Turkey goes solo


Turkey has based its foreign policy since the 1920s on non-interference abroad. Its membership in NATO was a defensive measure, important in helping the country fend off Soviet influence during the Cold War, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

Over the past few years, however, Turkey has begun to stake out a position in the Arab world. Ankara has insisted on the removal of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Its struggle with Kurdish insurgents has forced Turkey into limited interventions in Syria and Iraq, including the dispatch of troops to the latter country.

To Turkey’s credit, it has also been willing to accept some 1.6 million refugees from Syria so far.

This more active stance has alienated two of Turkey’s important regional partners, Iran and Egypt. Relations with the European Union have also become more strained.

More importantly, it has derailed a rapprochement with Russia that appeared to be going strong little more than a year ago, when Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for a new “Turkish Stream” gas pipeline beneath the Black Sea.

The evolving Russo-Turkish alignment was a blow to the EU and its energy strategy, and also distressed the U.S. – not least because of the potential complications it posed to the economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

At the time, it appeared that any disagreements between Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan over Syria and the fate of President Assad were of secondary importance.

The two countries shared important economic interests. Russia was one of Turkey’s main trading partners. Turkish construction and tourist industries were heavily dependent on the Russia market, as were Turkish exporters of farm produce.

All that changed on November 24, 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber operating from Syria after it had allegedly violated Turkish airspace. While the incident appeared to be the result of an accident and had no military consequences, it triggered a diplomatic crisis so severe as to be nearly inexplicable.

Russia’s response was immediate. Tourist travel to Turkey was shut down, imports of Turkish food products were banned, and Turkish contractors who had dominated the Russian market had their orders cancelled. Ankara was given to understand that it could retrieve its position by making a formal apology for the incident. So far, President Erdogan has refused to do so – a position that is fully supported by the U.S.

Turkey now finds itself isolated. Besides the political consequences of this fact, there is a harsh economic price to pay.

The Turkish government may be able to cushion the blow by getting more funds from the EU to cope with the refugee crisis, but this will not reset the situation.

Relations with the U.S. have improved, but Turkey is not situated on the Atlantic or the Pacific. It is embedded in the middle of Eurasia, where its crucial political and economic partners are located.

Turkey needs to protect its trade ties not only with the EU and the U.S., but also with Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. We can see this symbolically in Turkish Airway’s business strategy of building Istanbul into a traffic hub. The gateways into these markets are Russia and Egypt.

This makes Turkey’s present foreign policy hard to understand. In the short term, Ankara’s course may favor Western interests, especially those of the U.S. But any long-term strategy should focus on what’s best for Turkey – whose economic stability depends on trade with all of its neighbors.

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