Turkey’s bid for regional greatness began with a vitriolic squabble with Israel in 2009 and, after a series of disasters, ended with a breakdown of relations with Russia last fall.
So it is only fitting that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is banking on resuming friendly relations with these two countries as he attempts to steer the country back to a more pragmatic foreign policy.
The shift, which Mr. Erdogan described last week as a “win-win,” comes at a trying time for Turkey, once seen across the region as a model of Muslim democracy.
Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood that Mr. Erdogan backed across the region have either collapsed or morphed into radical violence. Meanwhile, the Syrian war that he stoked has now engulfed Turkey itself, with Islamic State repeatedly targeting the country and the new Kurdish statelet in northern Syria emboldening Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgency.
“There’s a realization that the Turkish policies after 2011, after the advent of the Arab Spring, have failed to advance the country’s national interests or increase the influence of the Turkish state in the region,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who runs the Edam think tank in Istanbul. “And Islamic State is a reminder to Turkish policy makers of how detrimental these policies have been for the security of Turkey and the Turkish people.”
Though Mr. Erdogan has always made the major decisions, these policies —derided by critics as “neo-Ottoman”—were associated most closely with former foreign and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. His ouster in May, while decried by many in Turkey and abroad as further concentration of power in Mr. Erdogan’s hands, provided Turkey’s president with a political opportunity to change course—and a scapegoat.
New Prime Minister Binali Yildirim immediately promised to “increase the number of friends and reduce the number of enemies,” bringing Turkey’s foreign-policy posture back to “the old days.” He stopped short of acknowledging that Ankara’s approach had been wrong; government officials didn’t immediately respond to requests to comment.
Signaling Turkey’s new approach, Mr. Erdogan expressed regret to Moscow for the November downing of a Russian warplane and accepted a resumption of full relations with Israel despite Israel’s refusal to lift the Gaza blockade.
“Erdogan realized that he was being isolated, and that this is not a sustainable foreign policy,” said Umit Pamir, a former Turkish ambassador to the European Union and NATO. “Israel and Turkey are the two strongest and most stable countries in the region, and they have a strategic interest to cooperate because the region is going to be reshaped and because terrorism is a big issue for both.”
While there has been some grumbling among Turkish Islamists, especially over the rapprochement with Israel, Mr. Erdogan’s domestic standing is likely to be strengthened by this outreach, predicted James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Ankara and a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This will help him because people don’t understand why Turkey doesn’t have any friends right now,” Mr. Jeffrey said.
Mr. Erdogan has shown no sign of willingness to reconcile with Egypt, whose regime he keeps criticizing for ousting in 2013 the democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, who was from the Muslim Brotherhood. But Egypt, unlike Israel and Russia, isn’t seen in Ankara as capable of threatening Turkey’s security.
In recent months, Turkish officials have grown increasingly alarmed by Russia’s support for the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey. Israel, meanwhile, has developed increasingly close military connections with Cyprus and Greece.
While Turkey’s economic ties with Russia and Israel—both of them major trade partners—are likely to accelerate quickly, the close political relationships of the past aren’t likely to return soon.
“The problems that led to the crisis haven’t gone away. Russia is still flirting with the Kurds and doesn’t see an alternative to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while Turkey still supports the groups that combat Assad,” said Nikolay Kozhanov, a former Russian diplomat who teaches at the European University of St. Petersburg. “The lack of confidence is still there.”
With Israel, too, there will be some time before political ties flourish again, warned Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general who served as head of research in Israel’s military intelligence and as director-general of the country’s strategic affairs ministry.
“There will be no political honeymoon because Israel is clearly an opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim Brotherhood is an opponent of Israel,” he said.
But, as economic ties grow and the diplomatic relationship develops, Israel and Turkey could resume security cooperation against common foes, Mr. Kuperwasser added. “At the end of the day, Turkey confronts similar threats and problems as Israel. First and foremost is the terrorist threat, and then, Turkey is also not necessarily a very close friend of Iran.”
Author: Yaroslav Trofimov
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