Erdogan’s plethora of foreign policy challenges
President Erdogan claims foreign policy issues prompted him to call snap elections, but what exactly is he up against?
Istanbul, Turkey – When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called snap elections last month, he cited foreign policy concerns as the principal reason behind his decision.
Millions of Turks will head to the polls on June 24 in a vote that will transform the country, which is widely considered as the beacon of democracy and pluralism in the Muslim world, from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency.
“Developments in Syria and elsewhere have made it urgent to switch to the new executive system in order to take steps for our country’s future in a stronger way,” Ergodan told reporters in Ankara last month.
The vote will end the current transition phase between the two systems and will repose massive power in the hands of the new president.
The incumbent, Erdogan, who is projected to win, has long made clear his desire to move from a parliamentary system to a presidential one.
Along with his ruling AK Party, he argues that a new model, similar to an American or French-style executive presidency, will allow for strong decision-making.
Syria tops agenda
Erdogan must make tough decisions on Turkey‘s various challenges on several fronts.
Among the country’s pressing issues are: security threats posed by the armed group – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); a clash of interests with the US in northern Syria; the extradition of Fethullah Gulen – who Ankara accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt; the standstill over Turkey’s bid to join the European Union; Iran‘s influences in the region; the unresolved conflict in Cyprus, as well as its souring relations with Egypt, Israel, Libya and Yemen.
This plethora of challenges suggests the main driver of Turkey’s future foreign policy will be the imperatives of regional geopolitics, with the crisis in Syria topping the agenda.
Tukey’s current predicament with its southern neighbour stands in stark contrast to their relationship just a decade ago.
After its ascendency to power in 2002, the AK Party established a foreign policy of “zero problems with its neighbouring countries”.
The flagship concept earned Erdogan a close working and even personal relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and helped launch indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel.
But after the advent of the Arab Spring, relations between the two began to sour.
After years of supporting the opposition, Turkey failed to steer the conflict towards the trajectory it wanted.
Instead, Turkish troops are now based in the Syrian regions of Afrin, Idlib and al-Bab; it hosts more than 3.5 million refugees and faces a myriad of other problems emanating from the conflict.
The military deployment in Afrin, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch”, was aimed at denying YPG fighters, who Ankara sees as the Syrian branch of the outlawed PKK, a corridor in the hilly northern Syrian border.
“Western powers took great steps to destabilise Syria after 2011, but Turkey has realised that this was a grave mistake and has now positioned itself differently,” Ahmet Yavuz, a retired military general told Al Jazeera.
Erdogan has repeatedly slammed the US over its support for the armed group, which Washington considers a “reliable ally” in the fight against ISIL.
Senior Turkish officials have threatened to extend their deployment to the Syrian town of Manbij, which is under the control of YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and have even gone as far as to warn US troops stationed there not to get in the way.
“Turkey has nothing to be ashamed of following its recent military operations in northern Syria,” says Yavuz.
“The AK Party has changed its course and is now working correctly to preserve the unity of Syria.
“For the interests of Turkey, Syria should be kept as one indivisible whole. Unless Turkey retains that against the will of other countries who wish to divide it, the arm wrestle will still go on.” Yavuz told Al Jazeera.
While it remains to be seen how Erdogan will proceed with his policies in Syria, it’s also unclear how he’ll amend ties with his traditional Western allies and NATO partners, especially after his alignment with Russia and Iran in the war-torn country.
Unwavering support for Palestine
Turkey’s approach towards the Palestinian cause, meanwhile, is not a diverging issue in the country’s politics.
“All parties, from the far left to the far right, gather on the necessity to support the Palestinian people in their cause,” Burak Cop, an academic and parliamentary candidate for the secular CHP, told Al Jazeera.
This trend is set to continue in the future.
“Turkey and Israel have had their ups and downs, but as a country in the region – we have to accept that it’s there – we can’t ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. What we need to do is be willing to confront Israel whenever it commits gross violations of international law,” says Ibrahim Varli, a journalist with the opposition newspaper, Birgun.
Fatma Benli, an Istanbul-based MP with the AK Party, says Turkey was among the first of 128 countries to oppose the US’ decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“While we’re not the biggest economy around the world, we are the second-biggest when it comes to humanitarian aid,” she told Al Jazeera.
“If other countries are seeing Turkey as an emerging regional player, or one that is trying to lead the Muslim world, it’s just a consequence of what we have been doing, not a role we’re trying to seek.”
According to Burak Cop, “national interests [are] what should drive Turkish foreign policy in the region and elsewhere.”
“In Afghanistan, Turkey traditionally played a constructive role there. Even before the AK government, Turkey was a force for helping the reconstruction and peacekeeping. Turkish troops have always been welcomed by the Afghan people. There is a friendship that can be traced back to the early Republican era,” he says.
“Turkey’s actions in Somalia are represented as humanitarian relief efforts. But on a strategic plan, it serves a far-sighted strategy. Somalia is strategically placed geographically, therefore, the AK’s actions in Somalia should be seen as an investment for the future. The strait between Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula is very important for energy transfer lines.”
Leading the Muslim world?
Regardless of how Turkey’s moves are viewed, its economic and political expansion in Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere demonstrate how the AK Party’s policy aims to elevate the country from being a regional to a global player.
Erdogan’s opponents accuse him of pursuing an ideologically driven and expansionist policy with ambitions to lead Turkey, which was once the seat of an Islamic empire, to become a Muslim power.
Benli, the AK Party MP, says such accusations are baseless.
“We’re not looking to lead the Muslim world, but what separates Erdogan from others is the fact that he is prepared to walk the right path whatever the consequences may be and whatever others may say.”
While no one can dispute the leading role Turkey is playing in the region and elsewhere, it remains to be seen how the new executive presidency will shape and define the type of leadership it can offer.