June 19, 2016

Turkey’s foreign policy setbacks

Recent signs indicate that, at least on regional level, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to reset Turkish foreign policy.

Increasingly alienated on the world stage, Erdogan seems to have returned to search mode, testing the ground to mend fences with two countries with which he has long waged a diplomatic cold war: Israel, to which he has extended an olive branch, and Russia.

What raised eyebrows was a let­ter he sent to his Russian counter­part, Vladimir Putin, congratulat­ing him on the Russian national holiday on June 12th.

“Dear Mr President, I express my wish that relations between Russia and Turkey would reach a distin­guished level in the near future,” the message said.

It was known that Ankara was seeking to restore rela­tions with Moscow but the surprise element was, as opposed to the discreet steps taken towards Israel in recent months, the letter came as an unsubtle move, with the Turkish leader set for a U-turn from a confrontational policy with his northern neighbour.

Erdogan is apparently aware that the downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber jet on Turkey’s southern tip last November, triggering an unprecedented crisis between the two countries, caused immense damage to his country’s economic and strategic interests.

Russia reacted with rage, impos­ing trade sanctions, terminating its tourist flow to Turkey and using the crisis as a pretext to advance its presence in Syria.

Rebuffing earlier moves by Erdogan to discuss the issue, Putin stiffly demanded that Turkey apologise publicly for the incident, compensate for damages and bring to justice those responsible for the death of the Russian pilot.

The letter falls short of meeting any of those demands. In a follow-up comment, Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said that “though the incident was grievous, Turkey is not in a position to offer an apology”.

Asked whether there would be compensation, he responded bluntly: “No.”

The Russian side responded to Erdogan’s gesture with a shrug, emboldened to have been handed the upper hand. According to Russian news agency Interfax, a Kremlin spokesman indicated that “it is a protocol letter” for which no response is called for, adding that the message contained “no other significant points”.

The Turkish overtures will continue. It is clear that both sides suffered as a result of the crisis but, given the overall series of failures and backlashes in its regional policy, Ankara seems to have come to the realisation that the impasse in the relations is unsustainable.

Turkey is to a great deal depend­ent on Russian oil and gas. The crisis brought the trade, which was heading towards $101 billion by the end of the decade, to a standstill, leaving Turkish agriculture and food exports in convulsions.

Anti-Turkish sentiments among the Russians and the official “discouragement” for holidays in Turkey led to a boycott. About 4 million tourists chose other destinations, bringing the Turkish tourism industry, damaged by per­sistent acts of terror in the country, to its knees.

The setbacks for Ankara on the diplomatic front appear to have reached the level of despair. The downing of the Russian jet led to Russian military advances in Syria, cut off sharply Turkish ones from the theatre, brought Moscow and Washington closer in battling the Islamic State, emboldened Kurd­ish aspirations for self-rule and, in the big picture, took Turkey almost entirely out of the political chess game on the future of the region.

Bogged down in one setback after another, Turkey’s “zero-problem neighbourhood” doctrine, once launched assertively by Ahmet Davutoglu, who was forced to resign by Erdogan as prime minister, has collapsed. Earlier fallouts with Israel and Egypt that led to the ejection of Ankara as a key player on the Palestinian issue and the rising self-esteem of Iran all help explain Erdogan’s strategic despair on a wider scale.

Yet, it is unclear whether Er­dogan has realised the value of the wisdom in any diplomacy, hidden in the expression “go farther and fare worse”.

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