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Shunned by the West and menaced by Syria, Turkish foreign policy turns south

A Turkish soldier watches the border line between Turkey and Syria near the southeastern village of Besarslan, in Hatay province, Turkey. Umit Bektas/Reuters

The Syrian civil war has become one of the greatest tragedies in human history in terms of its humanitarian consequences. The war has had huge ramifications for the Middle East, contributing greatly to the rise of ISIS, and is a particular nightmare for neighbouring Turkey and its foreign policy.

Since the early 2000s, successive Turkish governments have invested greatly in a Middle East policy grounded on a common history, geography, shared destiny and civilisation.

This transformation was supported in practice through Turkey’s mediation efforts between Israel and Syria, Israel and Palestine and the P5+1 countries and Iran. Turkey has also promoted conflict resolution, development cooperation, visa and tariff-free treaties, as well as opening of new embassies and cultural centres throughout the region.

During the first years of the Syrian war, apart from the huge refugee flow to Turkey and rapidly deteriorating trade relations with the conflict-torn country, Ankara did not closely feel the contagious and destabilising effects of the civil war.

However, the rapid internationalisation of the Syrian conflict, the ethnic and political ties between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s own Kurdish population, and the emergence of the ISIS threat have accelerated the spread of the civil war across the Turkish border.

A Syrian refugee mother puts her baby to stroller in Nizip refugee camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border. Umit Bektas/Reuters

The rise of nationalism and pragmatism

There is no doubt that during the recent Astana peace talks, Turkey was one of the countries with the highest interest in ending the civil war.

Turkey is actually the only country fighting against ISIS on the ground with the Syrian rebel groups including the Free Syrian Army since the government launched its Europhrates Shield Operation in September 2016.

At Astana, Turkey was looking for the guarantees from the two other regional powers present on the Syrian battlefield – Russia and Iran – as well as for the guidance of the UN.

The Syrian effect on Turkish politics has been twofold: first, the rapid polarisation of the domestic scene between pro-government and opposition circles; second, the rise of nationalism as a response to the rising terror threat and increasing divergence from allies, particularly the US, on the possible resolution of the conflict.

The gradual normalisation of ties with Russia since June 2016, and the changing geopolitical equations in the aftermath of the battle for Aleppo appear to have shifted Turkey’s Syrian calculus, which is now more rooted in pragmatism than before.

EU relations at an impasse

The Syrian war has also made relations with the EU more complex for Turkey, following the refugee deal signed in March 2016, which aimed to put an end to irregular migration.

In exchange, the EU had committed itself to offer visa liberalisation to the border-free Schengen area for Turkish nationals.

When the EU and Turkey sat at the negotiating table to find a solution to the large numbers of Syrian refugees coming to Europe, hopes were raised of a possible revitalisation of relations. But things have not evolved as positively as predicted.

The refugee deal drew staunch criticism from human rights organisations, who claim that it does not offer a comprehensive asylum policy, is legally flawed, and endangers fundamental refugee rights.

The success of the deal was also highly dependent on the fulfilling of the EU’s condition that Turkey amend its anti-terror law in line with EU standards, something Turkey has not yet done.

The EU’s late condemnation of the coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkey last July, and its strict criticism of his post-coup purges have not helped matters. In November, Erdoğan threatened to reopen borders for EU-bound migrants after the European Parliament voted in favour of freezing negotiations to allow Turkey to enter the EU.

As of today, the refugee deal between Brussels and Ankara is in state of collapse and uncertainties persist around the readmission agreement and visa-free access to the EU for Turkish citizens.

The Turkey-EU relationship is at a crossroads over the refugee crisis. Murad Sezer/Reuters

Overcoming the prevailing difficulties in EU-Turkey relations seems a distant prospect, at least in the short run.

Taking a further step in Turkey-EU relations is more dependant on the inclusivity and political decisiveness of the EU than the success of Turkey’s reform process. However, one thing is clear: Turkey-EU relations are not sustainable in their current form, even though both sides have ongoing interests in keeping Turkey within the EU’s orbit.

Searching for alternatives

Caught out by the side effects of the Syrian civil war and deteriorating relations with the EU and the US, Turkey now appears to be in search of new alternatives to overcome its current limitations. In this context, the Global South has become a focal point for foreign policy.

In recent years, Turkey has eagerly sought to develop South-South cooperation, particularly in the domains of humanitarian diplomacy, development cooperation and trade.

In this regard, least developed countries such as Yemen, Burundi, Vanuatu and Haiti, have become more of an issue for Turkey’s global governance agenda. Indeed Turkey hosted several conferences for partnership with the least developed countries in Istanbul and used its G20 presidency as an opportunity to reach out the Global South.

In addition to its increasing development cooperation and trade with Africa and the developing diplomatic and trade relations with the Latin American countries, Turkey was also among the founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank ( AIIA) as its 11th largest partner.

Turkey is an active member of both the established framework of the UN system and informal institutions such as the G20 and MIKTA (an informal partnership between Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia) under which the Global South countries are also represented.

A foreign minister’s meeting of the MIKTA group in Sydney, Australia, November 25, 2016. David Gray/Reuters

Turkey’s willingness to participate in solving regional crises – as seen clearly in the recent Astana talks – can be an important asset in other spheres, outside the Western world. Turkey has the capacity to empathise with countries in the Global South, since it experiences the very same development and democracy-related problems that many other nations face.

The Turkish model, widely promoted by Western circles in the 2000s, particularly after the 2011 Arab revolts, has lost its sheen in the context of the Syrian civil war.

But this does not mean that Turkish foreign policy is gridlocked. Rather, new opportunities are opening up elsewhere.

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