Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is currently going through something of a crisis in relation to its foreign policy, and its neo-Ottoman ambitions to revive its status as an imperial power. Or, in other words, along with Turkey’s growing economic crisis, it may also be suffering from a kind of “diplomatic stagnation” caused by a number of factors.
NATO’s expansion to the North-East, or, specifically, Finland and Sweden’s accession to the alliance, was unexpectedly opposed by its easternmost member, Turkey. Ankara, using its influence with the Turkic states, especially in Hungary, a NATO member with observer status in the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), has in effect created an opportunistic faction within NATO.
To recap, depending on Turkey’s reaction, Hungary had until April 4, 2023 to voice its own decision on Finland’s NATO membership. As soon as Ankara agreed to accept Helsinki into the alliance, the parliament in Budapest voted in favor of the membership bid. For some reason, Viktor Orbán immediately “forgot” about his differences with he Finnish government, specifically in relation to family traditions, financial expectations etc. However, in the case of Sweden, the issue of its membership is still up in the air, with NATO hoping for a change of heart on the part of Turkey and Hungary. The coordinated tactics of Ankara and Budapest have caused NATO serious problems, creating something of a rift in the alliance.
However, the claims that Russia’s influence is somehow behind Turkey’s and Hungary’s stance are also most likely unfounded. After all, both of these states have given their consent to Finland’s membership bid, which has significantly harmed the Russian Federation’s strategic security interests by extending the length of its borders with NATO by almost 1,500 kilometers.
Turkey official reason for its objections to Sweden relate to the Kurdish issue (it accuses Sweden of either harboring or at least failing to clamp down on Kurdish terrorists and separatists), but increasingly these objections are giving way to other concerns. For example, Ankara would like Stockholm to support its accession to the EU, or at least a visa-free regime allowing Turkish citizens to visit the EU countries, or provide substantial financial support for its faltering economy. And, finally, Turkey is unhappy with the periodic anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim demonstrations in Sweden.
In Hungary, on the other hand, the Kurdish problem, EU membership and anti-Muslim demonstrations are not major concerns. Nevertheless, Budapest has coordinated its stance on Sweden’s NATO membership with Turkey, apparently based on its agreement with Ankara on LNG supplies, and in the hope of gas supplies through the Turkish transit route, despite the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the US and the Collective West.
On October 1, Turkey’s parliament (officially, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey) returned to work after its Summer recess. We are now more than half way through October, but still Turkey’s Grand National Assembly has yet to make a final decision on Sweden’s membership bid, despite the reassurances Erdoğan gave his NATO partners in the alliance’s last summit, held in June.
Many commentators (including writers for NEO) have suggested that Erdoğan may be linking the Swedish issue to possible supply by the US of 40 modernized F-16 fighter jets and parts for such aircraft – worth a total of $20 billion, plus significant financial support for the Turkish economy. As yet, apart from winning over Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (who had blocked military aid to Turkey because of Ankara’s threats against Athens), Erdoğan has not received any positive moves from Washington regarding those fighter jets. This stance taken by the US has, it seems, been the main factor preventing the Turkish leader from giving the Grand National Assembly the go-ahead to approve Sweden’s bid.
The well-known Turkish politician Doğu Perinçek, leader of the Patriotic Party, known for his nationalist and, allegedly, Social-Democratic views (although it may be that these views are aimed at obtaining external support for his political status in Turkey), insists that Turkey should refuse to approve Sweden’s NATO membership bid. However, he is a marginal figure in Turkish politics, and currently lacks even a single vote in the Grand National Assembly. His views, whether on Sweden, or on Turkey’s potential departure from NATO, should therefore not be seen as representing Ankara’s official position.
On the subject of Perinçek’s calls for Turkey to leave NATO, the natural question is – if this is Ankara’s intention then why does it place so high a value on its membership when it comes to putting pressure on Sweden and other issues?
Moreover, if Turkey is really against NATO’s expansion eastwards, and wishes to withdraw from the alliance, then why is Ankara furthering NATO’s presence (by using its armaments and troop training methods and regular field training exercises involving Turkish troops) in southeastern regions of the former Soviet space? For example in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, under the auspices of the Organization of Turkic States. It is thus not Armenia, but Turkey and Azerbaijan that are promoting a NATO presence in the South Caucasus. And it is Turkish (i.e. NATO) UAVs and other armaments that are being transferred to the Turkic members of the CIS and even (in the case of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which are members of this body) the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Meanwhile, various influential representatives of the ruling party in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly believe that Ankara may not fulfill NATO’s expectations on Sweden this October. What has happened in October, and what will change after October? The fact is that the world is currently facing a new regional conflict in the Middle East – and one that has a long history. This is the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which could escalate into a wider regional war drawing in many countries in the Middle East (Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran). Accordingly, the Middle East conflict will attract the attention and draw in the larger world powers, including the United States in the West and China in the East.
The Palestinian Gaza Strip has become a fault line in the path of global multimodal trade and transportation projects such as China’s major One Belt, One Road Initiative and India’s IMEC route. At stake is the choice of the most likely route for future trade between China and India to Europe – ether the route through the Middle East or that through the Russian Caucasus, which is part of the “Greater Middle East” (although Russia has been temporarily excluded from the latter transit project by the Collective West, led by the United States, because of its special military operation in Ukraine).
Turkey has its own ambitions to participate in these projects, and Erdoğan is not only trying to juggle a number of different partnerships—with the USA, EU, UK, China and Russia—but also aims to be involved in every project and have a finger in every pie. Ankara is well aware that the outcome of Israel’s conflict with Hamas (or a Western coalition with a coalition of Muslim nations) will determine the makeup of the new world order, or disorder, and Turkey’s place in it.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, formerly director of the National Intelligence Organization, have no plans to join an anti-Israeli coalition, but have taken a more ambivalent stance and are instead focusing on Turkey’s “mediation mission.” Ankara has not committed itself to sending military aid to the Palestinians, but favors the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, and is sending flights to Egypt with humanitarian aid for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Turkey has described the IDF’s intense bombing of the Gaza Strip as “mass murder and slaughter,” warning Israel about its declining role in international community, cautiously criticizing the US for its support of Israel and insisting that it is inappropriate to send two US aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean basin. However, Turkey has no plans to enter into an alliance with, say, Iran, and form part of an broad coalition of Muslim and non-Muslim states against Israel, including, for example, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Colombia or Venezuela.
Turkey’s main ally in the Organization of Turkic States, Azerbaijan, is one of the few states in the Muslim world that openly supports Israel in the conflict with Hamas and Palestine, perhaps because its military capabilities and tactics are very similar to those of Israel. Naturally, Baku will make its final choice based on the result of the ongoing military conflict in the Middle East, and will follow Ankara’s lead. As yet, however, Azerbaijan is in no position to play the role of an equal partner of Turkey on the international diplomatic stage.
Meanwhile, the ruthless bombing of the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City by Israeli aircraft on the night of October 17 shocked the great majority of the international community. Erdoğan rightly called this attack by Israel, which claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 (or, according to other reports, 800) people, an act of outright barbarism. Nevertheless, Ankara has shown great restraint in not calling for an anti-Israel coalition.
Hakan Fidan, in an interview with Turkish journalists, has described Ankara’s proposals for its role as intermediary. Specifically, Turkey and various other Muslim countries propose convening an urgent meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and submitting a joint plan to establish a state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders and centered in East Jerusalem, as the key to peace in the Middle East. To this end, Turkey is ready to serve, along with other willing states, as a guarantor for Palestine’s security, while the United States, Great Britain and other NATO states (or the alliance as a whole) will act as guarantor for Israel’s security. The question is, how does this fit in with Turkey’s status as a member of NATO? Does this mean that Ankara is ready to act as a security guarantor for both Palestine and Israel?
It is possible that Erdoğan’s ideas, as set out, in part, by Harkan Fidan during the ongoing intensive talks with the US and the UK, have a chance of success and reflect a constructive approach to resolving the Palestinian issue.
However, it is unlikely that the US, even with a special request from the UK, will agree to Turkey’s mediation mission in the Middle East without a change in Ankara’s stance in relation to Sweden, Russia and China. In addition, Iran is unlikely to hand over the role of chief arbiter of the Palestinian issue to Turkey, unless the latter participates in the coalition against Israel and adopts a balanced approach in the South Caucasus.
And such factors as Turkey’s high rate of inflation (61.53%), the increase in Central Bank of Turkey’s base rate (now over 30%), and the continuing fall of the Turkish lira against the US dollar (currently trading at 28 lira to the dollar) may also indicate an imminent crisis of Turkey’s multipolar approach to diplomacy.
Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.