For Turkey, regional realignment is an admission of weakness

By on July 14, 2016

The July 28th attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport put a bloody seal on the U-turn Turkey is making on its regional policy – pundits were actually quite fast in linking the carnage to the reconciliation efforts Ankara is pursuing with Israel and Russia. Indeed, the attacks put Turkey on the “right side” of the international community, giving the opportunity to president Erdogan to wash away years of ambiguity in the latter’s dealing with Islamist groups as proxies against the Assad regime.

As a matter of fact, Turkey’s recent diplomatic manoeuvres look as bold and fast as it was the entire launch of the Neo-Ottoman strategy by former Prime Minister Davutoglu, when he was simply Erdogan’s main foreign policy advisor. But the dream of becoming a Sunni super power by embracing and supporting political Islamism in the region soon backfired as the Arab Spring tide rolled back, pushing Ankara to loudly break its strong ties with Israel, to alienate General al-Sisi’s Egypt and to grow obsessed with the removal of Assad from power even when it became increasingly obvious it was impossible to oust him manu militari – an obsession that put Turkey into a crash course also with Russia.

In the wake of the attack and in what looked like a return to a pragmatic Kemalist foreign policy, Turkey signed a reconciliation agreement with Israel in which it gives up one of its most “intractable” conditions – a total end to the Israeli embargo on Gaza – and renounces to its patronage on Islamist political entities in the region by forbidding Hamas to conduct military planning from its office in Istanbul. Around that same time, Erdogan issued a formal apology to the family of the pilot of the Russian Su-24 downed by the Turkish artillery as it was flying over the Turkish-Syrian border – an apology followed by the gradual resumption of diplomatic and business channels between the two countries. While reconciliation with Egypt seems still far from happening, what looks particularly striking are the signals Ankara is sending directly to Damascus. Last April, an Algerian newspaper revealed that the Turkish and Syrian governments are using Algiers’ mediation to “exchange views on the Kurdish question and the desire of the Syrian Kurds to create an independent state”. Such a pragmatic approach has been subsequently reinforced by the words of Prime Minister Yildirim, who labeled the Syrian conflict a “meaningless war” and openly spoke of the need to normalize relations with Syria.

Make no mistake: such a straight shift from Neo-Ottomanism to traditional Kemalist foreign policy is yet another show of pragmatism from Erdogan: Ankara could no longer afford being stuck in the regional dead-end street it was trapped. Repairing relations with Jerusalem and Moscow has – above all – a strong economic meaning, with Ankara eager to become a regional hub for Israeli and Russian gas and to see the return of Russian tourists along its coasts. And as the Islamic State lost its tactical value to Ankara – as an enemy to both Assad’s forces and the PYD militias – Turkey admitted that the best way to deal with the risk of an independent Kurdish entity at its border with Syria is to engage with its arch-enemy in Damascus. Turkey’s realignment with Western priorities in the Middle East comes as the acknowledgment of a strategic weakness, one the European Union should exploit to end Ankara’s blackmail on migration.

Author: Dario D'Urso
Dario is an international affairs analyst and consultant with years of experience in both government and private sector. Following a year-long collaboration with the Democratization Department of the OSCE Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dario worked as a researcher for the Rome-based think tank CeSPI, on conflict-related issues in the Western Balkans and on the EU capabilities in crisis-management. He then contributed to several Government, private institutions and media with his analyses on Europe, Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Turkey and Iran, before spending two years in Strasbourg as a Political Advisor at the Council of Europe. His research areas also include energy security, jihadism and geoeconomics.

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