by Sajid Aziz.
Turkey had, in recent times, found itself isolated both regionally and internationally. Erdogan’s ideological approach towards regional issues has been a source of estrangement between Turkey and its neigbours. By supporting Sunni movements and groups in the form of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza and Islamist groups battling Assad forces in Syria, Turkey under Erdogan has tried to present itself as the leader of the Muslim world. It not only hosted the rebel leaders of Syrian opposition, but also became a conduit for Islamist fighters crossing over to Syrian to fight Assad regime. Turkey’s Syria policy became a source of tension between Turkey and Iran on the one hand and Russia and Turkey on the other. By supporting Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Turkey developed rifts with Egypt under General Fatah Al-Sisi. Israeli attack on freedom flotilla, attempting to get humanitarian aid to Gaza Strip, resulted in severing of diplomatic relations and economic ties between Israel and Turkey. However, understanding the evolution of the situation going against it, Turkey is ready to dramatically shift its policy vis-à-vis these states.
Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the Turkish President, after a reluctant apology to Putin met his Russian counterpart in St Petersburg on August 9 to end the diplomatic estrangement. The bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey soured when Turkish F-16s downed a Russian jet in Syria in November 2015. Following rapprochement Turkey and Russia have also restarted their negotiations on nuclear reactors and stream gas lines. Robert Fisk, the acclaimed journalist for ‘The Independent’, claims that Russia had even warned Turkish government of a possible military coup. After the military coup, Erdogan’s first visit was to Moscow. Now for the first time after November 2015, Turkish jets are whizzing over the Syrian skylines and pounding ISIS targets in Jarbulus. Turkey has launched operation ‘Euphrates Shield’ along with Syrian rebel forces to secure the border patch of Jarabulus, west of Euphrates, and cleansing it of ISIS; but this operation is also aimed at denying Rojava (Northern Kurdistan in Syria) geographical contiguity by linking Kobane to Afrin via Jarabulus. The commencement of ‘Euphrates Shield’ just immediately before the arrival of Joe Biden, US vice-President, was no coincidence. Joe Biden’s statement during his joint press conference with Binali Yildrim, Turkish Prime Minister, clearly indicates that Turkey had sought American consent prior to plunging its forces in Syria. Speaking at the press conference, US vice-president said, “Kurdish forces must move back across the Euphrates River. They cannot, will not under any circumstances get American support if they do not keep that commitment.” The statement was also meant to avoid a clash between American allies. The contrast between this cooperation and recent Turkish allegation of American connivance in the botched putsch of Gulenists signifies the importance and dramatic shifts in the bilateral relationship of Turkey and United States.
There have also been subtle indications that Turkey is willing to work with other powers ‘to tackle the Syrian situation.’ Translation: it is ready to relinquish its Syrian policy of supporting opposition forces and Jihadis to topple Assad regime. This policy also vitiated Turkey’s relations with Iran. For Iran Assad was a red line. Iran sent its troops and militias to fight alongside Syrian army to crush opposition forces and Jihadi groups, fighting to depose Bashar al Assad. Moreover, Iran also fleetingly provided its base in Hamadan to Russian jets to pound military targets in Syria, only to rescind this permission after some time. There are reports in media that Russia is establishing a trilateral coordination group, consisting of Russia, Turkey and Iran, to find a solution to the conflict in Syria. This reluctant willingness to ‘work with Russia to tackle Syrian Situation’ points to a dramatic shift in its foreign policy, opening avenues for cooperation between Iran and Turkey. More importantly, Erdogan’s visit to Russia is indicative of a broader Turkish policy of ‘zero problems with neighbors’. Binali Yildirim, the Turkish Prime Minister, since assuming office, has repeatedly argued that ‘Ankara should increase its friends and reduce its enemies’.
In May 2010, when Israeli commandos attacked Mavi Marmara flotilla and killed nine Turkish civilian activists, Israel and Turkey severed their bilateral ties. Turkey has now reconciled with Israel to mend the six-year old rift by signing a rapprochement deal, under which Israel would transfer compensation of $20 million to a humanitarian fund based in Turkey to help the families of Turks killed in flotilla. While Turkey waived its demand that Israel lift its naval blockade completely and agreed to give aid to Gaza via Israel. There are even indications that Turkey is extending an olive branch to Egypt.
These policy shifts are a result of many factors. International isolation has taken a huge economic and political toll on Turkey. Rift with Russia was followed by sanctions and dwindling tourism, a major source of revenue for the Turkish government. In addition, regional isolation denied Turkey the opportunity to serve as the corridor for gas pipelines that would take Israeli offshore gas to Europe, bringing Turkey both economic dividends and advantage over countries through which the pipelines pass. Turkey’s Syria policy of helping opposition forces and jihadists to topple Assad regime did not pay off, but abetted a gruesome civil war, making millions of people to flee Syria and head to Turkey, which is now coping with more than two million Syrian refugees. This policy not only became a source of tension between Iran and Turkey, but seriously undermined relations between Turkey and European powers. The latter accused Turkey of not doing enough to halt the movement of refugees that use Turkey as a conduit to reach Europe. The deal now struck between EU and Turkey, in which Turkey would halt the movement of refugees in lieu of financial aid to cope with the situation, has somehow decreased the tensions. Moreover, American cooperation and aerial support to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the strongest force, has not gone well with Turkey, which declares it a terrorist organization and a part of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). It was under immense pressure that Turkey agreed last year to give American forces access to Incirlik base in southeast Turkey.
The internal security factor too has also played an important part to force these policy shifts. Turkey has been reeling from terrorist attacks by ISIS and PKK for the past one year. Erdogan restarted the war against PKK in June 2015 last year, further vitiating the law and order situation in Turkey. Youth wings of PKK have resorted to lethal tactics to respond to government operations. More than 300 people have died in these attacks by PKK and ISIS.
These developments are accompanied by internal turmoil instigated by a botched putsch by a section of Turkish army, followed by a massive purge in military and civilian institutions. Erdogen after weathering and braving this attempted coup has emerged much stronger and there are chances that he would take full advantage of this situation to use his popular support to effect a major internal political change by transforming the parliamentary system into a presidential one. Will dramatic foreign policy shifts making Turkey to adopt its old approach of ‘zero problems with neighbors’ lead to such overtures in internal policy? The other alternative would be an internal situation with many problems.