Turkey can regain regional leadership

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 9, 2016 in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg, August 9, 2016: the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin took a friendly tone (source: dpa)

Turkey, a strong regional power, is situated at the crossroads of several very unstable regions: the Balkans, Black Sea, Caucasus, Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

The Republic of Turkey was founded in the early 1920s by Kemal Ataturk out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. One of his governing principles was non-interference in the neighborhood. It was only in the 1990s that Turkey began to exercise a stronger influence in its region. However, due to increasing internal problems, the Turkish government has recently lost some of its foreign policy initiative.

Several incidents cost Turkey its cordial ties with another regional power, Israel; it was also engaged in a sort of “cold war” with Russia. Relations with the European Union have cooled due to concerns over Turkey’s governance, press freedom and the treatment of its Kurdish minority. The United States had similar concerns, and was irritated by a perceived lack of support from Turkey in the Iraq war and in the fight against Daesh (also known as Islamic State).

As GIS commented on July 8, 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pragmatism allowed Turkey to reestablish good working relations with Russia and Israel in a span of just a few weeks. His bold move to offer Syrian refugees Turkish citizenship improved his popularity; their integration into the workforce is helping the economy and, especially, the move drastically improves his negotiating position with the EU on the refugee issue.

Then the attempted coup happened. As GIS stated on July 18, the regime’s position strengthened after it successfully fended off the putsch. President Erdogan did not waste any time, immediately using the failed takeover bid to consolidate his power.

Despite the newfound friendliness, Moscow and Ankara still have many conflicting interests

This new position of strength is likely to give the Erdogan government more room in foreign policy matters. In the Middle East it will mean a more assertive role in the struggle to contain Iran’s hegemonic visions in the Gulf, the Arab Peninsula and the Mesopotamia/Syria region. Turkey will also reassess its position in the Black Sea, Caucasus, Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean.

Since the early 1950s, Turkey has been an important member of NATO and loyal ally of the U.S. – but, as previously mentioned, this relationship has weakened.

The Middle East, Balkans, Eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea and Caucasus are all areas of tension between Russia on one side, and the U.S. and Europe on the other. In early August, President Erdogan met Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. In general, both sides took a friendly tone. It will be interesting to see how U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will try to reposition the relationship between Ankara and Washington when he visits Turkey tomorrow.

The Erdogan government’s strong retaliation after the coup will suspend potential EU membership. However, the EU will be forced to continue to work with Turkey on the refugee issue, and in this case Ankara has the better cards.

Turkey will remain a member of the transatlantic alliance: despite the newfound friendliness, Moscow and Ankara still have many conflicting interests throughout southwest Asia and the Middle East. President Erdogan’s strengthened position domestically will allow Turkey a stronger and more independent role throughout these regions. This is in the interest of the U.S., which wants to reduce its exposure there.

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