türkiye’s relations with these countries. This may allow Türkiye and the UAE to find areas of shared interest to re-caliber their positions, even in regional crises where their disagreements remain wide enough to prevent full policy convergence.
Third, while it has been argued that Türkiye may play a security provider or balancer role in Gulf affairs and fill the vacuum created by the American retrenchment, this cannot be taken as a blanket statement. This argument is raised mostly in the context of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions, which is arguably pushing the Gulf countries to solicit Türkiye’s help. However, as was the case during the Türkiye-Gulf encounter prior to the Arab Spring, Türkiye’s counter-balancer role vis-à-vis Iran has been a controversial topic. For one, considering the unique dynamics shaping Ankara-Tehran relations, Türkiye may not fully subscribe to a counter-balancing coalition against Iran in ways that the Gulf actors would want it to. While there is currently a competitive phase, the oscillations inherent in Ankara-Tehran relations will continue to be there. Moreover, its Arab counterparts always reacted to Türkiye’s foray into the Middle East in general and Gulf in particular with a dose of skepticism, not least because of a concern for intervention into “Arab or Gulf affairs.” Since such perceptions are likely to resurface, the extent to which they are willing to welcome Türkiye’s security provision role is uncertain, especially considering how the intra-Gulf dynamics themselves remain fragile.
Fourth and lastly, while the recent steps are in line with the ongoing adaptation towards a more Realpolitik approach in Turkish foreign policy, imposed by the transformation of the regional environment in the course of the Arab Spring, they also raise questions about the tensions between interests and values. Since a main driver of Türkiye’s transformative agenda during the initial phase of the Arab Spring was the pursuit of a values-based regional order, it triggered the crises with actors that deemed Turkish vision as ideological. The inability to mend those various tensions for such a long period of time are owed largely to the role played by the ideational considerations of Türkiye’s ruling party, chiefly President Erdoğan’s. The normalization agenda with the counter-revolutionary forces that set a bulwark against Türkiye and its state and non-state allies underscores once again how pragmatism and flexibility have been inherent characteristics of Ankara’s foreign conduct, along with idealism. Nonetheless, this phase has brought Türkiye under nascent criticism from Islamist circles both at home and abroad, which argue that Ankara is now disengaging from the transformative views about the region. The government circles counter such charges with references to how the geopolitical necessity imposes the need for strategic flexibility, while underscoring that these steps will not come at the cost of abandoning its allies. In any case, Türkiye will need to tread a fine line to balance the requirements of the new era on the one hand and the commitment and deep ties with the non-state actors, on the other.
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