How will Turkey’s foreign policy change under the new system?

On July 9, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sworn in as Turkey’s first elected president with executive powers. His outright victory in the first round of the June 24 presidential elections gave him a solid mandate for his next term as president, while the results of the parliamentary vote solidified the alliance between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

The pre- and post-election political alignment, along with the transition to a new political system, will have an effect not only on Turkey’s domestic politics but also foreign policy. This, however, does not mean that there will be a complete overhaul of the country’s approach to relations with neighbours and main partners.

President Erdogan’s decision to keep his foreign and security policy team in place indicated that he is seeking continuity. Both the foreign and interior ministers kept their positions in the new government; the only change was Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar assuming the position of defence minister.

This composition of the cabinet, and the AKP’s alliance with the MHP, means that the new government will likely double down on certain aspects of foreign policy which were introduced in the past few years. The government will continue to put a greater emphasis on developing military capabilities and addressing security concerns.

It will also be more assertive in emphasising its autonomy in making foreign policy decisions, resisting pressure from NATO and the West in general. A major step in that direction was already made under the previous government, when Ankara concluded a deal for the purchase of the S-400 defence system from Moscow. Turkey will also continue to demand status parity in its relations with the West, particularly, with major European powers.

The weight of the alliance with MHP might show, if the government decides to undertake new initiatives towards Cyprus, Armenia, the Kurdish issue or the EU accession process. Even if such initiatives at this stage do not seem very likely, the MHP’s views will have to be taken into consideration when foreign policy decisions are made.  

In the short to mid-term, changes in foreign policy are likely to affect rhetoric and discourse rather than substance and strategy.

A thaw in Turkish-EU relations

A change of rhetoric is likely to be felt the most in Turkish-EU relations, which have seen some rough times in recent years. In the coming months, we can expect to see a measure of moderation in official rhetoric, which will lessen tensions.

Turkeyis expected to lift the state of emergency and release some journalists from jail. That coupled with growing concerns about the state of the domestic economy will have a moderating effect on Turkish officials in their approach to Europe.

On the other side, whether they like it or not, European political leaders have to come to terms with having Erdogan as their partner in Ankara for another term. Therefore, it is likely that rhetoric coming out of Brussels and other European capitals will also be toned down.

This, however, will not resolve long-standing problems that have plagued relations for years. Turkey’s requests for visa liberalisation and upgrading of the Custom Union have not been met. The stalemate in Cyprus is set to continue and the intransigence of Greek Cypriots in negotiating a political settlement is likely to be complemented by an MHP veto on any proposals for a compromise.

The negative trends of recent years in Turkey’s human rights and democracy record is unlikely to be reversed and EU’s criticism of it will not go away. Thus, there seems to be a very limited prospect for any qualitative change in Turkish-EU relations. 

Turkey in Syria

In the Middle East, Turkey has recalibrated its foreign policy in recent years to adjust to the civil war in Syria and the failure of the Iraqi state. As a result, Turkish regional policy, particularly in its immediate neighbourhood and in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoot the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has become increasingly militarised and hard-power-driven. 

This approach has yielded results: Turkey has partially achieved its goals in northern Syria through a number of military interventions.

The 2017 Euphrates Shield Operation kept the Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria fragmented by preventing the PYD from establishing territorial contiguity between the Kobane and Afrin Cantons. The de-escalation outposts Turkey set up in Syria’s Idlib province blocked its expansion westward towards the Mediterranean Sea. And with the 2018 Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish military embarked on a process of rolling back territorial gains made by the PYD and its allies.

Throughout this period, Turkey acquired a significant level of experience fighting on the ground and working with allied militias. These are new and important gains which are likely to influence Turkey’s security culture and policy.

In the near future, Turkey is likely to continue pushing the PYD out of territories it controls in Northern Syria. To that effect, it will strive to cut a real deal with the US, for the city of Manbij.

Moreover, Turkey will have to invest more resources in the areas under its controls in Syria in order to put in place and maintain a functioning governance model. It needs to make sure there is no power vacuum which the PYD or other hostile forces could take advantage of.

In the end, any Turkish policy in Syria will have to take into consideration US and Russian interests and navigate their unpredictable nature.

Resisting Iran and the Saudi-Israeli axis

When it comes to its foreign policy towards regional heavy-weights such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, Turkey is likely to keep its compartmentalised approach. It will continue opposing their hegemonic aspirations, while seeking to enhance trade, tourism and energy ties with them at the same time.

Turkey is wary of the Saudi-Israeli-Emirati attempt to establish a new regional order in the Middle East as well as Iran’s drive to achieve hegemony in the Levant. It will continue to resist both projects.

Turkey will also continue to be heavily involved in the region. Given its geographic and historical links, security concerns and energy and economy needs, the country can’t turn its back on the region, as troublesome as it might be.

Yet there is some level of Middle East “fatigue” in Turkey. This perhaps will necessitate some rethinking of foreign policy engagements and initiatives in Ankara.

Given that Turkey is multi-regional power, it is likely that there might be some relative increase in the importance of other regions in its foreign policy, be it the Balkans, Africa or Central Asia.

More effort put into developing relations in other regions will be in line with the government and the president’s efforts to boost Turkey’s standing internationally and promote its “brand”.

In short, Turkey may have transitioned into a new political system on Monday, but the foreign policy and security challenges it is facing have remained the same. Consequently, the new government will use the same policies and strategies to tackle these challenges as before.

This article was first published by Aljazeera