Turkey’s Regional Policy in the Year Ahead
The Persian year 1395 ended with the Middle East still under the threat and insecurity caused by extremists and terrorists as well as socio-political structural failures existing in many of the countries in the region. However, evidence shows the at least in Syria and Iraq cases, the year ahead has already demonstrated an opening to a final resolution.
Daeshite terrorists, in Iraq and in Syria, are trapped in an unwanted situation, where it is quite likely that we see a complete liberation of Raqqa following that of Mosul. If so, two crucial canters of saber-rattling and anarchist maneuvers will be eliminated. Certainly however, this should not be taken as the solution of the crises and ending of the region’s fundamental problems. In Iraq for example, it is still unclear how Iraqi leaders and other countries involved would try to reduce the costs of tensions among various Shia, Sunni and Kurdish groups or deal with demands from Iraqi Kurdistan or Sunni factions. In Syria too, there are serious, fundamental differences over important issues such as transition of power, constitutional and government reforms, and the future of Bashar al-Assad, Ba’ath party leaders, Kurds, and Alawites, among others.
The structure and the establishment are stable in Iran and elections cannot lead to vitally determining changes. However, foreign policy complications, Iran’s absence in big international clubs and fronts, the essential difference between goals Iran pursues in Iraq and Syria and goals pursued by others in the region and the world, deep economic challenges, and executive flaws have made certain barriers and difficulties.
There are lots of subtleties in the political and defense issues of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia’s muscle-flexing in Yemen and its confrontation with Iran, and the special ties between the GCC and the US, Turkey, and Europe. These will have growing impacts on regional equilibriums.
On the other hand, after the upset victory of Donald Trump, Washington’s policies on the region’s developments and equilibriums is still unknown, leading to Russian maneuvers and European skepticism. It is after a precise analysis of the situation that one can truly understand Turkey and the approach dominating its foreign policy.
After the constitutional referendum which may very well change the political system in Turkey and establish long-term power for Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), important issues such as the workings of handling the Kurdish issue and the war with PKK, continuation or termination of secularism or Kemalism remain uncertain.
The truth is that change in the constitution and political system in Turkey is an ambitious goal that leads to a series of significant shifts in sociopolitical areas that will ultimately sideline the Leftists, seculars, social democrats, radical nationalists, adherents of Millî Görüş, and other opponents of AKP. The Party is setting foot on a road the end of which is not comparable to, say, the competition between Democrats and Republicans in the US. Even at their best, factions like Republican People’s Party (CHP) or other opposition groups could not reach a position from which to pull the rug from under the feet of Erdogan and his allies and take over. That is because a sociological and objective analysis of the Turkish society today shows that the CHP lacks the capacity to propagate its set of beliefs and attract popular votes. In the foreseeable future, the conservatives allied with Erdogan will become more powerful and influential in all political, executive, economic, and cultural areas, carrying a more seclusionist, nationalist air. The opposition could only elicit increased human rights criticisms from the European Union.
The impact of the Referendum on Turkey’s foreign policy
The Justice and Development Party is in good condition for the referendum ahead, as support from the Nationalist Movement Part (MHP), led by Devlet Bahçeli, functions as a strong assurance for Erdogan and Binali Yıldırım. However, concerns can be seen in AKP think tanks and its enormous propaganda system. While 51 percent of people in Turkey elected Erdogan as their president through direct votes and the Nationalist Movement Party won 10 percent of the popular votes, certain factors put down optimism. First, around a third of MHP supporters disapprove Erdogan and his presidential system. Second, the difficulties Kurdish activists affiliated with PKK have been going through has enraged the Kurds. Third, it is still unclear what more than three million Turk eligible nationals residing in Europe and America will do. Will pressures by Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Denmark and others rebound and bring them to ballot boxes in support of Erdogan or make them indifferent and frustrated?
Thus, the AKP faces no big barrier for victory while its defeat is still unlikely if it fails to handle the situation. By principle, in the case of victory, Erdgan will act more powerfully and confidently in foreign policy, particularly in regional equilibriums: backing Syrian opposition in Syria, and Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq. If he fails, he will step in the same path with tenacity, stubbornness, and perhaps little anger, and little change will occur. Nonetheless, in the year ahead, Turkey will pursue a larger share and wider influence in the region, which will lead to albeit manageable tension. Unpredictable, anarchist, surprise gestures are not expected.
It can be said that Turkey is not to face serious barriers during the year ahead, from the point of view of international and regional relations. However, in the Syria and Iraq dossiers, Erdogan will receive no affirmatives if he seeks a share unfit with Turkey’s capabilities and opportunities caused by diplomatic cooperation and geographical conditions; particularly so, if he tries to present the Syrian Kurds and PKK’s presence in Sinjar as significant threats and use them as a pretext for intervention. The year ahead is a crucial one for Turkey’s interests, if seen in the light that the Syrian crisis is approaching its final resolution. If things continue to go on in the same direction, it will be quite likely for Turkey to achieve a larger share, establishing its influence in the next political structure of Syria.