What’s behind the paradigm shift in Turkish foreign policy this week?

Published June 29th, 2016 - 06:22 GMT
Turkish Prime Minister and the leader of Turkey's ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Binali Yildirim delivers a speech during a meeting of the AK Party at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara, on June 28, 2016. (AFP/Adem Altan)
Turkish Prime Minister and the leader of Turkey's ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Binali Yildirim delivers a speech during a meeting of the AK Party at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara, on June 28, 2016. (AFP/Adem Altan)

June 27 was a day of dramatic change in Turkish Foreign policy.

At noon, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announced a deal with Israel, normalizing relations after the big rift over Gaza and the flotilla crisis of 2010.

While Turkey was busy discussing this move, the Kremlin announced a letter from Turkish President Erdogan conveying his condolences to the family of the pilot who was killed in action on November 24, 2015 by the Turkish Air Force. This was regarded as an “apology” and endorsed by Russia. Turkey’s president will talk to his Russian counterpart over the phone for the first time since last November.

These two diplomatic gestures came on the same day, and present a paradigm shift in Turkish foreign policy, from idealism to pragmatism.

Since Binali Yildirim recently stepped in as Turkey's new premiere following Ahmet Davutoglu's resignation, it could be a sign of more to come from the new prime minister. Davutoglu stepped down following a rift with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he had clashed on a number of policy issues.

Breaking isolation

Turkey and Israel have long been discussing ways to normalize relations. In March 2013, Israel’s Prime Minister apologized for the killing of nine activists on the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010, accepting to pay compensation to the families of the victims. But Turkey’s third demand was hard to swallow for Israelis: the removal of the Gaza blockade. It took three years for Turkey to accept this reality, and Ankara agreed on easing the Gaza embargo instead of removing it.

After a hardline ideological stand against Israel, just how Turkey came to this point is more related to recent geopolitical shifts in the region. The crises in Syria and Iraq poses an enormous threat to Turkish security. An escalation of militant attacks, fighting on two fronts against the PKK and Daesh, having been in trouble with Russia and the EU, the refugee crisis, and other unexpected changes have all forced Turkey to break the isolation it found itself in and Ankara decided to start with Israel.

By normalizing ties, Turkey hopes to balance Iran, to neutralize the Jewish lobby in the West and in the long run develop a strategic partnership with Tel Aviv with regards to security, intelligence and energy. Israel shares the same concerns about the region and they also want to balance Iran, which is now a Mediterranean power.

Balancing the West with Russia

Although Turkey is part of Western security institutions like NATO, Ankara’s relations with the US and European countries have always been problematic. Turkey used its relations with Moscow to counterbalance the US. Since the downing of a Russian jet at the Syrian border, Turkey lost this leverage against Washington at a time when Turkey is trying to link the PKK with American-supported Syrian affiliate the PYD. Because of the crisis with Russia, Turkey had to stop its air operations over Syria and this landed Turkey in trouble. Now the PYD – a "terrorist" organization in Ankara’s books – is on the move near the Turkish border in Syria. By sending a letter of sorrow, which was regarded as an “apology” by Moscow, Turkey gave itself room to act in Syria and balanced the US with Russia again. Peace with Russia will also boost the Turkish economy and tourism and help Turkey to secure its energy needs.

Selling the deals

All of Israel, Russia and Turkey are trying to sell the deals to their polarized electorates. In Turkey, not only opposition forces but also hardliners within the ruling AK Party have strongly criticized the deal with Israel. The Turkish public had rallied against Israel during the Israeli operations in Gaza and following the killing of the Turkish activists. It seemed a tall order to get support for the deal from Turks, but the latest security issues and Turkey’s isolation helped the government to convince the people. On the other hand, the Turkish NGO the IHH still wants to continue criminal cases against Israeli officials.

The Russian question is a similar one. The Turkish Presidency has stressed that it did not use the word “apology” for the downing of the Russian jet, although Russia recognizes it as such.

After these two dramatic moves now many analysts in Turkey have turned their attention to Egypt and wonder whether Turkey will attempt a similar move with President Al-Sisi and try to mend ties with this important Arab state in the region.


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