Longview: Neo-Ottomanism or Self-Protection? Understanding Turkish Foreign Policy

Throughout the last decade, the dynamics in Turkey and its surrounding nations have been ever-shifting. Most noticeably, by playing a leading role in nearby conflicts in the previous five years, Ankara has been establishing itself as a regional power. 

Despite the bravado demonstrated in foreign policy, Turkey has been on a sustained financial downward slope. Although the government has been trying hard to suppress the crisis’s indicators by maneuvering the National Central Bank’s actions, the economy’s realities have become unmissable. The pressure the economic crisis creates in domestic policy is evident, but will the brewing financial crisis cause any impairment to Turkish foreign policy’s current prominent bearing? 

Sharing the longest border with Syria, Turkey has been a key actor in the fight against Islamic State

In foreign policy, Neo-Ottomanism is employed as rhetoric directed towards the regional audience, containing elements of multi-ethnic cooperation and pan-Islamism. The Turkish military deployment is largely exercised in the context of some immediate and some more long-term security and stability threats and economic interests. Sharing the longest border with Syria, Turkey has been a key actor in the fight against Islamic State. Turkey continues operations there and in Iraq, targeting YPG militias linked to PKK insurgent groups for decades. Ankara was also criticized for its military support to Azerbaijan during the last fall Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Beyond the proximity of the conflict and the problematic regional diplomatic dynamics, Turkey was compelled to show its muscles to uphold good relations with Azerbaijan to protect its energy security as Baku is the biggest foreign investor and oil provider to Turkey. 

While military funding has not been cut down, an active war could be too much for the public already frustrated with financial struggles

Moreover, Turkey’s recently increased military presence in the Mediterranean and Cyprus and Libya have been perceived as threatening. Tensions rose high this summer between Ankara and Athens after the research vessel Oruç Reis was set to sail. Holding the longest coast on the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s exclusive economic zone claim is halved by the Greek island Kastellorizo that is 2 km away from the Turkish shores. International law is tricky to apply here, and Europe needs to encourage communication between the involved countries. Turkey’s military support for the UN-recognised GNA government in May 2020 against Khalifa Haftar, who controls Libya’s south half, is relevant to intensifying energy rivalries in the Mediterranean. Indeed, Erdogan signing an EEZ agreement with Al-Sarraj that ignores the Greek islands’ disagreements was an objectionable move that escalated concerns over Turkey’s power reach in the area. Regardless, Turkey’s actions are clearly about safeguarding its access to the area’s energy sources, among many other players. Already under the pressure of economic crisis and sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, Ankara also pays 20 percent more for oil than its European counterparts. Considering all this, Turkey is not likely to back down but probably will be open to diplomatic efforts to avoid conflicts. While military funding has not been cut down, an active war could be too much for the public already frustrated with financial struggles. 

Turkey’s partial alignment with Russia has also been alarming to the West. The purchasing of the Russian S-400 missiles resulted in American sanctions being imposed. On the other hand, Ankara is actually on opposite fronts of multiple conflicts with Russia. Erdogan emphasizes the country’s commitment to NATO and EU allies, which is a sharp contrast to the anti-western rhetoric often used in the past two years. However, the domestic perspective is that the US is an unreliable ally with unreliable intentions, so Turkey’s double-sided alignment is a balancing strategy for security.  Nonetheless, the pressure on Erdogan is rising, and he will need to start working towards improving relationships with the EU and the US in favor of the deteriorating economy. Financial struggles are expected to be slightly alleviated in the coming year, but Turkey’s political and economic instability so far has made Europe skeptical about advancing the customs union integration plans with Turkey. 

Moreover, still not having called Erdogan on the phone, Biden is signalling that he will have an uncompromising approach to Turkey

Moreover, still not having called Erdogan on the phone, Biden is signalling that he will have an uncompromising approach to Turkey. The EU also seems uninterested in arranging any international talks about the East Mediterranean to avoid ‘de-facto recognition of Turkish occupied Northern Cyprus’. Overall, it is a challenging period for Turkey, and it will be open to cooperation to a degree, but compromise will be limited despite external pressures. Erdogan has a tight grip domestically, and even though financial troubles have been intense, it does not go as far as to back down from critical foreign policy goals. 


The Editor: Berna Yusein

Berna Yusein holds a BA in International Relations from King’s College London. She has gained significant insight and experience in research, development, and humanitarian action through working with different think tanks and charities. Her research interests consist of security issues, geopolitical risks and socio-cultural dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa region. 

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