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Turkey’s High Stakes Foreign Policy Gamble

A diplomatic dance is unfolding on the Middle Eastern stage between Iran and Turkey, who are jockeying for position while attempting to influence the outcome of the ongoing political drama in Syria. Both countries now appear to be united in their public appeals to President Assad to end his crackdown on domestic opponents of his regime. This has been a consistently-held position for Turkey, but a rather ironic and improbable position for Iran. Ahmadinejad has not exactly practiced what he is now preaching vis-à-vis his own domestic opposition, and Iran of course has a long history of crushing internal political dissent.

Syria has for decades been as a primary conduit for Iran’s projection of power in the Middle East and opposition to Israel, and Iran and Syria have enjoyed a close political and military relationship. Although Iranian/Turkish relations have mostly been warm diplomatically, militarily, and economically, just two months ago Iran issued a stern warning to Turkey to stay out of Syria’s internal affairs, suggesting that Turkey has designs on a post-Assad Syria. Iran threatened retaliation if Turkey’s air bases are used by U.S. forces against Assad, as U.S. and NATO forces did against Libya’s Gaddhafi. Iran has said that in such a situation, U.S. and NATO bases in Turkey could become targets of Iranian missiles – a not so veiled indication that Turkey is already the target of Iranian missiles.

For its part, Turkey has chosen a confrontational path toward Syria, not entirely consistent with its recent ‘zero problems’ approach to foreign policy. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Turkey did not hesitate to weigh in on the conflict, urging moderation and patience on the part of the Assad regime, rather than adopting a neutral stance. Depending on the outcome of the Syrian conflict, this will either be proven to have been an appropriate stance, or ill advised. If Assad is forced from power, Turkey will have earned some goodwill on the part of the new government in Damascus; but if Assad stays, Turkey’s stance will only have served to heighten bilateral tension, and may result in a difficult relationship between Turkey and Syria for many years to come.

No doubt Erdogan sees the Syrian conflagration as an opportunity to upstage Iran in perceived regional dominance – a unique historical opportunity, given the longevity of the Assad regime and the continued metamorphosis of the Arab Spring. With three of the five existing battles of the Spring now over, and all three ending in favor of anti-incumbent forces (in the case of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia), the longer-term writing appears to be on the wall; even if Assad does survive the current opposition to his regime, the longevity of his government will surely eventually be cut short. Both Iran and Turkey know this. As a result, in the long-run, Turkey’s appeal for moderation and tolerance in Syria should be proven as a feather in Erdogan’s cap.

Turkey’s actions must also of course be seen in the context of its deteriorating relations with Israel, which have grown frostier in recent weeks, given the bilateral sparring over the results of the UN’s Palmer Report on last year’s Palestinian flotilla incident. At least part of this is political posturing by Turkey—taking such a stern anti-Israeli view buys considerable political capital with the average man in the Arab street. Turkey would rather sacrifice its relationship with Israel rather than risk losing its street credibility throughout the region. By upping the ante in suggesting that its navy will accompany future flotillas to Palestine, Turkey has drawn a distinct line in the sand and has challenged Israel to a duel. This is not only likely to seriously damage its long-term relationship with Israel, but risks damaging its relationship with the U.S. and NATO. On one hand, this is an awkward time to be proffering such a challenge; on the other hand, it may also be seen as a deft overture—casting barbs at Israel and the West just at the time when they need Turkey’s collaboration to promote their own objectives vis-à-vis the Spring. This must seem to Erdogan a brilliant tactical move.

But as Erdogan strives to achieve undisputed dominance in regional political affairs, Turkey’s foreign policy is in disarray. As a result of its recent actions, Turkey has upended its own longstanding military cooperation with Israel and joint anti-Kurd exercises with both the Syrian and Iranian governments. It originally opposed the rebels fighting the Gaddafi regime, only to reverse itself and later support the transitional government in Tripoli. And Erdogan recently reversed Turkey’s longstanding position in favor of UN-sponsored reunification talks in Cyprus. There is value in being seen to be flexible and responsive in foreign affairs, but turning the pillars of one’s own successful foreign policy upside down at the same time is unlikely to yield favorable long-term results on all fronts.

Erdogan is a brilliant tactician and has proven himself to be quite adept both at responding to events in the region and seeking to influence their outcome. He is playing a high stakes game at a time when the stakes could not be higher. One has to wonder whether his quest to become a hero to the average man in the Arab Street may ultimately backfire, and at what cost? If the U.S. has to choose between Turkey and Israel, it will naturally choose Israel. Both Iran and Syria now clearly view Turkey as an enemy, and Israel is about to give up on trying to repair bilateral relations (if it has not done so already). Until recently, Turkey had been seen as a voice of moderation and respect as a result of a penchant for neutrality. It is quickly coming to be seen as more self-serving than selfless, and more concerned with achieving regional political dominance than achieving peace and stability. The average man in the Arab street surely sees the difference.


About the Author

Daniel Wagner

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Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the forthcoming book “Managing Country Risk” (Taylor and Francis, Q1 2012). 
  • Cyprus

    Wagner, you have such a drastic misreading of evolving events in the middle east, that i am not surprised that you have managed to see “brilliance” in Mr.Erdogan’s tactics[sic].

  • Mehmet Omer

    The easy approach of looking at international diplomacy though a zero-sum approach often obfuscates rather than clarifies the approaches taken by various powers. I seriously doubt that anyone of any consequence in Ankara sees the ongoing diplomatic push by Turkey through the prism of some grand Turco-Iranian joust for domination. As non-Arab powers there are limits to what can be achieved anyway. Turkey’s primary focus is on building economic relations and securing a more secure and mutually dependent relationship with her Arab neighbors. The focus is on economic growth and social stability secured through governments that are at least partially accountable to their populations. An economic growth pole in the region that includes Turkey, Egypt, Syira, Jordan and Lebanon cannot is in my view the ultimate goal. This can only benefit Israel as well and a simple apology is all that is needed to douse the current flames of discord between the two old partners. At some point this will be obtained as the vision of a middle east that is focused on inclusive economic growth becomes clearer.

  • Daniel

    I’m still trying to figure out why I read this.

  • http://noturkey NoTurkey

    La Turquie ne respecte pas la législation.,,,! d’être expulsé de l’ Nato… La Turquie ne peut menacer les membres de l’Union Européenne….

    The international community and the european union has an obligation to stop Turkey from commiting such acts of criminal intentions, totally violating international and european legilsation. Turkey is a hypocrit to the US , and the EU.

    1. Turkey claims that this agression towards Israel is due to the Marmara Flotilla blockade which happened some 2 years ago. And my question is, Where was Turkey during those 2 years and WHY DO they come now with so much hypocrisis to demand an ‘apology’ , with a criminal intention for war, after 2 years. That’s an excuse for war. They are trying to fool the US , and we listen to them?

    2. Turkey demands from the US they should give them more weapons for the ‘reason’ to “protect” Israeli from any potential threats, in an attempt of war against terrorism, whilst at the same time, they want to bla…ckmail Israel with the help of other muslim states including Egypt, Syria and Iran, and they also threaten Israel militarily, despite US proposals for peace, but Turkey wants the weapons to turn against the.
    west. That means Erdogan is lying to the West , once again!

    3. Turkey is an informant to Hamas, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and other anti american countries, and the main reason for threating Noble Energy – a US company, but also EU members such as the Republic of the island of Cyprus and Israel ,[ a member of the IMF ] , is simply for the escalating advancement of the war against the West. Israel is the small brother of the US! and the laws are ‘laws of the West’ for them.

    Turkey was the one who tried to fool the US that Iran’s nuclear program was friendly to the US. Turkey cannot be trusted and any violations of international and european laws is a punishable crime. Turkey needs to be kicked out of NATO asap. Turkey was an informant to the 9/11 plot and the July attacks in London, amid the recent wikileaks cables. Some of the heads of alqaeda were hidden in Turkey, and once the CIA was informed, Turkey had to reveal a partial truth.

    • YesTurkey

      What are you smoking Mr?

    • Bayram Yavuz

      The Zionist era is finally ending….

  • cyr

    Turkey is playing with dynamite…it will soon have to put its bluff into action then all hell will break loose. for what Hamas!! a friend of alkeida! who danced in the streets when the Towers fell.They will have to choose4 sides Iran or america/Israel/Eu/Nato…!! IN or Out…No threatening our good friends

  • raghu

    Too many hypothetical assumptions.

  • SKYTURKEY

    Erdogan has captivated by his own ego, that’s all..
    He useing this flotilla raid, in fact he doesn’t give a damn about it,but useing this, give him millons of benefits, among the his ignorent voters,he is a hero, and he play with the fire…he is a very stubborn-emotional-untrustworthy chap!

    • Lockman

      Ignorant voters? What is your level of education? Do you think you are the most clever man in Turkey? Keep looking down on people, and you are destined to lose every future election in Turkey. Branding 50 percent of the population as ignorant is a blatant provocation and an example of secular extremism. Get lost idiot

  • Lockman

    It is true that Mr Erdogan invests in the long run and a series kind of diplomatic spat with Iran can be acknowledged. However, to argue that all of these high stakes have been risked just for dominance race in Middle East exemplifies an oversimplification of the current situation. The author neglects Erdogan’s main goal,and ambitions in his strategy. Turkish PM aims to prevent a possible Greek and Israeli rapprochement in the Mediterranean and tries to use Turkey’s guarantor status in Cyprus to intervene in a possible deal to share Mediterranean resources. PM Erdogan, with his brilliant timing of the strategy, hits 4 birds with one stone:

    1- Boosted naval presence in Mediterranean will discourage Greeks and Israel, and provides Turkey with a possible share in the gas resources, as well as strengthen Turkey’s position in Cyprus.

    2-Winning the hearts and minds of the Arab street. This will definitely bring massive returns in the long run.

    3- Declare that Turkey is the Boss in Middle East, not Israel, not Iran, not Egypt, not Saudis.

    4- A possible Palestine state in the future, probably under Turkish patronage.

    This is a win-win game for Erdogan, if you win the street, you win the Middle East.

    Regards from Birmingham, UK

    • YesTurkey

      You have summed it all quite eloquently!

      J’aime Birmingham!

    • Rodney Leese

      What a silly analysis. “Boosted naval presence in Mediterranean will discourage Greeks and Israel, and provides Turkey with a possible share in the gas resources, as well as strengthen Turkey’s position in Cyprus.”

      In opposite, Cyprus already rejected Turkish demand, Cyprus has support of EU, NATO and Russia. Israeli and Greek navies are more than much for the Turkish fleet. Neo-Ottoman megalomaniacs will suffer another Lepanto-Navarino-Sinop.

      • Lockman

        There is no force that can confront Turks in Mediterranean except American 6th fleet. I have heard some weak objections from EU but no strong comment from USA on this matter. Americans are too busy too, they cannot lose Turkey.

        First Russia has no say in Mediterranean.

        Second Cyprus is not a member of NATO, but Turkey is.

        Third, EU support for Cyprus is meaningless, there is nothing EU can do. Instead, they are too busy with bankrupt Greece. EU is not guarantor in Cyprus but Turkey is. Will Sarkozy send Rafaels to bomb Turkish navy? This is silly.

        There is nothing Greece can do either. Military of a bankrupt state, what a joke.
        They could not fight Turks 4 decades ago, and they will not.

        Israeli navy is too weak to confront Turkish navy. A naval confrontation between Israel and Turkey will lead to full scale war in Middle East and possible destruction of Israel. Count Egypt and Hezbollah in case of war.

        We are not living in 1571. Lepanto is long gone but 1974 Turkish intervention stands firm. Greeks can experience another Domeke, another 1974. Turkey is the only power in Middle East and everyone will accept this reality. Even hardline Greek fanatics like you.

        I repeat what I said. This is a win-win game for Erdogan. Everyone against him can book a place in the hell.

        • Tom

          I disagree with what you say:
          1-Russia has no “say”, really, how difficult would it be to send a Russian naval task force into the Med. I am not saying they will but your claim that Russia has no presence is absurd.
          2- Yes, Cyprus is not a member of NATO – so what, Greece is (since 1952). Turkey risks being booted out of NATO if they entangle with Greek forces.
          3 – Your assumption that Turkey will defeat Greece based on a war 4 decades ago is equally absurd. I dont know who won but come on – 40 years ago?
          4 – You claim the Israeli Navy is too “weak” to confront the Turkish navy? I have no idea about the Israeli Navy’s capability vs the Turk navy, but the Israelis do have submarines equipped with cruise missiles (likely nuclear), a terrific air force which would bomb the Turkish Navy and destroy it, as well as land based nuclear cruise missiles so I’d predict an Israeli win if the Turkkish forces started a war with Israel.
          In sum, your analysis on 1-4 is not too good.

  • YesTurkey

    There’s nothing worse than overestimating how influential one is. While the average American cannot comprehend complex political configurations of the Middle East, they can at least understand that the time has come for the American people to decide how far their support for the State of Israel goes.
    The United States has had no better friend in the entire Middle East than Turkey. Through thick and thin. Let us go back in time to the cold war days, when Turkey- a nation which shared borders with the Soviet’s Empire stood strong in its alliance with the United States and NATO.
    As a student of political history and ethnic identity, I never quite grasped when the this Judo-Christian alliance really engulfed America. I do understand that we all have our sensitivities about the plight of the Jewish people after the Holocaust, but certainly not to the point where we endanger our interests over Israel’s sake!
    There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. It is time for the Palestinians to have their home. No posturing by any nation can prevent this from happening.