Editor’s Note: Fadi Hakura is a Turkey expert and Associate Fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent policy institute based in London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
This week three simultaneous suicide bomb attacks rocked Istanbul Ataturk Airport, one of the busiest in the world, killing 43 people. Turkish government officials almost immediately blamed ISIS for the deaths, which coincided with the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Israel and the thawing of ties with Russia.
Turkey’s deepening involvement in the Syrian quagmire and regional isolation checkmated its ability to combat the growing security challenge from ISIS. Its downing of a Russian fighter jet close to the Turkish-Syrian border last November halted its access to Syrian airspace while emboldening Syrian Kurdish insurgents closely affiliated to the separatist militants the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to acquire more territory from ISIS and Turkey-backed Sunni armed groups – to the chagrin of Ankara.
In retaliation, Russia imposed painful trade sanctions on Turkey just as it lumbers into long-term economic stagnation known as the “middle-income trap.” These measures have battered the vital tourism industry suffering from the fallout of the frequent bomb attacks by either ISIS or PKK in Ankara and Istanbul for over a year. Once a paragon of relative tranquility in a turbulent neighborhood, Turkey is increasingly seen as insecure and unstable, and most damagingly, unsafe for foreigners to visit.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has understood the urgency of improving ties with the regional powers and neighboring countries. His loyalist Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s declaration that Turkey sought to increase the number of friends and reduce the number of enemies indicated an important shift after nearly a decade of an ideologically-driven foreign policy that generated hostility or coldness with most countries in the Middle East.
Future of Syrian president
Although the improvement of bilateral relationships are a welcome development, they should however, be seen as a tactical rather than a strategic retreat back to a balanced and flexible foreign policy pursued during the first half-decade of Erdogan’s rule. At that time, Erdogan emphasized free trade, cultural exchange, non-partisanship and conflict mediation under the catchy slogan “zero problems with the neighbors.”
Turkey will still be at loggerheads with Russia and Iran over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Israel will be wary to revive intimate military and security cooperation, or even build pan-Mediterranean gas pipelines to Turkey, despite the flurry of positive statements by both sides on energy relations. Mistrust of Turkey’s intentions has developed to such a level that simply reopening channels of communication will not remove the caution towards its motives and objectives. Transactional diplomacy will continue to be the norm, not the exception.
Why Erdogan looks more vulnerable than ever
Turkey’s foreign policy has traditionally mirrored the domestic political scene. A liberal reformist agenda, for instance, moved in lock-step with a middle-of-the-road foreign policy. Conversely, the rise of confrontational and ideological politics at home reflected combativeness and antagonism abroad.
Root cause of instability
In other words, the real marker of a dramatic foreign policy direction will be whether Erdogan changes tack in Turkey itself. So far, there are no indications that he will sideline his singular ambition of transforming Turkey’s governance into a centralized and powerful executive presidency at the expense of parliament. He is restructuring the lower and higher courts by demoting or forcibly retiring judges viewed as unfriendly to the government. He is also taking steps to narrow the secular character of the Turkish state by, for instance, authorizing Islamic officials to conduct wedding ceremonies and he has not shown any desire to liberalizing his approach to the unresolved Kurdish issue.
Erdogan: ‘Not at war with press’
Combating ISIS and other militant groups will be greatly strengthened if Turkey complements heightened security and intelligence measures with a renewed push towards strengthening democracy, human rights and secularism. Only by tackling the root causes of instability and polarization will Turkey enjoy long-lasting peace and calm.