During the twentieth century Turkey’s foreign policy has been built upon three geopolitical priorities:
- Its progressive integration with the West, with the joining to NATO and, since 1960, the aspiration to become a member of the European Union;
- Its activity in the Middle East mainly shaped around the managing of the delicate Kurdish question;
- Its security centred on NATO and focused in the containment of Russia’s projection into the Mediterranean Sea.
The twenty-first century is exposing Turkey to a changed strategic landscape:
- Following a short period of détente after the end of cold war, since 2007 Russia’s relations with the US and the West are progressively deteriorating;
- Furthermore, since 2003 the balance of power in the Middle East is experiencing a significant change that is affecting Turkey’s southern border (Lebanon, Syria and Iraq) combined with the challenge of political Islam;
- Finally, since AKP’s rise to power in 2002, the secular and western choice that Turkey made at the end of the First World War has been progressively questioned.
So far, the main result of this changed strategic landscape is that Turkey’s traditional political and military relationships with US and NATO have been negatively affected; on the other end, an unexpected pragmatic cooperation of Turkey with Russia and, to a certain extent, Iran, is looming.
In a moment characterised by an increasing polarisation between Islam and the West, Turkey’s embrace of political Islam, particularly Muslim Brotherhood, has created misunderstandings and tension with some Western countries and certain Arab states.
Considering similar Russia’s concern for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism along its southern flank, Turkish’s Islamic choice should have negatively affected also its relationship with Russia. Although moments of tensions have not been missing, especially on the Syrian file, the pragmatism of both Russian and Turkish leaderships has ultimately allowed a more clever management of their different views, coming to an effective and pragmatic cooperation on the ground.
On the Western front, instead, after knocking on Brussels’ door for more than half a century, Turkey has finally understood that its destiny is not anymore in the European Union but elsewhere. This “else” is not fully clear yet, as the widely claimed “zero problems with neighbours” policy has frequently ended up in a “zero friends in the neighbourhood” situation. Nevertheless, Ankara seems now more leaning toward Middle East, Africa and Asia.
On the other end, Turkey’s relationship United States and NATO has not been characterised by a similar pragmatism. Growing misunderstandings have marked Ankara dealings with Washington and Brussels. The failed coup and the quarrel to get Fetullah Gulen extradited from the United States are just the last chapters of a relation increasingly poisoned.
Furthermore, Turkey’s pretension in maintaining a decent relationship with the United States and, at the same time, adopting a strong confrontational stand against Israel it is simply naïve, to say the least. This is a luxury that Washington is ready to grant only to a few rich Arab rulers in the Persian Gulf.
Turkey and Russia do not have a perfectly aligned agenda. They have different interests and priorities but for the time being they seem to find their respective interests converging in keeping Western countries at bay from the Middle East.
It is still premature to determine if Turkey’s evolution foreshadows a definitive re-alignment with Russia. Notwithstanding his rhetoric, President Erdogan remains a pragmatic leader; frequently his verbal pronouncements have not been matched by facts. A few years ago, the Turkish leader was irremovable from the “Assad must go” position on the Syrian crisis. Today, also due to Moscow’s “persuasion”, Erdogan has realistically accepted that the Syrian game is over and that Russia and the Axis of Resistance (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah) have prevailed.
Most probably Turkey will continue to pragmatically play his cards on different tables in Washington, Moscow, Brussels and in the Middle East. So far, Ankara’s brilliant economic performance with a GDP growth of 11%, and President Erdogan’s high popularity in his own country and in the region, offer the necessary room of manoeuvre for this reckless policy. The point is to see for how long it will be tolerated in Washington.