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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 May 2018

With his wings clipped, Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy could be over

Turkey’s overseas relations have had an increasingly imperial filter thanks to Mr Erdogan’s dreams of turning Turkey into a regional superpower. With his party's poor election result it could be difficult to force a that world view on an increasingly disinterested Turkish electorate.

Syrian refugees gesture as they ask for water at the Turkish border near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, on June 13. AFP PHOTO
Syrian refugees gesture as they ask for water at the Turkish border near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, on June 13. AFP PHOTO

The results of Turkey’s parliamentary elections raise more questions than answers, especially concerning the country’s pivotal foreign policy.

The electorate’s dramatic curtailing of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to entrench his place as a contemporary sultan was a stunning result and reflected widespread anger with the direction the country is heading.

For the first time since taking power 13 years ago, Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, will not enjoy a majority in parliament and must set about building a coalition. However, not a single coalition government in Turkey has lasted its full mandate. The AKP leadership, with 45 days to form a coalition government since the results were announced with opposition parties, is already hinting that it will push for early elections.

The last decade of AKP rule has been a rollercoaster for Turkey in the foreign policy arena. From 2009 to 2011, Mr Erdogan was at the peak of his power, both at home and abroad. His strategy of “zero problems with neighbours” was part of an expansive neo-Ottoman vision that saw Turkey as an emerging regional superpower. Mr Erdogan, then prime minister, was welcomed in Arab capitals across the region as the great hope for Islamic democracy in the wake of the 2011 Arab revolutions.

Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, has put it at odds with most of the region. It is unlikely that the recent election result will change this in the near term, despite the warm reception from across the region to the news that Mr Erdogan had been cut down to size.

The biggest concern lies south of the border in Syria. Since ending relations with Damascus in 2011, Mr Erdogan’s AKP has been one of the most outspoken advocates of regime change in Syria. This position manifested itself in a lax border policy, which gave hardline rebels free rein to funnel arms and fighters into Syria.

The question of supporting rebel groups fighting the Assad regime has been a major talking point during the election and its aftermath. Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, went as far as to say a coalition government that includes his party would not be able to continue to support groups like ISIL in Syria. Allegations that Mr Erdogan’s allies in the national intelligence service have implicitly supported the extremist group have been a political football in recent years.

The other main topic of this election has been Kurdish rights and the possibility of statehood. The HDP captured 13 per cent of the vote thanks to a diverse collection of leftists, Kurds, disgruntled establishment liberals and their ability to win most of eastern Turkey, where the population is mostly Kurdish. The party’s electoral success is all the more surprising considering it has direct links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the United States.

While the peace process between Turkey and the PKK has been stalled for several years, the ongoing fight against ISIL has seen renewed links between the PKK and the United States, which has reportedly been working with the group in parts of Iraq and with its affiliates in northern Syrian cities such as Kobani. The entry of the HDP in Turkey’s parliament might provide the spark needed to revive the peace talks and finally realise the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds, which make up as much as a fifth of the country’s population. Mr Demirtas, a charismatic figure often called the Turkish Obama, is unlikely to force the issue of Kurdish rights quickly. The HDP have already begun entrenching power in order to integrate the Kurds into the fabric of Turkish democratic life.

These developments will help Turkey deepen its relationship with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. As part of a strategy to become a major exporter of hydrocarbons from Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the Mediterranean, Turkey has been quietly carving out deals with the KRG to buy its oil and transfer it to the Mediterranean through Turkish ports, even though this threatens the sovereignty of the Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

All eyes are now on Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Long the face of Turkey’s regional policy as foreign minister, Mr Davutoglu is seen as one of the chief architects of Mr Erdogan’s attempt to spread Turkish influence across the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and beyond.

By ending his allegiance to Mr Erdogan he could reform the AKP or leave the party altogether and set off on his own political course.

If he chooses to do so by transforming Turkish foreign policy and spending the political capital he has built up for himself around the world, big changes are on the horizon.

Turkey’s recent foreign policy has had an increasingly imperial filter thanks to Mr Erdogan’s dreams of neo-Ottomanism slowly coming into focus. Now that his wings have been clipped, it could be difficult to force a neo-Ottoman world view on an increasingly disinterested Turkish electorate. That might just be the lasting impact of this election.

jdana@thenational.ae