Upon coming to power, the AKP pursued a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. The goal was to “eliminate all the problems from her relations with neighbors or at least to minimize them as much as possible.” The AKP also wanted to “to solve problems in line with a win-win approach through peaceful means.” Today the foreign policy of the AKP is in shambles. From “zero problems” Turkey now has to deal with several intractable problems. From a “win-win approach” Turkey is now in a zero-sum situation. Almost every major regional neighbor is now at loggerheads with Turkey. While bad for Turkey, this situation presents the U.S. with opportunities to further its interests.
Syria-Turkish relations were the poster child for the “zero problems with neighbors” policy and the first to collapse. Friendly relations between Turkey and Syria, which developed over the 2000’s, encouraged Turkey to push Syria for internal reforms. Turkey believed that its position gave it leverage over the Syrian regime. Turkey failed to realize that in terms of external relations, where the relationship between Syria and Turkey had improved, Assad had freedom of action. Internally, however, Assad was constrained by the authoritarian system and regime elites. Reforms had the potential to topple the regime and weren’t really an option. As the regime became more and more brutal, Turkey began to shift towards the opposition. Eventually this led to Turkey hosting the Syrian opposition, Syria shooting down a Turkish plane, mutual artillery attacks, and relations collapsing.
The Syria conflict has driven Turkey’s worsening relations with Iran and Russia. Iran and Turkey have always been regional competitors. Iran has–on and off–supported to PKK insurgency in Turkey. The two also compete for influence in the Caucasus region. These issues, however, are now secondary, because Assad’s survival is Tehran’s first priority. As Iran’s only regional ally and a conduit for supplies to Iran’s Lebanese allies, Syria is extremely important. Iran has been supporting the Assad regime diplomatically as best they can and has, at the least, been providing arms. Russia is less enthusiastic than Iran about Syria but has provided diplomatic cover for Syria in the UN Security Council and Russian arms are still flowing into Syria.
I’ve mentioned the degrading of the Turkey-Iraq relationship before. Turkey’s close relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has worsened ties with Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. Iraq called for the removal of Turkish troops recently, which I discussed here, and Turkey quickly responded by renewing its mandate to launch cross-border attacks against Kurdish militants that operate inside Iraq. Turkey has also refused to hand over Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi who fled to Turkey after claiming that charges filed against him in Iraq were political and sectarian. He was later sentenced to death in absentia for running death squads during Iraq’s civil war.
Turkey’s foreign relations aren’t all bad news. Turkey’s economic and trade partnerships with Central Asia, and its relations with the Balkans and the EU remain fairly stable. The Caucasus are an area of competition between Turkey, Iran, and Russia–but Turkey’s relationships within the region have remained stable or improved. Turkey has moved closer to Georgia in recent years, launching joint military exercises, for example. In the Balkans especially, Turkey has become something of a regional leader and has worked to promote Turkish business in the region. Relations with the Ukraine have been very close recently. There is also talk about a Turkish-Ukrainian free trade agreement. Ukraine hopes to take part in the construction of the trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP). Any cooperation between the two would frustrate Moscow, which hopes to monopolize or–barring that–block alternative energy suppliers throughout the region.
I’m not one of those who thought that Turkey’s “turn to the East” presaged a decline in U.S.-Turkish relations. The Cold War really drove Turkey to sublimate its foreign policy to the U.S. for practical reasons. With the end of the Cold War, Turkey had much more freedom to act and, naturally, began to move away from the abnormal Cold War relationship with the U.S. In my view, relations between Ankara and Washington have normalized. Each pursues their own interests, cooperates when and where those interests overlap, and conflicts where they are at cross-purposes. On the whole, there are far more areas where the U.S. and Turkey have mutual interests. Turkey remains a strong regional ally to the U.S.
That being said, the nearly across-the-board decline in Turkey’s relationships presents an opportunity for the U.S. Given Turkey’s concerns about Syria, the U.S. has leverage to push Turkey and Turkish policies. The U.S. can offer counter-terrorism support to help Turkey against the PKK and can offer security guarantees and other military support to Turkey in case of further Syrian aggression. This could even go so far as to promise one-off airstrikes or missile attacks against targets that threaten Turkey. These would be, relatively, low-cost options for the U.S. And if the U.S. wanted to consider higher cost measures it could increase support to the Syrian opposition including lethal assistance.
The U.S. is the only major power that can offer this type of support. Turkey’s relationships with those neighbors that could curb the PKK–those being Iraq, Syria, and Iran–are all in decline. The same applies to the Syrian threat. Iran and Russia could push Assad to stop provoking Turkey but Tehran and Moscow are not inclined to do so because of tensions between their capitals and Ankara. The U.S. has been placed in a position vis-à-vis Turkey where its services are desired and there are no alternatives. The U.S. should take advantage of this situation and leverage its position to serve its own interests. The U.S. has a vested interest in ending the terrorist threat out of southeast Anatolia. The only way to do that is to show the Kurdish population that they have a place inside the Turkish state. Since Turkey appears unwilling to provide this one their own, the U.S. could tie its counter-terrorism support to real political, social, and cultural reforms of Turkish policy towards the Kurds. These negotiations could be done behind closed doors which would provide Ankara the freedom to package and sell the reforms to the electorate as they saw fit. Enhanced security aid and support could be tied to a harder line on the Iranian nuclear program, positioning of anti-missile sites, or more radar sites in Turkey.
Turkey is a powerful actor in the region and the U.S. has capabilities that Turkey wants. Practicing a little realpolitik, the U.S. could really get somewhere in the Middle East.