Turkey Drifts Away from the West

Turkey has lost its soft power attractiveness due to its leadership’s increasing absolutism and failed foreign policy priorities. The “zero problems with neighbors” concept that unraveled almost at the time of the Arab Spring has given its place to “nothing but problems with every single neighbor”. Key dimensions of Turkish foreign policy, namely relations with the United States (US), NATO, the European Union and MENA countries face growing challenges.

Despite that Turkish-NATO relations are still valued and seen in a positive light by both the public and the Turkish government as evidenced by a recent Pew research poll, Turkey continues to experience friction with its NATO allies, while veering closer to Russia. Turkey’s decision to proceed with the purchase of the S-400 Russian air defense system has raised NATO members concerns over implications on the alliance’s interoperability given that the S-400 is not compatible with NATO and American assets on Turkish soil and must thus operate on a standalone basis. Even more critical, the US and NATO members that have purchased F-35 Joint Strike Fighters worry over the security of main data transfer of fifth-generation technology to the Turkish Air-force due to Ankara’s growing ties to Moscow.

The prohibitive scenario for the United States foresees the sharing of classified information between Turkey and Russia on the way the S-400 air defense system fares against the fifth generation F-35, a move that would help Moscow develop its anti-stealth research. To avoid the prohibitive scenario, the likelihood of Turkey being exposed to American sanctions has reportedly been raised in discussions during the latest visit of US Secretary of State to Ankara as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) signed on January 30, 2018, provides the cessation of all American arms sales and the sanctioning of any country that does business with banned Russian firms including the Russian government owned aerospace defense corporation MKB “Fakel” that produces the S-400.

Τhe S-400 purchase issue is considered as the top of the iceberg in US-Turkish relations; the bilateral relationship has worsened as consequence of American ties to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Fethullah Gulen and Reza Zarrab. A Pew research poll of Turkish public opinion suggests a “visceral” anger toward the US, which is now viewed as the major threat to Turkey by more than 70 percent of the population. In this context, the main questions that emerge are the following: How will Turkey manage its diverse interests in Syria? Is Turkey coming to see itself more as a Middle Eastern and less as a Western power?

On Syria, Turkey continues to transition away from its original position when the conflict broke out in 2011 of condemning the Assad regime for two reasons: a growing desire to stabilize Syria even if that means accepting Assad as leader, and the prioritization of the Kurdish threat. Turkey’s interests lie in preventing an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria as evidenced by its assault in Afrin and not in going after al-Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria because such a tactic does not counter Kurdish goals. The US support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) composed of ethnic militias including the YPG whose fight against ISIS led to the gain of territory formerly controlled by the terrorist organization has been a cause of friction in US-Turkish relations.

The strained relations have accelerated with the alleged American decision to help the SDF form a 30 thousand border security force across the Turkish and Iraqi borders. The Turkish assault in Afrin is considered as a step towards the partition of Syria and Ankara is expected to control a 200 km area in northern Syria if Afrin and Manbij fall. In a different mode, the United States strategy centers on fighting the Islamic State and on maintaining a united and stable Syria; it continues to support a political transition in Damascus; and, it will not back reconstruction in the absence of such a transition.

In the cited diplomatic and geopolitical contexts, Turkey seems to behave more as Middle Eastern rather than a western power. Ankara has focused on the Islamic world and its Muslim tradition in its foreign policy, though it still is a blend of western institutions. Cooperation with NATO, efforts to access the EU and the customs union with the EU have become less of paramount importance as neo-Ottomanism, the Turkish leadership’s political ideology that promotes greater engagement with areas formerly under the Ottoman Empire, has profoundly become the new conceptual framework of the Turkish foreign policy.

To capitalize in its Ottoman experience, Turkey has thrown itself deeply into regional conflicts like the one in Syria envisioning to patron them. The Turkish patronization is attempted with its Islamic orientation, ties to religiously conservative constituencies and alleged widespread popularity among the Arab critical mass.

The basic element however that slips from Turkey’s calculations is that its allure in the wider Middle East stems from its key position in Western clubs and institutions. Drifting away from the West deprives Ankara of its attractiveness in the heart of the Middle East evaporating prospects of regional cooperation and stability.

Antonia Dimou
Antonia Dimou
Antonia Dimou is Head of the Middle East Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses, Greece; and, an Associate at the Center for Middle East Development, University of California, Los Angeles