Istanbul, Turkey – The sight of Russian and Ukrainian negotiators meeting in Istanbul for direct peace talks highlights the position in which Turkey finds itself as a perceived neutral side in the war in Ukraine.
Turkey could have been in a quandary as two ostensible allies fought a devastating war. Instead, Turkey, a NATO member, continues to supply weapons to Ukraine, while refusing to sanction Russia, and is respected by both sides enough to host Tuesday’s talks.
That balanced position is a continuation of a policy that during the last year has resulted in a rapprochement with a variety of countries in the region with which Turkey has strained or nonexistent relations. Ankara’s diplomatic initiatives have included efforts to mend ties with adversaries including Armenia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Relations have improved across the board. Turkey had long severed ties with its neighbour Armenia; now officials are meeting, and direct flights have resumed. The 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate instantly soured Saudi-Turkish relations, but the two sides are now looking to put that behind them, and their foreign ministers met last week.
The deputy foreign ministers of Egypt and Turkey held talks for the second time in 2021 last September in Ankara, while Israeli President Isaac Herzog made a particularly notable visit to the Turkish capital this month, meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was the first time an Israeli head of state had paid a visit to Turkey since 2007.
However, it is the improvement in the relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that is perhaps most interesting, in light of years of tensions between the two countries, which have found themselves on opposing sides in a number of regional disputes.
In November, the UAE promised to invest $10bn in Turkey, funds much needed by Ankara as the country is in the midst of an economic crisis with continually increasing inflation, soaring costs for consumer goods, and weakened purchasing power brought on by the heavy devaluation of the lira.
Erdogan visited Abu Dhabi in February and was greeted with pomp and circumstance, with the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, displaying the Turkish flag, and the Turkish national anthem playing from the Dubai Fountain.
“The fact that Erdogan visited was not shocking for people who had been watching the two countries’ relationship of late,” Monica Marks, professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, told Al Jazeera. “What did surprise a lot of observers was just how visibly he was feted. You can invite someone without greeting them in such an overtly celebratory fashion.”
Countries such as the UAE are eager to increase economic ties with Turkey, as they seek to benefit financially in light of the latter’s severe economic downturn.
“Turkey is a bargain basement deal right now given the sorry state of the lira, and the UAE has been looking to invest and diversify its investments away from oil for a long time. So investing in different sectors of the Turkish economy is a savvy move from the UAE’s perspective,” Marks added.
‘Zero problems with neighbours’
Turkey’s controversial “policy of zero problems with our neighbours” was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a longtime key Erdogan ally. Davutoglu has since split with Erdogan and formed his own opposition party, but Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs still features a detailed outline of the policy on its website, touting its achievements.
“I think this policy mostly failed after some initial successes, basically in the aftermath of the Arab Spring when the Turkish government shifted to sectarian policies and really began to support Sunni groups in the Middle East and tried to undermine governments in the region and adopted increasingly revisionist policies,” Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, told Al Jazeera.
Davutoglu’s strategy was centred on a “scapegoating” of Turkish nationalism for Turkey’s problems with its neighbours, according to Esen. The former prime minister said the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) background in moderate political Islam – rather than nationalism – would be able to resolve Turkey’s regional problems.
Esen argued that Davutoglu’s policies failed, which became the impetus for the wave of Ankara’s rapprochement efforts.
“I think the main motivating factor going beyond political and economic goals is the failure of the old policies. With the collapse of Turkey’s revisionist agenda over the last couple of years, I think it became quite clear to Erdogan that his government’s previous foreign policy steps were no longer sustainable and that something needed to be done,” Esen said.
Others posit the “zero problems” policy was established prior to the emergence of a fraught political context that did not allow it to be fully realised.
“When the policy was rolled out, the Middle East had a different zeitgeist than it does today. The policy didn’t survive long enough to evaluate it as a success or failure due to the Arab Spring, which resulted in a seismic geopolitical shift for the region,” Yusuf Erim, editor-at-large at Turkey’s English-language state broadcaster TRT World, told Al Jazeera.
“The rise of Daesh [ISIL] and two major conflicts on Turkey’s borders required a change towards a forward-deployed diplomatic posture to deal with new security threats and instability across the border. Today, there are new realities as the region is undergoing a wave of rapprochement,” Erim added.
Ukraine balancing act
Turkey’s most critical relationships at the moment are undoubtedly those with Kyiv and Moscow, with Turkey’s political and geographic position accelerating Erdoğan’s agency in the broader region and vis-a-vis the West.
“Erdogan has been sort of cast aside almost as a pariah in the international arena for the last couple of years. Biden refused to talk to him. In major summits, Erdogan cast a lonely profile. But things have really changed it seems, since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” Esen said.
Ankara’s primary aim now appears to be regional stability, with the knowledge that any other outcome might mean further financial hardship.
“Turkey is probably one of the countries that takes a direct hit as a result of this instability,” Erim said. “Turkey has not taken part in sanctions because it understands that those sanctions will probably hurt Turkey just as much as they will hurt Russia, so Turkey wants to continue to take a balanced position and it will do this as long as possible as long as Russia does not cross any serious red lines.”
“Turkey is very vested in being able to broker peace,” said Erim, “because it would be one of the big winners if peace is able to be established between these two players.”