The foreign policy of Turkey after Erdogan’s re-election

The success story of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains a puzzle to many analysts. He has won more elections than any other politician in the history of the Turkish Republic. His party AKP has provided extensive social services and welfare programs to millions of Turks, while supporting pro-business policies. Moreover, the party has underscored the importance of conservative values, largely based on Islam, to gain a moral advantage over its competitors.  It is not a coincidence that Erdoğan has invoked God’s name more and more often.

Against this background, the Turkish president has promoted a new notion of nationalism that emphasizes Muslim identity as the defining element of Turkishness. The AKP claims to act as a force of democratization that represents most of the population against a tiny minority of non-genuine Turks. Thus, the party has mostly drawn support from devout Sunni Muslims who were largely marginalized by the Kemalist regime for decades. Not surprisingly, Turkish foreign policy has been influenced by Erdoğan’s Islamo-nationalism.

Under President Erdoğan, Turkey has pursued an assertive strategy towards its neighbours. The Turkish military has been involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq supposedly only to pursue Kurdish insurgents. While the Kurdish factor does weighs heavily in Ankara’s calculations in the region, there is an ideological element that cannot be easily dismissed. Both Syria and Iraq are now failed states which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. Erdoğan has coined the term “borders of our heart” to challenge the sanctity of existing borders in the region.

Hence, Turkish incursions into Syria and Iraq are likely to continue.

Furthermore, the AKP has attempted to export its own model of governance to other Muslim-majority countries. In 2012, for example, Erdoğan visited post-Arab Spring Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia to promote the AKP model. Although his offer was perceived by many as interference in the domestic affairs of these countries, the Turkish leader has remained popular among the Arab public. He has developed a reputation of an honest and straight-forward politician who supports Muslim causes. The Turkish leadership has sought to normalize its relationship with the Sisi regime in Egypt. This effort will continue in the coming months. Yet, Ankara’s military intervention in Libya has produced uncertainty over Turkish intentions in North Africa. In late November 2019, the signing of the Turkish-Libya delimitation agreement infuriated Athens and Cairo which remain skeptical of Ankara’s presence in the war-torn country. 

Moreover, Erdoğan’s call for the revision of the Lausanne Treaty, which established Turkey’s borders with Greece, is not a coincidental development. Turkish officials have hinted at territorial claims against Greece, although the Eastern Aegean islands are populated exclusively by Greeks. And yet, this is only part of the Mavi Vatan (“Bluewater Homeland”) vision that Erdoğan and his lieutenants have openly endorsed in recent years. It was first declared by the Turkish leadership in 2019, claiming a sea area of 178,000 square miles for Turkey. Ankara has also sent drilling ships to the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone, infuriating Nicosia and the EU. In December 2019, the US Congress approved the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act to support energy cooperation among the US, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. The increased US involvement in the region has not been perceived by Ankara as a positive development. But Ankara has agreed to restore full diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, despite occasional rhetorical outbursts directed at Israeli leadership. Although the recent catastrophic earthquake in the Hatay province has led to a Greek-Turkish rapprochement, Ankara will not easily abandon its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean,

In any case, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed the security dynamics in the wider region. Not only has Ankara avoided imposing anti-Russian sanctions, but it has deepened its partnership with Moscow. Trade between the two countries doubled in the first nine months of 2022 compared to the previous year, reaching $47 billion. Furthermore, Russian tourists in Turkey have significantly boosted the Turkish tourism industry due to travel restrictions in the European Union. The Russian company Rosoboronexport has also been selling weapons systems to the Turkish armed forces, including the advanced S-400 antiballistic missile system. Russia is Turkey’s largest natural gas supplier, mainly through the submarine pipeline Blue Stream; Moscow also builds new nuclear power plants in the country.

Simultaneously, Turkey has supplied Ukrainian armed forces with combat Unmanned Arial Vehicles and has refused to recognize the annexation of Crimea and other Ukrainian provinces. Additionally, the Erdoğan regime has voiced concerns about the human rights of the Tatar Muslim minority in Russian-occupied Crimea. Perhaps most importantly, Turkey was pivotal in brokering a deal to allow grain exports from Ukrainian ports through a safe corridor in the Black Sea.

Turkey’s neutralist stance has deteriorated its relations with Washington which seeks to form a unified front against Moscow. The dire status of the Turkish economy may force Erdoğan to de-escalate tensions with Western countries. However, Ankara is highly unlikely to turn against Moscow as other NATO countries did. Despite Western hopes, there is a growing domestic support for a Eurasianist shift in the Turkish foreign policy. 

In the South Caucasus, Ankara has maintained its special relationship with Baku. In fall 2020, the success of the Azerbaijani blitzkrieg in Nagorno-Karabakh was partly credited to Turkish military support. The current normalisation of relations with Armenia will continue as long as Yerevan remains isolated and is under the threat of facing a greater political crisis. During his third term, the Erdoğan regime may show more interest in developing closer relations with the Turkic republics of Central Asia. 

Overall, Turkey has attempted to maintain an independent foreign policy by distancing itself from the West. While this has not been always possible, it is clear that the Turkish foreign policy is ideologically-driven and geopolitically ambitious. Ankara will maintain an active role in the Black Sea, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean for the next five years. Undoubtedly, Erdoğan’s Turkey aspires to become a regional power and its foreign policy will reflect this fact.

*Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis is a Reader in International Security at King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies.