Why Turkey is mending ties with old foes

The recalibration of Turkish foreign policy has nothing to do with the departure of Ahmet Davutoglu.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an iftar event in Ankara, Turkey [Reuters]
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an iftar event in Ankara, Turkey [Reuters]

Turkey and Israel reached a deal to restore ties, bringing an end to a six-year-long bilateral feud on Monday.

Hours after this announcement, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russian President Vladimir Putin received a letter from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing his “deep condolences” to the family of the pilot who was killed when a Russian jet was downed over the Syrian-Turkish border.

Turkey-Israel deal: Flotilla victims’ families wanted Gaza blockade lifted

In the same letter, Erdogan also pledged that he would do “everything possible” to restore relations with Russia.

Turkey’s presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin confirmed that Erdogan sent the letter saying he was “sorry” for the incident, which took place on November 24, 2015, when Turkey shot down the Russian jet for violating its airspace.

So it seemed that Turkey was fully on reset mode on Monday. And these developments seamlessly fit into the recent trajectory of Turkish foreign policy, which has strived to mend ties with old foes.

New foreign policy discourse

These initiatives have been flanked by a new foreign policy discourse, recently adopted among Turkey’s political elites, emphasising the necessity of gaining friends and placating foes.

READ MORE: Turkey can’t avoid new post-Arab Spring mindset

In spite of the announcement of this deal on Monday, Turkey and Israel have a long history of arduous diplomatic endeavours behind them, particularly the Israeli file.

There has been a reorientation of Turkish foreign policy, but this is not an outgrowth of Davutoglu's departure from the Turkish premiership and the AK Party's chairmanship.


Still, these policies, more specifically their concrete results, all gained high public visibility in the aftermath of the departure of the principal architect of Turkish foreign policy over the past decade, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

After he left office, most of his foreign policy team were reassigned to less central positions in Turkey’s diplomatic corps.

On the surface, these occurrences have given credence to the assertion that Turkey’s foreign policy is undergoing a recalibration as a result of Davutoglu and his teams’ departure from the high echelons of Turkish politics and diplomacy.

In fact, this is true: there has been a reorientation of Turkish foreign policy, but this is not an outgrowth of Davutoglu’s departure from the Turkish premiership and the AK Party’s chairmanship.

Such a reading would be very actor-centric, and would miss the context in which this recalibration is occurring.

Davutoglu was a colossal figure in terms of his impact on redirecting Turkish foreign policy. He had a grand vision for Turkey’s place in the international system, believing that Turkey’s history, geography, human resources and social capital necessitated that Turkey play a larger role in international affairs. He also laid this out in sophisticated theoretical frameworks.

Ahmet Davutoglu [Reuters]
Ahmet Davutoglu [Reuters]

But he wasn’t alone in imagining such a grand role for Turkey in world affairs. In fact, one of the hallmarks of political Islam in Turkey has been an ambitious foreign policy agenda with the country playing a much more active role. This has set it apart from previous policies set by the more cautious and status quo-abiding secularist Kemalist establishment. 

The wider Muslim world

During the short-lived tenure of the pro-Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Party) and the premiership of its leader Necmettin Erbakan, between 1996 and 1997, the party attempted to reorient Turkey’s foreign policy and at least rebalance its overwhelmingly Western-centric orientation.

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To that end, the Refah Party, as the senior partner of a coalition government, together with the centre-right True Path Party (DYP), undertook major foreign policy initiatives targeted at the wider Muslim world.


Erbakan himself used to constantly stress the necessity of closer economic and political cooperation among the Muslim world in order to attain a higher level of economic development, and hence break free of Western hegemony.

On October 22, 1996, he spearheaded the establishment of the Developing Eight Countries (D-8) summit, modelled on the G-8, which he saw as exclusively serving Western economic and political interests at the expense of the rest of the world, and particularly the Islamic world.

The members of the D-8 were all Muslim-majority countries – Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, and Nigeria – and the D-8 was designed to serve as a platform for closer cooperation among its member nations, particularly in the economic, trade, technological, and industrial spheres.

In a sense, seeing no future recognition for Turkey’s historical grandeur in the current international system, Erbakan aimed to establish a parallel international system, underpinned by the values of the Islamic civilisation.

Erdogan emphasises the injustices of the current international system rather than problematising the purported Judaeo-Christian values that underpin the present system.


Political Islam’s vision

Since coming to power in 2002, the AK Party has reviewed the means by which Turkey should strive to achieve greater prominence in international affairs, but it has kept political Islam’s vision of carving out a grand role for Turkey internationally by cultivating intimate links to the wider Muslim world.

For instance, it abandoned the Refah Party’s search for the creation of a parallel, more Islamic international system. Instead, it has sought to attain a grander role for itself in the current international system.

That’s why, unlike Erbakan, Erdogan emphasises the injustices of the current international system rather than problematising the purported Judaeo-Christian values that underpin the present system.

It lambasts the system for being a construct of the post-World War II settlement, and thus increasingly being detached from the reality of the present.

This accounts for his catchphrase “the world is bigger than five“, referring to the present dominant position of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in the international system.

READ MORE: More of the same foreign policy under AK party?

Davutoglu, therefore, may have expressed this grand vision more eloquently and put it into more sophisticated theoretical frameworks, but Turkish foreign policy was by no mean solely the product of Davutoglu’s vision.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan [Reuters]
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan [Reuters]

It was more or less a shared vision of Turkish political Islam. Erdogan was a firm believer in and supporter of the most part of Davutoglu’s foreign policy vision and actions. 

Turkey’s foreign policy has and will continue to experience change and recalibration, but this has little to do with Davutoglu’s departure.

Instead, it is more the result of dramatic contextual and structural changes in the regional/international political landscape, the derailing of uprisings in the Arab world, in which Turkey had invested much political capital and hope, and the emergence of new domestic challenges, mostly as a result of the crumbling of Turkey’s once-hopeful Kurdish peace process and the concomitant return of the Kurdish issue in its conflictual form, with regional implications.

This is why Turkey’s foreign policy is being recalibrated through the mending of ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; the signalling of an initiative towards Egypt; the downsizing of foreign policy ambitions and the reimagining of its foreign policy through its domestic political challenges. But every one of these policies was already in gestation before Davutoglu’s departure.

Conscious of the new regional political picture and emerging challenges and trends, Erdogan voiced his desire to increase the number of Turkey’s allies and decrease the number of its foes during his speech at the opening session of the 13th Islamic Summit of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul in April, before Davutoglu’s departure.

In his first address to the AK Party group meeting on May 24, the new prime minister also put forward the same principle. But these utterances don’t represent a rupture in Turkish foreign policy. They are rather a continuation of it, for this recalibration of Turkish foreign policy has been much more context- and structure-driven than actor-driven.

Galip Dalay is a senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, and research director at Al Sharq Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.