2021: Year of decisions
Turkey’s recently emboldened and assertive (and for some aggressive) foreign policy has been widely noticed and even ranked as one of the top ten risks in the world for 2021. Its actions raise not totally justified concerns and cause irritation among its allies. Increasingly over-reliant on hard power, deployed with an ideologically hegemonic and even expansionist narrative, Ankara is taking advantage of the vacuum created by a retreating United States, the shambolic state of the Middle East and its own willingness to engage militarily. As an aspiring regional power whose interests are no longer parallel to those of the retreating hegemon, the United States, and feeling rejected by the European Union, Turkey is seeking the right to undertake autonomous action in its surrounding regions. Mistrusting its allies Ankara is also pursuing a policy of transactional accommodation with the Russian Federation in an interesting balancing act. This year may very well turn out to be a year when Turkey’s foreign policy will be readjusted. Ankara’s need to break out of its isolation and temper its estrangement from its allies will be pressing and the relation with Russia will have to be recalibrated. Absent these, Turkey’s strategic trajectory might change for good.
The Historical Precedent
In 1945, having survived the war without having to fight and avoiding invasion by the German army, Turkey found itself pretty lonely after D-Day. The Soviet Union asked for two Turkish provinces and joint control over the straits. At that point in 1945, alone in standing against the Soviet threat for nearly a year and a half, Ankara made the strategic decision to become an integral part of the American side of the Cold War division. The Truman Doctrine was announced to protect Greece and Turkey and eventually these two countries both joined NATO in 1952.
Today Turkey may be facing another “1945 moment”. It is geopolitically stronger, capable of projecting military power in its neighborhood, as was demonstrated in the Caucasus most recently, but also very alone. Its relations with allies are conflictual, there is in both the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean a bloc of countries that treat it as a rival. 2021 is likely to be a year when consequential decisions will have to be made regarding Turkey’s strategic identity. How much autonomy can Turkish foreign policy afford to enjoy while remaining either in the Atlantic Alliance or getting closer to the Russian Federation? The latter option cannot be deemed a realistic alternative for protecting the national interest and yet Turkey’s rulers did engage in policies that reason would not recommend, such as purchasing the S-400 missile system from Russia.
Ankara’s relations with Western partners are currently very troubled. Mutual mistrust is abundant with both the United States and the European Union. Turkey’s quest to become a member of the European Union is in a deep coma, if not altogether impossible to save. In the most recent European Council conclusions on December 10-11, Turkey was not mentioned as an accession country and there was no mention of the human rights conditions domestically, nor of the deteriorating rule of law and the state of Turkish democracy.
The tensions and recriminations between Ankara and Paris and the potentially explosive escalation of tensions between Ankara and Athens, along with the shock effect in certain European capitals, notably Paris, of Turkey’s successful intervention in Libya, have added yet another dimension to the long list of problems between the two sides. On the tug of war with Greece during the dangerously tense summer of 2020, Ankara believed that the EU could not be an honest broker, that it could not control Greece’s behavior. In turn, the EU saw Turkey as the aggressor. Turkey’s assertiveness and military moves in Syria or most recently in aiding Azerbaijan to recapture its occupied territories, its close relations with Islamic militant groups in Syria, and the latter’s use in Turkey’s military operations, have engendered a harsh, if not always consistently rational or justifiable, reaction from some allies.
Under these circumstances, influential individuals in both the USA and Europe frequently question Turkey’s NATO membership and criticize Ankara for behavior unbecoming of an ally and for being a disruptor of Alliance cohesion. Obviously, Turkey’s close relations with Russia emerges as a matter of concern, despite the fact that the two countries find themselves on opposite sides in every conflict in which they are engaged.
The purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia was arguably a decision that is not consistent with Turkey’s security needs. Their procurement immediately led to Turkey’s expulsion from the US-led F-35 programme and to the cancellation of Turkey’s orders of that aircraft that were designed to be the mainstay of Turkey’s strategic doctrine and air defense in the coming era. The decision left Turkey vulnerable, isolated it within NATO despite the fact that Turkey has been pretty active in the organization, and drew the wrath of the US Congress.
Congress insisted on the implementation of the CAATSA legislation that President Trump did not enforce until very recently. In the end at the beginning of December 2020, a treaty ally of the United States was sanctioned according to CAATSA. In the latest European Council conclusions, the European Union effectively aligned its own policy to Turkey with that of the USA. Whether or not it implements hard sanctions against Ankara will depend on the approach and policy choices of the incoming Biden administration in this matter.
In turn, Turkey mistrusts its allies, is defiant about its increasingly militarized foreign policy choices, and is intent on pursuing its national interest as it sees fit in all the regions that surround it. In the increasingly personalized system of decision-making in foreign policy, Turkey’s commitment to the common interests of the Western alliance looks shaky at best.
The ideological pedigree of Turkey’s President and his party inserted the dimension of the leadership of the Sunni Muslim World into the analysis and strategic calculations of the policymakers. Secular and Islamically -oriented segments of the public alike are suspicious of the intentions of the West despite the fact that nearly half of the same public wishes Turkey to become a member of the EU, according to a recent poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund and Istanbul Bilgi University Migration Center. Another poll conducted by Kadir Has University on the foreign policy preferences of the Turkish public shows that the United States is viewed inimically but membership in NATO is still valued.
A regional power that is isolated and does not like a strategic vacuum
The strategic ambitions of Turkey were not just the brainchild of the AKP governments either. Different schools of thought since the end of the Cold War had pushed for a more expansive view of Turkey’s strategic interests. At the turn of the 21st century the ascending view of Turkey’s national interest, despite a deep sovereigntist streak in strategic thought, was membership of the EU. The fact that the European Union misled Turkey first by admitting Cyprus as a member and then following the will of the German Chancellor and French President, by effectively opting not to make Turkey a member, contributed to the estrangement of Ankara.
Later on, as the financial and economic crisis of the EU diminished its lure economically and the Arab revolts presented an ideologically defined geopolitical opening for Ankara and also because the taming of the military and the secular elites was almost concluded by 2011, Turkey assumed a more assertive regional power posture. At the beginning, it pursued this through the deployment of its soft power, however as the Syrian situation deteriorated and began to present a major national security problem, there was a swift turn to hard power. The dramatic decision by President Obama not to punish the Syrian regime in August 2013 after it used chemical weapons confirmed in the minds of the Turkish security elites that it could not count on Washington. In fact, the American government further alienated Ankara as it forged an alliance with the Kurdish PYD/YPG, the Syrian branch of Turkey’s nemesis, the PKK.
But arguably, the most critical turning point was the response of Turkey’s Western allies on the night of the botched coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Whatever the full story of that traumatic event was, the allies’ reaction on that very night was inadequate, unworthy of democratic solidarity and it embittered both the public and the government that then used the occasion to undermine democratic rules and institutions in the country. This was the moment that led Turkey to align itself with its historical and current adversary, Russia, and marked the beginning of their interesting pas de deux since then.
Today, the more Islamically-oriented strategic vision of the AKP and the more nationalistic and decidedly anti-Western strategic visions of different circles appear to have merged and support a set of policies that favor power projection, military bases, maritime rights, and a wide autonomous space in pursuit of Turkey’s interests. A doctrine developed by secular nationalist officers, “The Blue Homeland” legitimizes and amplifies Erdoğan’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya.
For Erdoğan, there is also another component that relates to the geopolitical cum ideological rivalry with the Gulf countries and their ally Egypt for the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world. To that end, Turkey’s campaign to build mosques throughout the world, giving protection to the Muslim Brotherhood and championing the cause of Muslims everywhere continues unabated, unless that campaign should disrupt Turkey’s economic or geopolitical interests as has been made clear by Turkey’s deafening silence when it comes to the abysmal treatment of the Uighur Muslims in China.
Which direction henceforward?
At the 19th Doha Forum in December 2019, Turkey’s Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, answered a question about Turkey’s relation with NATO thus: “We are at the center of NATO. We are not going anywhere, we are in NATO”. Despite the purchase of S-400’s, intimate strategic relations with Russia, deep-seated resentment towards the allies for their lack of solidarity with the elected government during the botched coup attempt and frequent pronouncements by many pundits that Turkey does not belong in NATO, Turkey is in the organization. Ankara relies on this, albeit with a demand for a high degree of autonomy regarding its security and it participates in NATO exercises even in regions that have not traditionally been in Turkey’s theater of interest. The limits of the affection for Russia were demonstrated when two US B-1 Lancer aircraft were refueled in Turkish airspace over the Black Sea. Given the fact that since the end of the Cold War Turkey, along with Russia, has tried to keep the Black Sea off limits to the US and to NATO, this was pretty significant.
Furthermore, as Connor Dilleen argues, “Ankara probably presents more significant strategic challenges for Moscow than for the West… it is also pursuing a deliberate and nuanced strategy of engagement with countries across the Black Sea littoral region, the Caucasus and Central Asia….(With Ukraine) a mid-October presidential summit between the two countries advanced a defence cooperation partnership, bringing about a ‘new geopolitical reality in the Black Sea region’. The cooperation agreement signed by Ankara and Kyiv encompasses advanced defence industrial collaboration on aerospace engines and unmanned aerial systems, including the co-production of an unmanned fighter jet.”
In my judgment, the ability of Turkey to play both sides of the strategic divide and project power in an uninhibited way while counting on the passivity of her allies or their reluctance to exert too much pressure, will be far more restricted. The incoming Biden administration’s intention to repair transatlantic ties, restore NATO cohesion and promote democratic governance and the unity of the EU will affect Turkey directly. Since Washington will take a firmer stance on Turkey’s transgressions on certain matters, the EU will be emboldened to take stricter measures against Turkey within limits given the sensitivity of the refugee problem.
The Trump administration, or more correctly the outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, spent the last few months verbally and symbolically taking offensive positions against Turkey and he picked a fight with his Turkish counterpart during the NATO foreign ministers meeting of 1-2 December 2020. It was Pompeo’s State Department that announced the CAATSA sanctions as well. Now that the decision to impose sanctions on Turkey has been made by the outgoing Trump administration, the incoming Biden administration can begin to deal with the issue of S-400s afresh. Given how adamant US Congress is about this matter the path towards a solution should be rocky. Ankara will be expected to make some impressive conciliatory gestures. On the other hand, the resolution of the problems in the Eastern Mediterranean would necessitate American mediation and even brokering. Whether the Biden administration will have the time or the inclination to commit to this remains to be seen.
But this would be the precondition of improving relations between Turkey and its allies. The next step that is needed is for the EU and Turkey to find a more appropriate language in which to conduct their relations, for Turkey to stop using the refugee issue as a trump card and for the EU in general to start treating Ankara as an equal interlocutor even if it will not treat Turkey as a potential member.
If the Biden administration manages to tame Congress’s fury and find a number of common interests to pursue together with Turkey, then the choice for Turkey, n economically embattled and strategically lonely, would be in favor of its existing alliance relations, albeit with a demand for a wider margin for autonomy. It should be remembered that the strategic decision of 1945 also ushered in a multiparty system in Turkey and opened the path to democratic elections and rule, however intermittently. The series of decisions that await Turkey in 2021 may also have a similar impact if the Western world would recommit itself to unequivocally defending its values and principles, notably respect for the rule of law and judicial independence, in a different and more complicated era.
Finally, how the Russians react to Turkey’s latest pivot and whether or not they have the wherewithal to prevail over President Erdoğan as he walks a fine line between Turkey’s allies and its northern neighbor will be interesting to observe. That Turkey does not really have to gain much from a closer alliance with Russia and that in fact such a closeness would be detrimental to its vital interests is a foregone conclusion for many among Turkey’s serious and substantive strategic thinkers. If Turkey’s current rulers, for reasons of either ideological blindness or imprudent ambitions, fail to come to a similar conclusion, they are liable to create a dependency for the country that would be most regrettable.
It is clear that the US, the EU and Turkey all have to gain from a reset that will end the vicious cycle of the distrust and the resentment in the relationship since the early 2000s. The prerequisite for this would be to recognize the changing realities in the partnership. Turkey can be persuaded to recommit to the Western Alliance to the extent that the Western powers are ready to treat Turkey fairly as an equal interlocutor in its region and to recognize Turkey’s demand for greater autonomy on its security needs. On the other hand, Turkey would need to embrace Western values and to revert to a conciliatory foreign policy towards its longstanding partners with the genuine intention to resolve differences.
If the parties are not able to demonstrate the political leadership required to renew their commitment to each other under updated terms, they will implicitly have agreed to continue playing Putin’s game for the foreseeable future.