In from the cold?
Turkey’s foreign relations are warming on multiple fronts. But hard decisions still lie ahead
Turkey’s geopolitical fortunes seem to have taken a turn for the better over the past few weeks. First came some calm in its irascible relationship with Germany, then the deal with Russia to prevent a massacre in Idlib, then the release of Pastor Brunson, easing tensions with the U.S. Most recently, Turkey’s handling of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has been praised by the international community. Is this the beginning of the end of Turkey’s geopolitical woes?
►Can you br efly outl ne for our readers the key fore gn pol cy mprovements for Turkey n recent weeks?
It seems that Turkey’s allies, as well as its rivals, had all begun to look on Turkey as a less than reliable partner. There were plans to develop other arrangements whereby Turkey’s support and contribution to the maintenance of peace in the Middle East and other places would no longer be as urgently needed as had been the case before. Saudi Arabia, in this equation, was a critical country where the United States was basing its strategies both for maintaining their presence in Syria and containing Iran. But the most recent development in Saudi Arabia exposed the vulnerabilities of this critical ally. On the one hand, you have a Saudi Arabia with an unpredictable leader who is willing to violate the rules of the international game and unable to judge the outcomes of what he is doing. On the other, you have Egypt with a leader who is facing difficulties and is trying to hang onto power by increasing authoritarian measures. In both societies, the political systems are not capable of managing demands for change. When you look at what is happening from this perspective, despite the problems Turkey may have posed for its allies over recent years, it is a well-organized and highly institutionalized state. It can deliver on its commitments. The regime is not in danger of being toppled suddenly because of failing to manage change. So, all of a sudden, Turkey has begun to be viewed in a different light. But there is also another problematical dimension: the style that the Turkish president usually employs in international politics is highly inflammatory. He often makes remarks without consulting the institutions responsible for developing and implementing policies; he uses extremely harsh language. But in the Khashoggi case, he toned his criticism down, withheld unprepared commentary and waited for advice from government institutions and as a result, the policy was very well-managed. Maybe this will show him that it is often better to conduct policy in an institutionalized way - consulting government agencies and not employing very uncontrolled language. It is important to act in a decisive manner while pursuing well-defined policy goals but it is equally important to exhibit some restraint and patience, both in language and actions.
►There also seems to be a certa n respect bu ld ng for how Turkey s handl ng the Idl b cr s s. How do you see that play ng nto ts nternat onal mage?
The agreement between Turkey and Russia over Idlib seems to be working. Turkey is able to implement its commitments within the framework of the rules agreed upon. Turkey has also kept to the time schedule. Of course, we’re not yet able to judge fully the state of affairs in Idlib. There remain unanswered questions. But in terms delivering on its commitments, working to avoid hard conflicts and achieving its goals through more peaceful methods, Turkey has proven that it can deliver, and that it is a state capable of undertaking commitments and implementing them.
►But there are st ll r sks. Can you talk about some of those?
Certainly. If we begin with Syria, we don’t know how the situation in Idlib will end. In fact, the agreement on Idlib was mainly to avoid bloodshed that might arise from the actions of the Syrian armed forces. There is still need to reach an agreement on the final status of Syria. There is also discussion as to what should be done to the east of the Euphrates River. There are still significant disagreements between Turkey and the United States, although they seem to be trying very hard not to expand or elevate the conflict.
There is also the question of how to cope with Iran. Turkey is dedicated to a peaceful solution and cognizant that some aspirations of Iran must be accommodated. The U.S. sees things differently. Military action aside, there is the embargo that’s going to go into effect soon. There will be questions as to how the rest of the world, including Turkey, will get along with the U.S. on this issue. Turkey must be granted some exemptions for oil and natural gas.
There are also instabilities on the Arabian Peninsula. The Khashoggi affair provided an opportunity for Turkey and Saudi Arabia to start talking again but they still have significant disagreements as regards Qatar deriving from how to cope with the forces of change in the Middle East: suppress or accommodate it. The goals the Saudi regime are pursuing and the vision of Turkey and Qatar are widely divergent. The question is: will the Saudis now be able to change their mind? I rather doubt that they will, they do not have a flexible mindset. Problems are still looming in the background but at least there is an effort to contain them and not allow them to develop into a major flareup.
►Part cularly mportant at a t me when the Turk sh economy s so frag le, r ght?
Obviously, Turkey’s economy needs to be propped up. But the problems that need to be addressed do not just come from matters of foreign policy. Clearly, the appearance of Turkey as a country dedicated to building peace in the Middle East will improve its image and thus make it more attractive to foreign investments. But there are other snags. At the moment, as judged by international standards, Turkey is not sufficiently democratic. In addition, the rule of law does not sufficiently prevail in the country. Unless those two problem areas are also addressed, the economy might not perform as well as one might expect. Even though the current conditions have helped Turkey to shift its image into a more positive light, more democracy and the rule of law must also accompany changes in foreign policy.