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After the end of World War II, Turkey developed a foreign policy aimed at obtaining a prestigious international role. It joined NATO, became an ally of the West and aimed at becoming part of the European Union. This approach was the political legacy of Kemal Ataturk and of the secularism he had imposed over the country. The military, that inherited such a tradition, continued along this path, whose direct consequence was the indifference towards the Islamic world surrounding Turkey. A psychological element was also at stake: after having lost the Ottoman Empire, regarding as peers countries that had once been vassals was both humiliating and remindful of a forever lost glorious past.

The advent of Erdogan

Turkey had become a regional power between Asia and Europe, standard bearer of the West and friend of Israel until Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his “moderate-conservative” AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or Justice and Development Party) appeared on the political scene. Since 2002 and until today, Erdogan's rise to power has lead him to the post of President of the Republic in August 2014. The support his party has gained has eroded the influence of the military and currently allows the AKP to control two thirds of Parliament.

Over these years, Turkey's foreign policy has slowly, but inexorably shifted. The Islamic extraction of the AKP fatally pushed its leader into developing a preferential relationship with the Arabic and Muslim world that had been previously ignored. The European Union favored this process by not being welcoming towards a Muslim Turkey and for hardly tolerating the undemocratic behaviors Erdogan has showed during his political ascension.

This is why the Turkish President has shifted his attentions and has given birth to what some analysts define as a “Neo-Ottoman” policy towards regional neighbors that is based, where possible, on the legacy left by the recent imperial past. The preference, for obvious political reasons, went to those Muslim countries ruled by Islamic elites. After all the AKP has very close ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The Arab Autumn

From this point of view, the Arab Spring was a great opportunity for Erdogan's Turkey. Each revolution against a secular regime was followed, most of the times, by the growth of Islamic movements. This was the case in Tunisia, Egypt, could have been so in Libya (although Ankara opposed the military intervention to depose Khadafi), and hopefully would have happened in a short time span in Syria, while it had already taken place with Hamas in Palestine.

Unfortunately for Turkey, events took a different twist. In Cairo, where Erdogan had established close ties with President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brothers were removed from power and the military elite lead by General Abdel Fattah al Sisi regained control. The restoration immediately lead to a cooling down of bilateral ties.

President Erdogan had also become very close to Rashid Ghannouchi's Ennadha party in Tunisia. But the latter was recently defeated in the elections, where nationalists and secular parties prevailed over the Islamic ones. In Libya, it is the government and Parliament based in Tobruk that has received international recognition and not the Islamic factions in Tripoli and Misrata supported by Ankara. Hamas in Gaza is still marginalized in the event of a negotiation of Palestinian issues, while it has suffered a recent military setback.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Syrian checkmate

What has hit Erdogan's Arab-Muslim foreign policy the hardest is the failure to depose the Alawite regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria. The Turkish President is in the uncomfortable position of hosting on its territory the rebel groups opposed to Damascus, the flow of terrorists and weapons and, as shown by recent terrorist attacks, of imported terrorism. The spill overs of the Syrian crisis have put Turkey into a corner and in search of an adequate political response that still hasn't been found.

Recep Erdogan's political Islamism, a vision shared with other Middle Eastern actors, could become the first casualty of a drift towards fundamentalism. There are three thousand supporters of the ISIS in Turkey and, according to data from local authorities, about a thousand Turkish fighters scattered across Syria and Iraq. On the background are one million Syrian refugees stationing on Turkish soil. Such a scenario poses several security headaches, for one the border between Turkey and Syria is 900 km long and it is thus virtually impossible to completely oversee it.

The resurgence of the Kurdish issue, highlighted by the initial Turkish refusal to provide assistance to those besieged in Kobane, has created more problems. From a domestic viewpoint, it is dramatic that Ankara was eventually 'forced' to allow the transit into Iraqi Kurdistan of 150 Peshmerga fighters. The circumstance has lead to the end of the negationist taboo over the existence of the Kurdish people living both inside and outside Turkey's national boundaries. This historic event will sooner or later have to be dealt with by Turkish authorities.

Nonetheless, currently President Erdogan continues to refuse assisting the Kurds. Neither against Assad's regime, a common enemy, nor in the fight against the ISIS, a potential threat to its national security. A derisive destiny has inflicted on the Turks the humiliation of watching Kobane being freed by the Kurds thanks to the aerial supply of American weapons.

Tensions with Washington and Tel Aviv

The relationship with the United States also requires some mending, following the Turkish refusal to concede the use of the Incirlik airbase for the raids on the ISIS. The military objectives of the entire operation are disputed: Recep Erdogan would want the international coalition to focus on Syria, while the United States is rather looking at Iraq.

The ties with Israel have also suffered a number of setbacks following the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in September 2011 as a result of the Israeli special forces' attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship part of the Freedom Flotilla bound for Gaza. Eight Turkish citizens perished in the incident. The affair is still unsolved despite Israel's official excuses. Turkey has two more requests to make: the payment of a compensation to the families of the victims and an end to the embargo and siege over the Gaza Strip.

Under scrutiny by Tel Aviv are also Erdogan's close ties with Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshal, both welcomed in Ankara several times. Israel accuses Turkey of having authorized Hamas to operate a command on its territory tasked with recruitment and overseas operations. At the same time, Egypt has also added Hamas's military wing to the black list of terrorist organizations.

Ahmet Davutoglu
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu

New friends

The difficulties in the relationship with Israel and the United States have been compensated, in Erdogan's perspective, by a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin's Russia. The Russian President's recent visit in Ankara has opened a number of economic opportunities: gas-ducts from Russia on Turkish soil; a nuclear plant with Russian assistance, technology and financing; a favorable tax regime etc.. In fact, Turkey did not join the choir of nations imposing international sanctions on Moscow following the developments in Ukraine. Recep Erdogan seems to have accepted Putin's request for neutrality and non-alinement with American policies.

The reconciliation with Moscow implies a series of contraindications. Firstly, the issue of Crimea's Tartars, historically and linguistically tied to Turkey, facing increasing discrimination following the recent annexation of the peninsula by Russia. The Armenians are also a major black mark: their genocide has always been denied by the Turks and is still lacking a political solution. In April 2014 the border between Turkey and Armenia was opened and, on the eve of the ceremonies, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pronounced official excuses. But the road towards a normalization of the ties with Armenia, that recently joined the Eurasian Economic Union, has yet to overcome 100 years of distrust and misunderstandings.

The recent appointment of the former minister of foreign affair Davutoglu to the post of Prime Minister is possibly a signal that something has to change in Turkey's relationship with the outside world. It is a fact that Turkey's foreign policy is currently both contradictory and facing a constantly evolving regional and international landscape. The AKP's Islamic prism is to a great extent responsible of how responses to events are being formulated.

Dangerous games

Turkey aims, together with others, at the leadership of the Sunni galaxy. This why its dealings with Tehran are often lopsided. On one side the Turks need Iran's energy supplies, on the other they are on opposite sides of the barrier when it comes to Syria and to Turkey's aspiration to lead Sunnism against Shiism. The affinity between Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar, hosted in Ankara on December 19, 2014, raises serious doubts over Turkey's stance both in respect to several Sunni-lead regimes in the region and towards the Islamist militias menacing the area's stability.

To this effect, an emblematic affair has recently involved three trucks operated by the MIT (“Milli Istihbarat Teskilati” alias “Organization for National Intelligence) stopped by Turkish police at a checkpoint and found loaded with missiles, mortars and ammunitions. According to the Central Command of the Gendarmerie, the weapons were bound for Al Qaeda and/or ISIS militias in Syria. The episode dates back to January 2014, but it was disclosed only a year later.

Erdogan's government initially blocked, through an injunction, the publication of any news on the incident, claimed the load was humanitarian aid for the Syrian Turkmen and eventually attempted to cover up the affair by removing the Prosecutor that investigated the case and by accusing 13 soldiers of espionage. Despite these attempts, the scandal has erupted and the details of the operation have been unveiled. A foreign airplane had landed at the airport in Ankara and had unloaded the weapons on a number of trucks that drove to the Syrian border at Reyhanli. From there on, and according to a consolidated practice, the civilian drivers were substituted by men from the Secret Services that rode the trucks across the border.

Six containers, around 60 missiles, mortars and around fifty cases labelled in cyrillic containing mortar and Dushka anti-aircraft ammunitions. And we don't know who they were for. But there is a high risk they ended up in the wrong hands.

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