With the battle against the militants of the Islamic State (IS) heating up in Iraq and Turkey -- along with the United States and other countries -- getting involved by providing support for the Kurdish forces fighting there, it's clear that regional foreign policy questions will dominate Ankara's agenda for the foreseeable future.
As Turks head to polls on Sunday to elect a new president, a vote Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected to win, the question now is what might Turkish foreign policy during his presidency look like, especially considering that Erdogan is widely expected to even further consolidate his power once he takes office?
Writing in The National Interest, analyst Sinan Ulgen lays out the fairly serious foreign policy challenges that Turkey's next president will face:
Turkey’s new government will also inherit a difficult foreign-policy portfolio. Erdogan’s initial vision to normalize the county’s relationships with its Southern neighbors and to position Turkey as a regional power interested in advancing peace and prosperity by emphasizing economic cooperation and mediation allowed Ankara to gain substantial ground. But Turkish policy makers misinterpreted the extent of the country’s growing soft-power influence by becoming overconfident about their ability to shape regional dynamics.
This misstep was highlighted by Ankara’s reaction to the now largely ill-fated Arab Spring. Turkey adopted highly assertive positions toward neighboring governments who failed to embrace the wave of democratization, particularly in Egypt and Syria, believing that Ankara could force the “right” outcome in these countries through a confrontational stance. By avidly supporting the civilian and military wings of the Syrian opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood, Ankara became a party to the conflicts engulfing the Middle East. Although the Turkish leadership defended its position by asserting it was on the “right side of history,” this was a radical departure from the established tenets of Turkish foreign policy, which tended to prioritize caution, nonintervention and alignment with the West. The debate over the normative aspects of foreign policy continues to this day. But the result of this shift in foreign policy has been largely negative—Turkey's relations are nonexistent with the Syrian regime and are frayed not only with Iraq, Israel, Libya and Egypt, but also with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
So what should Turkey do in the face of a regional muddle which it partially helped bring about? Writing in The American Interest, Washington-based Turkey observers Blaise Misztal, Svante Cornell and Halil Karaveli suggest Ankara has three options to choose from:
1) to seek to limit the fallout of past blunders by rebuilding Turkey’s Western alliance; 2) to seek out opportunities to play a regional role elsewhere; or 3) to press ahead and retool its Middle East strategy, yet again.
That said, the authors suggest a President Erdogan may choose none of the above, deciding instead to turn inwards and focus on domestic issues and battles as he works to cement his executive power:
Indeed, since the Gezi Park protests, followed by the intense confrontation with the Fethullah Gülen movement, Erdoğan has been fighting for his political life. To outsiders, it may seem like he is cementing his position by running for the presidency. But it should be noted that he has failed—though not for lack of trying—to turn Turkey into a presidential system. Instead, he sought the presidency under the present constitution, in which most power is vested in the Prime Minister. Erdoğan doesn’t seem to see this as a problem, apparently convinced that he will be able to run the country by the sheer force of his personality. He may for a while, but in the long run, his many challengers aren’t going away. This may force Erdoğan to continue to focus on domestic affairs, making foreign policy an afterthought.
Erdogan will certainly have some significant homegrown battles to fight -- his effort to go after the Gulen movement first and foremost among them -- but considering the enormity of the regional issues facing Turkey and the level to which some of them, such as the Kurdish question, intersect with Turkey's more domestic concerns, it's hard to imagine foreign policy being an afterthought for whoever becomes the next Turkish president. Quite to the contrary, it would be appear, making that foreign policy "reset" something of a necessity.