Dealing with the New Turkey

by August 2021
Erdoğan arrives for a meeting with EU Council President Charles Michel in Brussels, in 2020. Photo credit: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Turkey has become an increasingly central player in Eurasia; at the same time, it remains a cipher. Its assets are extraordinary: ranking as the 17th largest GDP in the world, based increasingly on diversified manufacturing, services, and technology sectors closely integrated into EU markets; forming NATO’s most powerful non-nuclear military, combat-experienced, and increasingly expeditionary; possessing a relatively resilient democratic system, despite efforts by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to move to a more authoritarian format; and, finally, constituting one of the four genuine nation-states in the broader Middle East.

The argument of this paper is that in substance, as opposed to the official rhetoric with its occasional neo-Ottoman overtones, Turkey under Erdoğan is still—in most cases—continuing traditional Turkish “near abroad” foreign policy. Traditionally, the US often supported, but at times restrained, Turkey’s foreign policy in its near abroad. A reduced American willingness to play this role is one of the dramatic changes of the past 20 years in the region—changes that in effect help hide the underlying continuity of Turkish policy. 

The Turkish Enigma

Today’s Turkey confuses all who deal with it. Despite formal integration into Western, European, and global institutions (NATO, EU Customs Union, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Council of Europe, G20, Organization of Islamic Cooperation), its orientation is questioned by all.

NATO states are troubled by Turkey’s arms deals with Russia as well as its being significantly energy dependent on the Russians. Europeans are unsettled by the Islamist policies of the Erdoğan regime. Arab states, with the exception of Turkey’s ally Qatar, are concerned with Erdoğan’s sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood movement throughout the region, and some even see Turkey as a potential “second Iran,” with an expansionist Islamist agenda. Russia, despite its occasionally successful effort to drive a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies, faces Turkish military and diplomatic challenges in Libya, Syria, the Caucasus, and Ukraine. The Greeks and Cypriots face an increasingly overt bid by Turkey to change the maritime status quo, in Cyprus and at sea. 

Turkey’s Traditional Foreign Policy in its ‘Near Abroad’

The nationalist strain of Ankara’s foreign policy toward its neighbors and near abroad enjoys strong domestic Turkish support. This policy is not consciously focused on creating a regional empire, à la Iran, but rather on resolving various “frozen” conflicts around Turkey’s perimeter. Erdoğan inherited these conflicts from prior governments, in some cases from the time of Ataturk and even the Ottoman Empire. The most significant of them include the Caucasus, especially Nagorno-Karabakh; the political, environmental, energy, religious, and military issues between Turkey and Greece as well as Cyprus, in an arc stretching from Limnos off the Dardanelles to Cyprus 800 kilometers to the southeast; and the presence of Kurdish PKK militants in Iraq and Syria. These issues are all familiar to anyone working on Turkish affairs since the 1980s.

Strong domestic support for resolving “frozen” conflicts.
Erdoğan and Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar, in North Nicosia. Photo credit: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office via REUTERS

In military, nationalist, and foreign policy circles, a Eurasian ideology—which always existed in Turkey—has gained ground. It is dismissive of the West, and particularly Western (read US, EU, or international law) limitations on Turkey’s freedom of maneuver. Erdoğan has abandoned, little by little, the “zero problems” foreign policy, as formulated by former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. That policy saw détente with Greece, support for a UN-sponsored Cyprus settlement, warming with Armenia, several cease-fires with the PKK, and mediation, for example, on the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel. 

The new Turkey is willing to take more risks to advance its specific interests in all these conflicts, rather than try to either live with them or find “win-win” solutions with their antagonists. In fairness to Erdoğan, his various “outreach” efforts, be it rapprochement with Armenia, acceptance of the Annan plan for Cyprus, accommodation of Obama’s nuclear pitch to Iran in spring 2010, and cease-fires with the PKK, did not work out well for Turkey.

The Disguise of Erdoğan’s Islamist Rhetoric

This reality of Turkey’s overall continuation of its foreign policy is disguised by Erdoğan’s regional Islamic pretensions. These claims have led many Sunni Arab states to see Ankara as a second Teheran. Both are perceived as advancing a specific Islamist agenda (in Turkey’s case, it is the Muslim Brotherhood model; in terms of Iran, it is a revolutionary interpretation of the Shiite faith) throughout the Arab world. But unlike Iran, in the case of Turkey, it is primarily a political show. It arguably has had an effect in one place, Libya, but even there, Turkish policy can be explained by more traditional, national goals.

The best evidence for the “show only” nature of Erdoğan’s grandiose speeches is the rapidity with which he has moved away from this campaign in recent months and his lack of influence in the Gaza cease-fire. Most important is the lack of structural, popular, and institutional support for such an Islamist agenda within Turkey beyond Erdoğan, a few in his party, some ethnic Turks in Western Europe, and a handful of Islamic charities. Contrast that with the structure supporting either Iran’s expansionist policy or, until recently, Saudi support for Wahabi ideology. 

The “show only”—or “show mainly”—nature of this agenda is also clear in Erdoğan’s reaction to the announcement of the Abraham Accords, normalizing Israel’s relations with several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates. Shortly after the accords were announced, Erdoğan blasted the UAE, threatening to break diplomatic relations if it went ahead with the accords; but he did not threaten or break Turkey’s relations with Israel. Turkish–Israeli bilateral trade increases incrementally nearly every year, a notable exception in a Middle East otherwise lacking in intraregional trade. Israel also serves as Turkey’s port to Jordan and points east, given the ruin of Syrian roads. The reality of Turkish–Israeli trade was not lost on the Arab countries, and they have proceeded to normalize with Israel and ignore Erdoğan’s rhetoric. 

Turkey and the Changing Middle East

To understand these developments and how to respond to them, it is important to briefly examine the Middle East environment. In a nutshell, Turkey (and other regional states) have been operating in a new environment, in terms of both regional threats and US policy, over the past two decades. While the history of the Middle East from the early 1970s on for 30 years appears turbulent and full of wars, aggression, coups, and terror, a basic security pattern dominated the region over that period. 

Beginning in the 1973 Israeli–Arab Yom Kippur War, the US assumed an overall collective security role in the region roughly analogous to its behavior in Europe and Asia soon after World War II. In the Middle East, however, conditions were different; rather than dealing with one near peer competitor as in Europe or Asia, the US and its partners faced a bewildering array of aggressive regional states, terrorist movements, and at various points, the direct hand of Moscow, all challenging that order. The US responded generally as an “over the horizon” deterrent, working through its large and then growing list of regional partners. Working “by, with and through” them, the US resolved satisfactorily many conflicts and threats with limited force deployments: the Yom Kippur War, Soviet aggression into Afghanistan, Iranian threats to Iraq and the Gulf, the securing of Iraqi Kurdistan, and various counterterrorist actions and campaigns, with only one notable overt failure—Lebanon in 1983, when the Reagan administration chose to retreat after a heavy loss of life in the bombing of a US Marine Corps’ barracks.  

Much of the whining in Washington about Turkey “abandoning” the NATO alliance is balanced in Ankara with a feeling that the US has abandoned it. The result is a Turkey that is both more at risk, and at the same time more liberated.

The one exception to this model of indirect action—the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 by direct, massive military action—only serves to prove the general concept. “Over the horizon” could not work with a half million Iraqi soldiers preparing for a conventional war, so the US drew in the international community, including both troops from 20 nations and legal authorization from the UN Security Council, to ensure a rapid defeat and a necessarily limited victory over Saddam Hussein. 

Beyond regional security, American transformational (i.e., political and economic values) engagement in the region was spotty. The only underlying conflict the US attempted to resolve was the Arab–Israeli one, and the only effort on democratization was, as part of that resolution, with the Palestinians. As an offshoot of the peace process, Washington in the mid-1990s sponsored regional economic integration, but that effort did not long survive its collapse after 2000, and indeed was undermined by Egypt, for its own reasons, well before that. 

That all changed with the US intervention in Iraq. Since then, the US simultaneously has engaged more in transformational regional efforts while at the same time, in various ways, neglecting and, in some cases, worsening regional security. For the next 18 years, US policy sloshed back and forth between ultimately unsuccessful efforts to enact deep structural reform in the region (Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab Spring), disastrous and costly military interventions, and resulting temptations to downplay the region under the motto “pivot to Asia.” This uniquely inept scattershot response to the region’s threats undercut American credibility. A sane foreign policy, even if it was going to shift priority elsewhere, certainly would never signal disinterest in a region it never really intended to abandon. Yet that is the impression regional players were left with, with the US being perceived as both uninterested and ineffective.

In this environment, the more organized and effective actors, which are the nation states of Israel, Iran, and Turkey (along with Russia, from 2015 on, and some would add Egypt to this list), began following policies that more resembled the 19th century than the American-led collective security system of 1973–2003. Much of the whining in Washington about Turkey “abandoning” the NATO alliance is balanced in Ankara (and elsewhere in the region) with a feeling that the US has abandoned it.

Today’s Turkey feels much less restrained and much less reassured and thus pushes forward on its own.
An S-300 anti-aircraft missile system moves by during a military parade in Baku, Azerbaijan, last year. Photo credit: Valery Sharifulin/TASS

The result is a Turkey that is both more at risk, as America may no longer be a 911 call away, and at the same time more liberated. The former requires Turkey to do deals in particular with Russia, including in the trade and energy sectors, and most dramatically in the sale of advanced S-400 air defense systems. A “more liberated” Russia has Turkey dealing in the region in a way not subordinate to or even necessarily coordinated with the West (read usually Washington, sometimes the Europeans included). This is of concern in part because of the ideological tone of Turkish policy, its decoupling from the US, and its substance.  

The major reason for this shift is the fading American role in the region, especially as perceived by Turkey. Previously the US served both as restraint and reassurance to Turkey on its near abroad issues. Given the importance of Turkey and the relatively good bilateral relationship, Washington could be expected to either take Turkey’s side (in some of the disputes over the Aegean Sea, Cyprus, and the PKK) or be strictly neutral. But if Turkey acted too aggressively, the US could come down hard, as it did with seismic research in the Aegean Sea in the 1980s and on various Cyprus issues. The essence of the bargain was that Turkey would tolerate its near abroad conflicts either remaining frozen or subject to long-winded diplomatic efforts yielding at best minimal improvements.  

Today’s Turkey feels much less restrained and much less reassured and thus pushes forward on its own, often using rough, undiplomatic techniques on PKK-associated forces in Syria, as well as on Cyprus, Eastern Mediterranean maritime borders, and Nagorno-Karabakh. These are long-standing issues in Turkey’s backyard, and, tough rhetoric aside, the Turkish positions are sometimes understandable.

Six Rules for Dealing with the New Turkey

The good news is that Turkey, in most respects, is still a status quo power, under threat from two revisionist powers: an expansionist Russia and an ideologically, as well as historically, expansionist Iran. Turkey finds itself confronted by Russia in Libya, Syria, the Caucasus, and Ukraine, and it has been one of the most effective buffers to Putin’s aggression in the past several years. It likewise counters Iran in various ways in Syria and Iraq. The “trick” for the West is to benefit from and cooperate with Turkey on its containment and deterrent roles and find common ground as in the past on Turkey’s near abroad spats with European and Arab states, while cold-bloodedly coming to terms with Erdoğan’s anti-Western rhetoric.

One reason to do the last is that there is considerable debate within the Turkish elite—even after almost 20 years of Erdoğan’s rule—on Turkey’s orientation vis-à-vis the West. Many Turks, whether practicing Muslims or not, are quite relaxed with Turkey’s Western heritage since Ataturk. That manifests itself in the political and legal system as well as in the business sector. At some point Erdoğan will go, and the Turkey he leaves behind—while not the same as the Turkey of 2000—will be far less negative toward relations with Europe and the US than Erdoğan is at the personal level.

Under these new circumstances, the rules for dealing with Turkey under Erdoğan all point to the necessity of a transactional relationship:

  1. Recognition that neither the US nor the EU will significantly change Turkey’s core near abroad security interests or internal actions.  
  2. Understanding that, regardless of the above, it is possible with careful diplomacy to have better rather than worse relations, at least in tone and atmosphere with Erdoğan’s Turkey; NATO’s Stoltenberg and Germany’s Merkel are examples.
  3. Exploiting Turkey’s various strengths and its need to contain both Russia and Iran, although with some limitations, especially with Moscow. 
  4. The fewer reasons Erdoğan has to feel that the West is cooking up for him a “color revolution” (à la Ukraine’s Orange Revolution), the more he will ratchet down his gratuitous insults. He is not entirely convinced that US forces did not have a role in the 2016 attempted coup, given Fetullah Gülen’s refuge in Pennsylvania.  
  5. That said, as part of any transactional relationship, transgressions need response. The US decision to take Turkey off the F-35 program and the sanctions against certain Turkish officials involved in the S-400 purchase are both good examples of an effective response. 
  6. Constant congressional, media, and occasional US government savaging of Turkey as a “bad ally” are ineffective responses to Erdoğan.

Aside from its specific challenges to American and Western interests, Turkey represents a new type of regional power in the new global foreign policy landscape. 

Alliances can persist and even prosper, but powerful regional players in the American-coordinated system—Germany, Poland, France, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey—will be less willing to subordinate their key interests to Washington’s desires. This new landscape does not presage a return to a 19th century order (which produced the horrors of 1914–1945) but rather a return to the realpolitik diplomatic tradecraft that preceded that era and kept the “long peace.”

Partners need to be embraced despite their flaws, and even the most important states must learn they cannot obtain everything they want. Putin understands this. So far, Washington and Europe often act as if they do not.

James Jeffrey
James Jeffrey was deputy national security advisor of the United States from 2007-2008. He also served as US ambassador to Iraq, Turkey and Albania, as Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, and as a US infantry officer in Vietnam. He is currently the chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.
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