How Erdogan’s reelection will shift Turkey's foreign policy goals
Erdogan’s desire to build a legacy as an above-party national leader requires him to sustain and nurture the notion of a “strong Turkey” in foreign policy.
May 29, 2023
By Fehim Tastekin
Having won Sunday’s runoff vote, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will extend his rule into a third decade with piles of foreign policy issues on his plate. The strategy that won him reelection and his desire to build a legacy will both require Erdogan to sustain and nurture the notion of a “strong Turkey” in foreign policy.
Normalization with Syria is the thorniest dossier, calling for drastic decisions. The return of the Syrian refugees — either forcibly or voluntarily — was a top issue on the campaign trails. Any progress there depends on not only reconciliation with Damascus but also the provision of living spaces to the returnees. A Turkish-Syrian deal alone cannot smooth the way for reconstruction. US and European objections will have to be overcome as well.
Earlier this month, Turkey and Syria agreed to continue dialogue toward normalization at a four-way meeting in Moscow involving Russia and Iran. Nevertheless, Damascus maintains that the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria is a precondition for any meeting between the two countries’ leaders.
No immediate withdrawal from Syria
Erdogan is unlikely to go for a withdrawal without crushing the de facto autonomous administration in the north led by Kurdish groups that Ankara sees as terrorists. He built his election coalition around the pledge of resolutely fighting terrorism and remains reliant on his nationalist partners to command the majority in parliament.
Also, Erdogan is unlikely to acquiesce to dissolving the Syrian National Army, an umbrella group of Turkish-backed rebel groups, or changing the status quo in Idlib, where the jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham holds sway, until he gets what he wants at the negotiating table.
While US support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remains an irritant in ties with Washington, Ankara now has to reckon with another important factor: The Arab world has begun to rebuild ties with Damascus and is seeking to end Turkey’s military presence and curb Iran’s influence in Syria. Having readmitted Syria earlier this month, the Arab League tacitly denounced Turkey and Iran in its May 19 joint statement, rejecting “foreign interferences” and “support for … armed groups and militias” in Arab countries.
The Arab reengagement with Damascus could strengthen the latter’s hand in normalization talks with Ankara. Kurdish sources told Al-Monitor that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been encouraging Damascus — with tacit US approval — to integrate the SDF into the Syrian army as part of efforts to push back Iranian influence. Such moves clash with Ankara’s interests as well.
Erdogan, some observers believe, will seek to cast himself as an above-party national leader akin to Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in what is expected to be the final stage of his political career. Such aspirations would require him to embrace diversity at home, but he could also pursue ventures nurturing the notion of a “strong Turkey” to build that image.
The strategies that Erdogan pursued to consolidate his electoral alliance rested on the narrative of a “strong Turkey” that has fought terrorism far and wide, developed its military industry including armed drones, manufactured its first electric car, discovered energy resources in its Black Sea waters, increased its power in the eastern Mediterranean, become a playmaker in the Caucasus by helping Azerbaijan reclaim territories from Armenia, led the creation of the Organization of Turkic States, stood up to NATO and the European Union to defend its interests, put Greece in its place and mediated between Russia and the West in the Ukraine war to prove its strategic autonomy. By flattering national pride, fanning national security fears and villainizing his opponents, Erdogan was able to avoid paying a price for Turkey’s economic turmoil, his government’s shoddy response to the February earthquakes and rampant allegations of corruption. This playbook dictates that the nationalism and triumphalism permeating his foreign policy should continue.
Erdogan’s quest to institutionalize his authoritarian shift was met with a popular objection that sent the presidential vote into a runoff but is unlikely to push him back to the democratic path. Any decision to heed rulings by the European Court of Human Rights and release scores of political prisoners would come as a huge surprise.
EU membership a distant prospect
Reviving Turkey’s membership talks with the European Union appears a distant prospect, too, for it would require the miracle of Erdogan reinstating check and balances, the rule of law and democratic norms. Still, Turkey’s worsening economic outlook, marked by an alarming foreign-currency crunch, requires continued partnership with the European Union. The flow of foreign portfolio investments to Turkey has all but stalled amid Erdogan’s controversial economic policies, with the central bank’s international reserves deep in negative territory.
Erdogan’s pragmatism dictates that Turkey makes the best of its position within NATO and partnership with the European Union. Having gained in spades from his double game between Russia and the West, Erdogan is unlikely to part with that policy. Moreover, he would not like to upset Russian President Vladimir Putin given the latter’s economic gestures ahead of the elections, including the postponement of Turkish gas payments. Putin gave Erdogan further political credit on May 17 when he agreed to extend the Ukraine grain deal that the Turkish leader had mediated. Economic interests — chief among them Turkey’s Russian-built nuclear power plant and the gas and grain trade — will continue to drive bilateral ties in addition to continuing dialogue on Syria and Ukraine.
Tensions with NATO ally Greece and the Greek Cypriots are unlikely to go away, given the importance that Erdogan places on the energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
But despite Ankara’s frequent rows with Western partners, those anticipating a rupture between Turkey and NATO have yet to prove justified. Having approved Finland’s accession to NATO in March, Ankara could well unblock the way for Sweden as well at the NATO summit in July. Yet, getting rid of the Russian S-400 air defense systems appears impossible for Ankara as long as its relationship with Moscow remains strategic.
Closer ties with China?
During his third term as president, Erdogan could dedicate a stronger effort to realizing the so-called Zangezur Corridor plan — a transport route that would connect Azerbaijani territories via Armenia and provide Turkey with a direct link to Azerbaijan proper — in a bid to solidify Turkey’s role in the Caucasus, gain access to the Caspian Sea and strengthen ties with the Turkic states in Central Asia. It would require normalization with Armenia, managing tensions with Iran and keeping up the dialogue with Russia.
As for China, Erdogan has largely stepped back from criticizing Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur community and raised the prospect of Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization led by Russia and China. Despite Beijing’s wariness, he could press on for closer ties with the East.
As former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza put it recently to The New Arab, Turkey’s bridging role between West and East would continue but Ankara’s focus could now shift to “being anchored in the East and willing to hold the West, meaning Europe and the US, more at arm’s length.”