June 3, 2015 | The Weekly Standard

Ankara Alone

Too Islamist-friendly for NATO, too pro-European for Russia, too pro-Sunni for Iran, and too pro-democracy for Saudi Arabia, Turkey can’t seem to manage lasting alliances. It’s an issue that figures to play a role in the Turkish parliamentary elections on June 7.

In August 2013, then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief adviser described Turkey’s isolation – to the ire of Turkish pundits – as “precious loneliness.” To this day, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continues to ascribe its foreign policy failure to international resentment for Turkey’s successes.

Turkey’s problems stem, to a large extent, from its quest to become a regional power. This seemed feasible at the onset of the Arab Spring, when Turkey’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood leanings appeared to be winning the day. Turkey cast its lot with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, and like-minded Islamists in Libya and Tunisia. But Ankara’s hegemonic aspirations soon imploded along with the Brotherhood. Across the Middle East, civil wars and dictatorial regimes have since eclipsed the promise of “moderate” Islamist rule.

As the region convulses and descends deeper into anarchy, Turkey’s regional alliances are crumbling. Those Turkey has managed to keep appear to be unsustainable.

Take Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example. On March 26, three weeks after his visit to the new Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Erdogan announced his support for the Saudi-led military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. A little over two weeks later, reports emerged that Ankara was set to partner with the Saudis for possible military action against the Assad regime in Damascus.

But this hardly makes Turkey and Saudi Arabia allies. Turkey maintains its steadfast opposition to the Saudi-backed Egyptian government led by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, not to mention the internationally-recognized regime in Libya. This position of supporting the Islamist opposition pits Turkey against the region’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. And these countries just happen to make up the backbone of the anti-Houthi coalition.

And that’s not the only flashpoint of potential conflict between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Unlike most of the Sunni Arab states, Turkey welcomes a potential international nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries see the Iranian nuclear deal as a pathway to a bomb, and therefore a critical threat. By contrast, Ankara hopes to exploit the lifting of sanctions on Iran for its economic gains. Turkey seeks to boost trade relations with its Persian neighbor, doubling the current bilateral trade of $14-15 billion to reach $30 billion by next year.

But Turkey is not fully aligned with Iran, either. Indeed, Turkey and Iran have backed opposing sides in Syria’s war since it erupted. Turkey also opposes Tehran’s influence in Iraq by supporting the local Sunni militias against Iranian-backed Shiite forces.  And by officially backing the Saudi-led anti-Houthi campaign, it also seeks to limit Iran’s meddling in Yemen.

Turkey’s ties to Iraq are equally uneasy. Erdogan’s criticisms of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Shia sectarian policies, as well as Ankara’s energy deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has made no secret of its desire to create a Kurdish state that would separate from Iraq, have been the primary sources of tension. Turkey’s ties with the Iraqi Kurds are particularly interesting. Ankara is against Kurdish independence anywhere, for fear that it could inspire separatism in Turkey’s southeast, which is predominantly Kurdish. Yet, Turkey uses the KRG to provide a political and military check on the Kurdish People’s Democratic Union (PYD) in Syria, a proxy of Turkey’s militant Kurdish organization, the PKK. In other words, Turkey is generally opposed to Kurdish independence, but it is selective about which Kurds to support.

Turkey’s only real friend in the Middle East – one in which there are no apparent contradictions or fissures – appears to be Qatar. Turkey and Qatar are both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Islamist rebels in Syria. But even this alliance has its limits. As part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Qatar is ultimately constrained by the anti-Brotherhood policy preferences of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. 

Turkey’s awkward alliance-making is not limited to the Middle East. While a NATO ally, the AKP’s foreign policy has often clashed with NATO and Western interests. Ankara’s permissive border policy to bolster the Syrian opposition has allowed for the growth of jihadists of all stripes in Syria, and contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Turkey’s support for Hamas has only emboldened the terrorist organization, and its willingness to let the group’s leaders operate on its soil even paved the way for the most recent Gaza war. Additionally, Turkey has defied the international sanctions regime against Iran, with reports suggesting that figures in Ankara have facilitated a number of illicit networks that provided Tehran with billions of dollars in cash and gold.

It’s a similarly strained relationship with Moscow. Turkey is entangled in a number of regional disputes with Russia, including SyriaUkraine and Armenia. Justifiably, the Turkish foreign minister criticized Russian aggression at a NATO meeting in May. But, at the same time, the Kremlin is the key to Turkey’s energy, so Ankara has been reluctant to challenge Moscow in any meaningful way. In fact, Turkey has actually partnered with Russia in pipeline deals, even when they run afoul of EU interests.

Simply put, Ankara is losing everyone’s trust. It seeks to become a regional power, but it lacks the basic ingredients of hegemonic powers: it is not an energy producer like most of its competitors, and its economy is too vulnerable. With such limitations, Turkey’s best bet for protecting its geostrategic interests is by solidifying whatever alliances it has not yet completed destroyed. For now, however, Ankara is almost systematically irritating all of its friends, except one.

This isolation is not lost on voters. Nor is it lost on Turkey’s opposition parties, who have made foreign policy one of their sharpest points of attack against the AKP ahead of the June 7 elections. Currently, opinion polls suggest that the AKP may be faltering.  However, pollsters seem to agree that the AKP will likely hang on and maintain a majority. If that is the case, so too will Turkey’s “precious loneliness.”

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer  

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate focusing on Turkey at Foundation for Defense pf Democracies.  Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu 

Read in The Weekly Standard

Issues:

Turkey