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Turkey foreign policy could get a secular spin

N. Janardhan
Filed on July 10, 2015

Either way, it is clear that the end of Erdoganization of Turkey has begun.


The bitter taste of the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) first poll setback in 13 years is bound to alter Turkey's and its President Recep Erdogan's policies.

Amid the continuing uncertainty of a hung poll verdict in early June, the most important outcome could be a check, however limited, on Erdogan's unabashed and authoritarian style of functioning. But, just as critics have pointed out, Erdogan probably thinks that 'he has just lost a battle, not the war'.

Irrespective of the merit of this assessment, there is no doubt that in a volatile Middle East, the impact of the election results will have implications beyond its boundaries too. Equally true is the fact that the election results were partly influenced by Turkish foreign policy. A 'zero problems with neighbours' foreign policy, which Foreign Minister-turned-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sought to achieve in 2002, has become a 'full of problems' foreign policy due to Erdogan.

In keeping with AKP's ideological foundations, Ankara's foreign policy has increasingly taken an Islamist outlook, particularly after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings. Till then, Turkey's 'visionary' foreign policy played the 'modern' and 'secular' card to gain membership to the European Union and pursued the religious line to impress the Arab and Islamic world. Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time of the Arab uprisings in Egypt and Syria, felt it was an opportune moment to promote political Islam and Islamise the country's foreign policy.

He encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates across the region, which annoyed the ruling regimes in the region, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which viewed the Brotherhood as a destabilising factor.

This was a quick reversal of fortune after Ankara had become a 'hero' in the region by taking a tough line against Tel Aviv over its 2008 attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. This even led Erdogan to publicly admonish Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009. The next fallout was with Iran.

After Turkey and  Brazil, played the mediator in a bid to convince Iran to a nuclear fuel swap deal to avoid a Tehran-West stand-off in 2010 (which eventually failed), Turkish-Iranian ties have collapsed. While Turkey ditched secularism by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, it also ditched its erstwhile non-sectarian policy to support pro-Sunni policies across the region - from Iraq to Yemen. This hurt Ankara's ties with Iran.

These strategies were fine as long as its foreign policy did not have any ramifications at home. But trouble began after Turkey started supporting opposition groups to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Damascus retaliated with an alliance with the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian Kurdish party with links to the Kurdistan Workers Party that has been fighting Turkey and pro-government Turkish Kurds since the 1980s.

This and other confused policies led radical groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat Al Nusra to impact Turkey's domestic social balance, with an inflow of about two million refugees from Syria. It hindered economic growth, increased unemployment, amplified dissatisfaction against Erdogan, even leading to massive protests against government's plans to raze Gezi Park in 2013. Reconciliation with Israel will help Turkey signal attempted reorientation of its foreign policy, especially a dilution of its Islamist ideology.

This would facilitate repairing ties with some of the Western and Middle Eastern countries, with whom it can cooperate in the quest for regional stability. Such an approach would also help it return, at least partially, to its initial goal of 'zero problems with neighbours' foreign policy, which was based on two premises - one, that economic development would help overcome longstanding ideological and security conflicts; and, two, that Turkey's historical legacy is an asset, not a liability.

Turkey's Kurdish policy could also change, especially due to the new electoral gains made by the People's Democratic Party, a mainly Kurdish bloc. This holds the possibility of better addressing three decades of insurgency in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, as well friction with some of the neighbouring countries that have Kurdish minorities.

Finally, while discussions are under way to form a coalition government, there are also rumours of a possible re-election. Either way, it is clear that the end of Erdoganization of Turkey has begun. Importantly, there is chance now for Turkey to move towards a realistic foreign policy, which could return Ankara to the mainstream of regional politics. The author is a UAE-based political analyst





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