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Report of Monday Morning Meeting on “Decoding Turkish Foreign Policy Recalibration”

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  • June 13, 2022
    Monday Morning Meeting
    Only by Invitation
    1000 hrs

    Dr. Md. Muddassir Quamar, Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, spoke on Decoding Turkish Foreign Policy Recalibration at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 13 June 2022. The session was chaired by Dr. P. K. Pradhan, Associate Fellow and was attended by Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA, senior scholars, research analysts and interns of MP-IDSA.

    Executive Summary

    Since 2021, Turkish foreign policy approach towards the West Asian region has seen significant alterations. Turkey is now reconciling its relations with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE. There is also a visible shift when it comes to its policy towards conflict in Libya and Syria. Furthermore, its approach towards Greece, Armenia and the Russia-Ukraine conflict underline a degree of foreign policy recalibration.

    The presentation highlighted the key guiding principles of Turkey’s foreign policy and focused on its reconciliation process towards the West Asian and North African region. While explaining the Turkish foreign policy recalibration, the speaker focused on the domestic, regional and international factors which have driven this change. 

    Detailed Report

    Dr. Md. Muddassir Quamar started his presentation by giving an overview of Turkish foreign policy and defining the key guiding principles of Turkey’s foreign policy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. These principles are neo-Ottomanism, pan-Islamism, strategic depth, zero-problem with neighbours and blue homeland. He further stated that Turkey’s approach towards the region contributed to geopolitical competition in the Middle East over the past decade. Following the principle of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism, Erdogan has tried to achieve the glory of the Ottoman Empire and projected Turkey as a leader of the Islamic world. The doctrine of strategic depth asserts that Turkey should have greater influence in the areas around its borders and should expand its relations with the periphery. It also follows the zero-problem with neighbours policy which is part of its strategic depth doctrine. According to the speaker, the zero-problem with neighbours’ policy has proved to be a zero-friend policy for Turkey in West Asia. Turkey’s blue homeland policy focuses on Turkish influence in maritime domains, especially in the Black Sea, Sea of Marmara, Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean Sea. All these policies created a geopolitical quagmire in West Asia that got aggravated after the Arab Spring, where Turkey played a very crucial role as a major regional power in intensifying regional rivalries.  This led to serious problems between Turkey and regional countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirate (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Israel.

    Dr. Quamar said that since 2021 there has been a noticeable shift in Turkish foreign policy towards the region. While highlighting the shifts, he explained the changing relations of Turkey with Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. There is also a visible shift when it comes to its policy towards conflict in Libya and Syria. Furthermore, its approach towards Greece, Armenia and Russia-Ukraine conflict has seen a certain degree of change.

    With regard to the UAE, there have been important diplomatic visits between the two countries. In November 2021, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Turkey and this was reciprocated by President Erdogan’s visit to UAE in February 2022. The reconciliation process between Turkey and UAE has centred on deepening trade and economic relations, especially in the defence sector along with health, food security and climate change. Apart from economic issues, the two countries are also discussing regional issues of mutual interest, such as the situation in Libya and Syria.

    Similarly, relations between Turkey and Israel have also been changing. Though Operation Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara Incident caused deterioration in relations between the two countries, in the last few years engagement between them has improved. Both the countries are having an exchange of high-level visits such as, Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Turkey in March 2022. According to Dr. Quamar, the focus of these engagements is on improving energy, trade and economic ties. However, the Palestinian issues and Turkish indirect support to Hamas can be an issue of friction. Due to this reason, one cannot be certain about the success of the process of reconciliation between Israel and Turkey.

    According to Dr. Quamar, another important development from the Turkish foreign policy point of view has been the reconciliation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Both are trying to move ahead from the Khashoggi crisis that adversely impacted relations between the two. This reconciliation process also highlights that Turkey is ready to end the isolation of Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud from regional and international politics. Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia has also been driven by economic factors. However, the speaker observed that there are issues which can derail the reconciliation process, namely, the competition between the two for global Islamic leadership. 

    Egypt is another regional country with whom Turkey is in the process of reconciliation. Though, unlike aforementioned countries, no major visits have taken place between Egypt and Turkey, but at delegation level both are engaging with each other. According to Dr. Quamar, Turkey’s guidelines for the domestic Muslim Brotherhood linked media houses to tone down their criticism of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and Egypt, is an important development with regard to reconciliation with Egypt.

    Though, Dr. Quamar underlined the uncertainty about whether Turkey will completely abandon the Muslim Brotherhood or not, he said that Ankara has shown willingness to be more accommodative towards the concerns of regional countries such as, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt which are sensitive about giving space to Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, similar to other countries, economic ties are a major point of focus of Turkish reconciliation with Egypt.

    While discussing the reasons for Turkish foreign policy recalibration, Dr. Quamar said that there are domestic, regional and international factors for this policy. However, the most important ones are domestic factors.  The Turkish economy is going through a difficult time wherein inflation in the country has increased by 70 per cent. There has been a drop in the value of Lira and a rise in poverty. In addition, the country has also witnessed a decline in tourism and exports. Politically, it is the first time that the Turkish opposition is feeling confident in challenging Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The results of the 2019 municipal elections underlined that Erdogan’s support base is also shrinking. However, Dr. Quamar said that this might not be sufficient to replace Erdogan. According to him, another domestic political reason for recalibration is Turkey’s 2023 elections.

    While discussing the regional and international factors, Dr. Quamar said that  the Abraham Accords (2020) have broken Turkish exceptionalism, because Turkey was the only country which had good relations with Israel, despite having diplomatic issues. According to him, the Abraham Accords which have initiated a regional process of normalisation of ties between Israel and the Gulf countries, might be a major reason for alteration in Turkey’s foreign policy. Furthermore, the end of GCC crises after the Al Ula Declaration contributed in changing its foreign policy approach. According to Dr. Quamar, there have been regional dialogues and talks such as those between Iran-Saudi Arabia, UAE-Syria and Egypt-Qatar. It seems Turkey is also following these regional trends. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis and change of administration in the US are other factors for alteration in Turkey’s approach towards the region.

    While discussing the implications, Dr. Quamar said it is difficult to say whether these recalibration efforts will ease regional tensions or they will sustain. He finally noted that the Turkish foreign policy approach provides India a window of opportunity in the economic and political domains. 

    In his remarks, Deputy Director General, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.) said that Turkey has the ambition of becoming the regional power and asked how is Turkey’s foreign policy recalibration relevant for the Indian subcontinent, and what could be the implications for India, of Turkey’s forays in South Asia. He also underlined the wider global churn going on with regard to developments vis-à-vis China and Russia that might also be impacting Turkish behaviour.

    Important Points Made in the Q&A Session

    • Turkey wants to emerge as a major defence exporter. In the many regional conflicts such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine-Russia and the Libyan conflict it has been a major supplier of drones and other equipment which has played an important role in its emergence as a defence power house in the region and beyond.
    • Turkey sees Muslim countries as part of its area of influence and recalibration in Turkish foreign policy does not change the guiding principles of its foreign policy.
    • Geo-economics plays an influential role in Turkey-Iran relations. When it comes to the West Asian region, there are some overlaps in the approaches of both the countries wherein both want to enhance economic relations. However, Northern Syria and Northern Iraq remain areas of friction in their relations. With regard to the Kurdish issue, there is convergence in the approach of the two countries.
    • With regard to Ukraine-Russia conflict, Turkey continues to project itself as a mediator country. It has criticised Russia but it has not joined the US and Western camp.
    • With respect to Finland and Sweden's willingness to join North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey is not likely to relent in its opposition until the two countries recognise the security threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is considered a terror group by Ankara.
    • Regarding Africa, Turkey has been following the policy of reaching out to the African countries especially to those in North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. This policy is unlikely to see any reversal.
    • Turkey-India relations are still stuck in the Cold War paradigm and have not progressed. The strengthening of economic ties has contributed to Indo-Gulf and Indo-Iranian reconciliation. Similarly, enhanced economic engagement can help overcome the hurdles in improving India-Turkey ties.