13 January 2021

The world through Ankara’s eyes. A different interpretation from Turkey, with its own arguments

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

A speech held by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in front of the Turkish diplomats, at the end of 2020, a presentation made by the same official at the Norwegian Institute of International Relations and a webinar debate, after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, developed at the Antalya Diplomatic Forum, are the main sources that make us understand the updated vision from Ankara of the realities in the Wider Black Sea Region and the Middle East. In other words, how does Turkey see what is happening around it, how does Ankara explain some recent foreign policy decisions, some of them seen as controversial? Which are the reasons why Turkey does not agree with its NATO allies or European partners, how can it be both a candidate for the EU membership/partnership, a defender of Ukraine’s integrity and have a strategic relation with Russia, a country whose history has a list of conflicts as long as a British encyclopedia? Are we going to witness this approach in 2021 as well?

Image source: Profimedia

“The world is bigger than the Five”

In the online message sent to the chiefs of Turkey’s diplomatic missions, the Turkish minister of foreign affairs, Mevlut Cavasoglu, is giving a short summary of the developments defining the post-pandemic world, seen and interpreted according to Ankara’s political views:

- the international institutions have recorded credibility loses, power and reputation. A reform is necessary because the “world is bigger than the Five” (members of the UN Security Council);

- the fragility of international relations has increased;

- the weakness and political risks are increasing not just in the developing states, but also in the most developed economies of the world;

- the governance and state’s capacity to get over the difficult times was tested more lately;

-the pandemic has affected the global power balance, the rivalries between the Great Powers have increased, as well as the tensions;

-the international solidarity was affected, the competition for medicines was bigger than ever;

- but the pandemic has accelerated also the technological transformation and the digitalization. The states have understood that this is the future;

- all these realities are affecting the foreign policy of the state.

And the summary has ended with a metaphorical representation of the reality surrounding Turkey, but also in general: “The world stopped being a garden of roses”.

Turkish concerns on its surroundings

It is quite a complicated image, wherein Ankara seems to have not only its own sideline, but an ambitious presence, an effect of the exceptional geographical position, a strong economy, a big population and an imperial past. With all these arguments, even more obvious for the political establishment from Ankara, Turkey thinks that some states, both allies and partners, are not treating it accordingly.

As we can also see in the list of “concerns” for Ankara on its surroundings, one of the things is the fact that Turkey thinks its partners are not paying enough attention to it and are not sharing its concerns on the regional and international security.

In other words, the current international order and power balance are harshly criticized by Turkey. The reasons are:

- the Western allies and partners are not supporting the Turkish perspective on at least three important topics:

1. FETO. The presence in the US of the leader of this religious movement (that Ankara sees as “terrorist organization” and the refuse of the US authorities to consider him expatriation is affecting the relations with Washington;

2. The Kurdish groups in North of Syria and Iraq. The fact that the US is providing weapons to the Kurdish groups in North of Syria has created a trust crisis;

3. The discussions on the maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean;

- The equipment of the Turkish forces with the Russian S-400 systems is already history, and any discussion on this issue cannot but complicate the bilateral relations;

- Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 program is not but weakening the South-Eastern flank of NATO and its entire strategy on the Eastern area;

- The sanctions against Turkey or even just mentioning them are not but threatening the NATO force projection. Why would the US weaken the Alliance?;

- the relation with the European Union, whose membership is sought by Turkey, is shadowed, from Ankara’s point of view, by three EU members: Greece, Cyprus (mentioned as the “Greek-Cypriot Administration”) and France, states whose threats have lately been supported by the EU. Turkey insists that there is a “silent majority” within the European organization that wishes for the bilateral relations with Turkey to get better, but it is covered by the so-called “European solidarity”.  The Foreign Affairs Minister has also touched upon the March 18th 2016 Agreement between Turkey and the EU on refugees. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

“Turkey cannot live with escalating tensions …”

On some punctual issues, Turkey’s arguments are even more concrete:

- the Cyprus issue, a national problem for Turkey, is being treated by the EU in two different ways. Ankara blames the EU for not considering the two sides equal and that this mentality is already an assumed concept of the organization. Thus, Turkey has intervened even more directly in support of the Turkish Cypriots in order to counterbalance, in its own assessment, the imbalance between northern and southern Cyprus. The October 2020 presidential election in Northern Cyprus was won by the candidate who no longer accepts the federal solution of a common state, opting for independence and much closer relations with Turkey; --

-the issue of Turkish Cypriots is closely linked to that of the resources of the Eastern Mediterranean, to their "equitable" distribution. Ankara says there is no question that the country with the longest coastline in the region does not have rights to underwater resources. At this point, Turkish diplomacy is already raising its voice: "Turkey can live with escalating tensions, or it can choose the
unconditional dialogue and cooperation. The choice belongs to Greece".

 – the intervention in Syria is motivated by the need for "regional stability and national security". Turkey believes that the political solution can only come after the eradication of terrorism in this country, which justifies its interventions against the PKK/PYD/YPG and ISIL (following this priority order!). Without naming Turkey, it considers the cooperation of some states, partners and allies, with Kurdish groups in northern Syria as being unfriendly to Ankara. And, again, it recalls the Turkish state's concern for Syrian refugees, about 10% of whom have returned to Syria;

- the support for Azerbaijan is fraternal, based on its common origin, common language and religion (even if, religiously, these are two different wings of Islam), but also one - insisting on this - from the perspective of "international law" . Turkey, like Russia, has promoted a narrative of its external interventions based on the fact that, through these actions, it only acts in the spirit of the documents that govern international relations. In Syria, Ankara does not fight the Kurds, but the terrorists, in the Caucasus it does not continue a historical and unfinished confrontation with Armenia, but contributes to the restoration of the historical, and internationally recognized rights of the Azeris;

- the same is happens in Libya, where  the intervention is the result of the request of the country's legitimate government (although many of the states that recognize the Tripoli authorities have relations with those in Benghazi), or in Qatar (where, of course, not the financial resources of Tthe country's common position and the pro-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Saudi Arabia are the reasons for the rapprochement, but the historical ties established since 1872, when the Ottoman Empire incorporated this emirate under the leadership of the same Al-Thani family). History also helps, when needed!

Russia – and enemy and partner

The summary is not about strategic and pragmatic interests, but about the “contributions to reestablishing the international law”, Turkey doing a favor to the West and the US through its interventions in its surroundings.

 This dual perspective over the international relations is even more obvious when it comes to its partnership with Russia. Ankara cannot be blamed for having conflicting positions with its NATO allies, with its EU partners on some actions and decisions of Moscow: it does not recognize Crimea’s annexation, in Syria is helping the armed opposition, in Libya, its partner is not also Russia’s partner and in the Caucasus is fighting the main ally of the Russians in the region.

Also, Turkey is teaming up with Russia and Iran in solving the crisis in Syria, is consulting Russia when it comes to Libya and, now, to Caucasus and it is procuring military equipment from Russia. Not mentioning the promotion of the Southern option of the Gazprom infrastructure, TurkStream, inaugurated in January 2020.

And the summary of the summary might sound like this:

- without Turkey, NATO becomes irrelevant on the Alliance's southeastern flank;

-without Turkey, the European Union remains a Christian-economic community in central Europe;

-without Turkey, the problems in the Eastern Mediterranean, or those of Syrian and Libyan refugees, cannot be solved;

-without Turkey, the issue of political Islam remains largely unknown to European states;

-without Turkey, there is no direct bridge to Asia.

2021 - the Biden Year

2021 brings some new elements regarding Turkey's position in the strategic context of Southeast Europe and its relations with the USA:

- the conflict in the Caucasus has revealed that Turkey is capable of planning and waging a modern war, and that its army continues to be a successful one despite the "changes" that followed the 2016 coup;

 - with Brexit’s approval, Britain will become more and more an Atlantic power and less and less a European one. This will also be reflected in the military, even if NATO membership remains unchanged. Under these conditions, Turkey's profile within the Alliance will increase, being, along with France, the only continental European power that has carried out real and large-scale military operations;

- with an emphasis on the Caucasus-Central Asia direction, President Erdogan has positioned himself more as a pan-Turkish nationalist than as an Ottoman Islamist. The thesis of "pan-Ottomanism", so dear to Western analysts, would need, in these conditions, to be changed and updated;

- as Russia is unable to develop its energy infrastructure in central Europe due to adversity with Poland and Ukraine, the only routes available are the Nordic (Nord Stream 2) and the Southern (TurkStream). Both work or will work taking into account both European and US pressures, but also depending on Moscow's interests. However, Russia remains, on both sides, on the other side of this troubled energy partnership. The only pipeline that is not under Russian control is the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), which transports Azerbaijani gas, inaugurated on the last day of 2020. Half of its length is in Turkey, and the European terminal is on the Adriatic coast. For Turkey's European partners, this will be difficult to ignore when they try to put pressure on Ankara in one issue or another;

-  and a final aspect is that of Turkey's relationship with the new Biden Administration. Paradoxically, as in the case of Russia, although relations between leaders (Trump-Putin, Trump-Erdogan) did not seem to be that bad, sometimes there was even a certain bilateral "chemistry", in fact economic, sometimes political, sanctions prevailed over Moscow and Ankara. With the new US president, the relationship is already starting with a disadvantage, with Turkey being the last NATO country to recognize his election. The Turkish president has probably not forgotten the nickname "autocrat", used to define the future head of the American executive, a few years ago.

Turkey expects for the new president to be closer to the Europeans (which will complicate the Turkish solution in the Eastern Mediterranean), more careful to following the human rights and the Kurdish community (affecting the Turkish operations in North Syria), more careful with the law “justice must do its job” (which might lead to a conviction for the Turkish bank Halkbank, accused for ties with Iran).

In Turkey’s view, 2021’s perspective does not seem to be too positive.

 But, as the bilateral relations between the US and Turkey were not as good as the relations between Trump and Erdogan, the disadvantage in the Biden-Erdogan dialogue might not lead to negative consequences.

At least on the Turkish side, the pragmatism was manifested in the political and military decisions, and the US have enough internal issued now to focus on foreign controversial files.

Indeed, in Ankara’s view, the world does not look any more like a “garden of roses.  This does not mean the gardeners are not needed. Turkey can be one of them.

Translated by Andreea Soare