2021’s unresolved foreign policy challenges continue to dog Ankara heading into 2022

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by Leo Kendrick

2021 saw an active year of Turkish foreign policy, defined by events such as withdrawal from Afghanistan, a diplomatic thaw with the United Arab Emirates, talks with Egypt, a visit by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to New York, a much discussed meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a major diplomatic crisis with the West, a face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden in Italy, and infringement proceedings at the Council of Europe over Turkey’s refusal to release businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, behind bars since 2017. 

Despite successes in initiating the thaw of decade-long stalemate with several Gulf states, Turkey’s foreign policy report card for 2021 was clouded by continued deterioration with traditional western allies such as Europe and the United States. President Erdoğan’s relationship with the Biden administration got off to a rocky start following the president’s New York visit, with Erdoğan himself quoted saying “I cannot say we’ve had a good start.” A threat by the President in late October to expel diplomats from 10 western countries, the majority of whom are NATO members, after they signed a petition demanding the release of Osman Kavala also brought Turkey’s relationship with the west to new lows. The Kavala case continued to plague Turkey’s relations with Europe as it faces potential expulsion from the European Court of Human Rights, according to infringement proceedings initiated by the CoE in early December. 

Foreign relations in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, although better than with the West, were mixed at best throughout 2021. Attempts to mend relations with Egypt and Israel, while not fully realized, made modest progress. Situations in Syria and Libya, two countries which have seen deep Turkish involvement, remained tenuous throughout 2021. Regarding the developments in Turkish foreign policy throughout the past year, Medyascope’s Murat Tursan interviewed retired diplomat Selim Kuneralp who offered his assessment of diplomatic successes and failures seen in 2021. Kuneralp’s general assessment was by-and-large negative, saying “2021 has been a rather wasted year. There are very few positive signs of anything.”

Regarding what the future holds for Turkish foreign policy, Kuneralp said that issues with the United States regarding Turkey’s investment in F35 and F16 aircraft programs as well as Ankara’s controversial purchase of the Russian S400 missile system must be resolved before relations with the United States can be mended. Turkey’s 2017 purchase of the system from Moscow, regarded by the US as a major liability to NATO security, has tarnished relations between the two allies in recent years. According to Kuneralp, in order to solve this issue, Turkey must make one of several decisions. Option number one, which would involve never using the S400 system, could mend relations with the US but would waste $2.5 billion. Another option which has been discussed, Kuneralp said, would be to sell the system to Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey which is not a part of NATO. Lastly, a long-running US investigation into Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank could also pose a threat to relations between Ankara and Washington moving forward.

Although Turkey’s drift away from the West, driven in part by the S400 purchase, has resulted in warmer ties with Russia in recent years, this relationship has also been fraught at times. A recent Turkish decision to supply Ukraine with unmanned combat drones reportedly angered Moscow as it sees Turkish support of Ukraine as a threat to its expansionist designs and interests in the northern Black Sea region. Additionally, a potential Russia-Ukraine conflict could complicate the Turkish-Russian relationship, as it would position Ankara awkwardly between two countries with whom it shares mixed and at times thorny relations. 

Regarding Turkey’s mixed relationship with both the West and Russia, Kuneralp said: “There is a lack of consistency to what the Turkish authorities do. They manage to anger everybody at the same time…There needs to be the adoption of a consistent vision in relation to the interests of Turkey in its broader neighborhood, set some clear objectives, and take the actions necessary to reach those objectives. But we have not seen this in recent years already and there is no sign that anything like this will be done in 2022. It’s difficult to see how things could be improved unless there is a significant change in mentality.”

Despite this past year’s mixed report card, Turkish foreign policy saw a few bright spots in the final quarter of 2021, including entering normalization talks with Israel and talks of restarting flights to and from Armenia. When asked to explain these developments, Kuneralp told Medyascope: “Authorities may have reached the conclusion that Turkey is completely isolated and they want to break from that isolation.”As-yet-unrealized normalization with Egypt also looms as a potential success awaiting Turkish foreign policy heading into the next calendar year. Asked what would be necessary to fix this relationship, Kuneralp speculated that Egyptian anthorities must have put a rather high price on normalization, such as doing something about the Muslim Brotherhood presence in Turkey. The Sisi regime sees the Brotherhood as the main threat to its survival and President Erdoğan’s at times vocal support for the group has been a chief reason for the two neighbors’ diplomatic fall-out. While Muslim Brotherhood access to media stations and broadcasting has recently been subject to restrictions in Turkey, according to Kuneralp, they have not yet been asked to leave the country. “That seems to be a price that Mr Erdogan is unwilling to pay. And until this price is paid it seems unlikely there will be major progress in the relationship with Egypt.”

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