When Russia’s Vladimir Putin recently remarked that Turkey’s Erdogan is an ardent follower of the logic of national interest, he was perhaps alluding to the way Tukey continues to adjust very consistently between the West and the East, though it doesn’t always work. Turkey is a member of NATO and is a buyer of Russian defense systems as well. While for all other NATO members, Turkey’s behavior is unacceptable and even counter-productive, Erdogan’s defense of this purchase is, as can be expected, rooted in his ardent pursuit of national interests. As it stands, for Turkey, this particular purchase doesn’t make it a strategic ally of Russia, nor does it make it an enemy of NATO.
While there is no gainsaying that NATO is facing an internal crisis, Turkey’s policy remains focused on finding a right balance between its NATO obligations and national interests, which don’t always converge with NATO though. For Turkey’s Erdogan, geo-politics is not a zero-sum game and that the balance of power continues to shift, demanding consistent adjustments. With Trump’s exit from power and the fact that the White House will now have fewer anti-Erdogan officials like Mike Pompeo, it is but logical for Erdogan to respond to these changes in a way that best suits Turkey’s core national interests. Turkey’s recent positive overtures to Israel reflect these adjustments.
Until Trump’s defeat in elections, Erdogan’s official discourse was anti-Israel. He would repeatedly criticize The Abraham Accords and would make resolution of the Palestinian question a pre-requisite for re-establishing ties with Israel. Trump’s exit from the White House has led to some crucial changes in Turkey’s stance. It has already re-established diplomatic ties with Israel, even though the pre-requisite remains unresolved. While Erdogan still said that Palestine remains a “red line” (just as it has always been), he would still like to have better ties with Israel, going beyond the already existing “intelligence contacts.”
The fact that Ankara is now reaching out to Israel shows how this adjustment suits its current needs when it is facing tumultuous challenges. With the US and EU imposing sanctions on Turkey at a time when its economy is in a free-fall mode, Erdogan finds its significant to mend Turkey’s image in a way that could make it a little bit more ‘acceptable’ in Washington and Brussels.
To do that, Tukey is equally reaching out to the EU, even though the EU, like Washington, has only recently imposed sanctions. Faruk Kaymakcı, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister and director for EU affairs, recently said that 2021 could be a “year of normalization in Turkey-EU relations; it can also be a year of reform and win-win. From 2021 on, what we expect from the EU is dialogue and engagement with no conditions.”
EU is already reciprocating Turkey’s considerably mellowed position. On December 23, the EU announced that is extending two programs, one that provides cash assistance to refugees in Turkey to meet their basic needs and the other that provides funds to help educate children. The programs will be extended until early 2022 at a total cost of 485 million euros ($590 million).
One crucial reason why Tukey continues to approach the EU and the US despite the recent sanctions is that even though US sanctions have been imposed under the delightfully named Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), these sanctions are not as strict and wide as it may apparently sound. For instance, there is no general prohibition on engaging in all transactions involving SSB, Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries. These sanctions equally do not apply to the Turkish Ministry of Defense or the Military and wider defense sector. As it stands, these sanctions were more of an expression of Mike Pompeo’s personal view of Erdogan and his policy than an institutional response to Turkey’s ‘independent’ foreign policy.
This explains why Ankara still wants to remain a part of the Western alliance. Widespread and strong sanctions will only add to Ankara’s economic woes and add to Erdogan’s political problems at home. A strict regime of US-EU economic sanctions will make it extremely difficult for Erdogan to deliver on his promise of breaking the “triangle of evil” of interest rates, inflation and exchange rates.
On December 26, Erdogan proclaimed that 2021 will be a year of democratic and economic reforms, including possible release of politicians, including Kurdish activists and human rights advocates, from jail. This is Erdogan’s way of improving Turkey’s image in Brussels and Washington and present himself as a “moderate Islamist” and change their current view of him as an autocrat.
Turkey is, therefore, making some significant adjustments in a seemingly imperceptible way. Turkey realizes that the arrival of Joe Biden is unlikely to bring a dramatic shift to the US-Russia and US-China relations; however, the arrival of Biden could certainly allow for reversing the course of consistently bad ties between Ankara and the West (the US and EU). Turkey, in other words, is well onto a course correction path.
If Erdogan had continued to follow the same path of political and diplomatic belligerence towards the West, it could have cost him his political fortune at home. For Erdogan, remining in power is more significant than merely protecting Turkish national interests. In other words, while it is imperative even for Erdogan that Turkey’s national interests are protected and materialized, there is no gainsaying that Erdogan wants to do this by himself. As it stands, he needs better ties with the West to avoid political and economic problems at home.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.