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The shaky axis of Turkish foreign policy after the coup attempt

By Damien Dean

There is no doubt that the recent military coup attempt that ended with an embarrassing fiasco for the plotters, who are thought to have links with the Gulen movement, is probably the most important event in modern Turkish history that will shape the country’s foreign policy in the foreseeable future. Disquieted by the chaotic environment at home, some pundits have started preaching that Turkey should return to its factory default settings in foreign policy as soon as possible. But is such a move possible and does it make sense any longer?

The devastating war in Syria that obliterated the word stability from the Middle East, the straining of relations between Russia and the west, the rising of popular right-wing movements in Europe—the most concrete outcome of which is the partition of the UK from the EU—China’s endeavour to control the South China Sea despite the vitriolic protests from the countries in the region indicate nothing but one thing: the world we know of is no more.

In addition to the mayhem that now ferociously engulfs the world politics from which Turkey is by no means immune, the country has shaken rather severely by a military coup attempt, one that possibly would have realigned Turkish foreign policy had they been successful in their attempt. We of course do not know what kind of foreign policy vision they were planning for Turkey, but the emphasis on the coup announcement broadcasted by the national TV channel was on the allegiance to the NATO and restoring Turkey’s damaged stature in the international community.

The movement known as Hizmet whose spiritual leader is Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric self-exiled in Pennsylvania, USA, has opened countless schools with moderate Islamic leanings in the countries with which Turkey has been brokering close diplomatic ties. Though we do not know to what extent the movement weighed on the formation of Turkish foreign policy in the last decade, we know for sure that the schools opened abroad were serving as an element of soft power for Turkey. Therefore, the movement was an important part of “pro-active” Turkish foreign policy especially in the first decade of the 2000s. Hence, it goes without saying that the factory default settings of Turkish foreign policy insinuate a less engaged Turkey, one that turns its face towards the EU and accepts the US as a strategic partner without meddling—unilaterally—so much with the tumultuous Middle East while also being prudent when engaging with Russia.

The pro-active policy has later fizzled out when relations with Israel, Syria, Russia and Egypt have become strained due to various reasons we cannot cover in this short piece. Especially Gulen’s statement that found Turkey guilty for not having sought permission from the authority [Israel] before sending the Mavi Marmara flotilla to deliver humanitarian aid for people in Gaza surfaced the dissonance between Mr Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen in their foreign policy preferences.

Soon after, Ibrahim Kalın, a foreign policy advisor for the Turkish government, coined a term to define Turkey’s new foreign policy mantra: precious loneliness. Though military officers who ordered the downing of a Russian jet for breaching Turkey’s air space are now being investigated as part of the coup attempt, the precious loneliness policy evidently reflected the fact that Turkey even dares to spoil relations with Russia only to be a lone actor with values in the region.

The precious loneliness policy came with price hard to swallow. Merciless sanctions on Turkey that stunned the economy and the spill-over effect of the Syrian civil war which caused hundreds of civilian casualties left no choice to Turkey but to revitalize the relations with Russia and Israel. With a not-so-common procedure, Binali Yıldrım has become the new prime minister, happily announcing that Turkey will decrease the number of its foes and increase its friends. Turkey before the coup attempt has become more pragmatic in protecting its interests.

And it is not hard to guess the next chapter of Turkey’s foreign policy after the coup attempt. Rumours widely circulated on social media indicated that the US may be behind the military coup. Especially John Kerry’s statements while the coup attempt was underway and his delay to express full support for the civilian rule irked many in Turkey. Later on, it is also understood that the planes that fed war jets mobilized during the doomed coup were launched from the Incirlik Base, a military base in southern Turkey that the US uses for its military operations against ISIS. These will definitely tarnish the image of the US as a trustworthy ally for the Turks. Also, if the US insists on requesting reliable evidence from Turkish authorities for the extradition of Gulen back to Turkey, this too will add another layer of acerbity. The EU’s cold-hearted congratulations to the government yet bold statements over the maltreatments of perpetrators already angered the Turkish side, signalling the relations with the EU might hit a new record low.

In sum, completely different dynamics are at work for Turkish foreign policy. Therefore, it is almost a necessity to spell out the fact that the factory that were once creating “the default settings” of Turkey’s foreign policy is now shattered and almost on the brink of collapse. Now that the government is very adamant in uprooting the Gulen sympathizers from decision making mechanisms, it seems very likely that pro-active diplomacy will lose its momentum to the great extent. Also, Turkey sniffed the pungent odour of precious loneliness. For the time being, Mr Erdogan might find the option of approaching Russia the most viable one, of course with prudence. Therefore, the military coup attempt may shake the axis on which Turkey has been standing for so long. As such, if that axis turns towards the east, it would not be surprising.

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Damien Dean

Damien Dean is a political analyst and expert in international relations. He holds an MA degree in International Relations from Tsinghua University, Beijing.

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