Turkish Foreign Policy: An Ambiguous Strategy?

10 avril 2015
Le point de vue de Didier Billion
Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan was received by Mr Hassan Rohani. Despite their political disagreement, Erdogan has nevertheless avoided evoking them to focus on the two countries’ economic cooperation. What is the nature of these economic agreements between Iran and Turkey?

The economic cooperation between Iran and Turkey is fairly important. Let us remember that in 2012, the volume of commercial trade between the two amounted to about twenty-two billion dollars. During the next two years, we observed a dip in these trades as the volume fell to thirteen billion in 2013 and fifteen billion in 2014, notably due to the international sanctions imposed against Iran, which Turkey and others trading with Teheran were affected by. However, this trip has reaffirmed that the objective is to reach thirty billion dollars in trade for 2015. It would seem that this objective is quite ambitious, even if the framework agreement signed between the P5+1 and Iran last week could allow for a progressive cancellation of the international sanctions and thus directly amplify commerce between Iran and Turkey.

Furthermore, the bulk of commercial trade between the two States concern primarily hydrocarbons. There is an undeniable Turkish interest in this matter as they are large consumers of hydrocarbons and do not have the resources on hand in their own country. A gas treaty between Turkey and Iran has been in effect since 1996. It concerns the annual shipment of about ten billion cubic meters of Iranian gas to Turkey.
Finally, this trip was an occasion for the two partners to discuss eight other economic dossiers with perspectives for a deeper cooperation, touching upon varying sectors such as health, transport – mostly aerial – and even industry.

The intensity of these economic relations are thus important but the asymmetry at the heart of these trades is also of note, and was recalled by the Turkish president during this visit. Iran exports ten billion dollars of products to Turkey but only imports five billion dollars of Turkish products. This asymmetry is mostly linked to the gas bill and Mr Erdogan wishes for a rebalancing of these trades in the future. Despite this difficulty, for the Turkish side, the fluidity and importance of economic relations between these two countries outweigh by far the political disagreements that may exist between them.

In 2014, Mr Erdogan did not hesitate to qualify Iran as his “second home”. In 2002 the leaders of the AKP had chosen to adopt a “zero problems” policy with its neighbours. This strategy does not seem to hold up today. What are the relations that Turkey maintains with its neighbouring region?

Indeed the previous Turkish foreign minister, today prime minister, Mr Ahmet Davutoglu had often used the term “zero problems” concerning his neighbours. This amused a certain number of critics who had chosen to twist the formula to bring to light a much different situation: “zero neighbours without problems”. Beyond the humorous quip, which for some is not that funny, we must admit that the creation of a balanced regional policy is no easy matter when your neighbours are the Caucasus, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Each of these neighbours, for various reasons, are faced with a certain destabilization. This is why it’s complicated for Turkey to implement a fluid regional policy.

The most important file in the region is without a doubt the Syrian case, where Turkey’s policy has largely gone astray. Turkish authorities made an initial mistake where, in 2011, they incessantly repeated that Bachar Al-Assad’s political life was limited and he would be driven out. Yet four years of conflict later and the Syrian presidency remains the same, as radical groups have taken over the former opposition. This diplomatic mistake has terrible consequences when taking into account a supposed link between certain branches of the State, notably information services, and radical groups such as the Al-Nusra Front. Nevertheless, Turks constantly reaffirm – not this link with Al-Nusra – but rather that its main objective is to remove Bachar Al-Assad from power. They consider that ISIS is not, for them, a priority target considering the 200,000 civilian deaths caused by the conflict fuelled by Bachar Al-Assad. Their logic is thus completely clear and sensibly similar to others such as France and the United Kingdom. However this has led to regretful decisions. Turkey’s regional credibility, booming and confirmed throughout the 2000’s is now subject to caution and criticism.

Otherwise, there are two States with which Turkey maintains difficult relations. The first of these is Israel, concerning the Palestinian question. Turkish authorities are very harsh, and rightly so, towards Binyamin Netanyahu’s colonization policy. The second country is Egypt since Mr Erdogan has yet to stop condemning the coup d’état by the general Sissi, current Egyptian president.

Despite this, Turkey remains a heavyweight in the region due to its location, history, economy and demographic. In the midst of a turbulent region, this country remains the key player to establishing any crisis resolution and problem solving policy in the Middle East.

Turkey is situated between two regions: Europe and the Middle East. Has Turkey made a choice between the two?

Non, there is no choice to be made in that sense. I believe that international relations are not a zero sum game. It’s not because Turkey has a historical legitimacy to be more influential in the Middle East that it can afford to withdraw from Europe, nor Europe from Turkey. It can be considered that Turkey is perfectly capable and mature enough to have both an aggressive policy in terms of diplomacy and economy in the Middle East, and at the same time look into joining the European Union. However, it is clear that Turkish enthusiasm regarding a European Union membership back when the debate first opened in 2005 was much more prevalent than it is today, due to a European economic crisis and a lack of discussions and negotiations in regards to Turkey. We could actually consider that for four years now, there is a total freeze in negotiations. The European project may also appear less attractive to Turks than it did ten years ago.

This does not convince me that Turkey has turned the page on Europe. I believe that Turkey always needs to maintain the best relations possible, even if they are conflicting, with the European Union. If Ankara were to hypothetically enter the European Club, this would be a boon in strength for both the Union and Turkey. Undeniably, each actor would become more important in the region. This raises the question of whether or not the European Union will want to adopt a common foreign policy, which some still doubt. I believe that there is no choice to impose to Turkey. It can perfectly maintain a presence on both boards, and there is even a common interest in reinforcing the Turk-European relations to instigate a more proactive cooperation in the Middle East.

Translated by Emilia Capitaine and Elie Khoury, students at IRIS Sup’.
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