Turkey’s foreign policy aims after Erdogan’s reelection 2023

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will preside for a third decade with many foreign policy challenges after winning Sunday’s runoff. Erdogan must maintain a “strong Turkey” foreign policy to establish a legacy and win reelection.

Normalization with Syria requires the toughest decisions. Campaign issues included forcible or voluntary Syrian refugee repatriation. Progress requires peace with Damascus and housing for returnees. A Turkish-Syrian pact cannot facilitate reconstruction. US and European opposition must be overcome.

At a four-way summit in Moscow this month, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Syria decided to continue normalization talks. Damascus insists that Turkish military must leave Syria before leaders can meet.

Syria pullout delayed.

Erdogan would not depart without smashing the de facto autonomous authority in the north commanded by terrorist Kurdish organizations. He relies on his nationalist colleagues to control parliament and campaigned on a promise to battle terrorism.

Erdogan will not disband the Syrian National Army, an umbrella organization of Turkish-backed rebel factions, or change the status quo in Idlib, where the Islamic group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham rules, until he achieves what he wants at the bargaining table.

Ankara now faces a new challenge: US assistance for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continues to irritate Washington. The Arab world is rebuilding relations with Damascus and trying to eliminate Turkey’s military presence and limit Iran’s influence in Syria. In its May 19 joint statement, the Arab League rejected “foreign interferences” and “support for… armed groups and militias” in Arab nations after readmitting Syria.

Damascus may benefit from Arab reengagement in normalization negotiations with Ankara. Kurdish sources informed Al-Monitor that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been pressing Damascus to incorporate the SDF into the Syrian army with tacit US permission to counter Iranian influence. Ankara opposes such initiatives.

In his last political years, Erdogan may try to position himself as a national leader like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. To develop a “strong Turkey” image, he would need to welcome diversity at home.

Erdogan’s strategies to consolidate his electoral alliance relied on the narrative of a “strong Turkey” that has fought terrorism worldwide, developed its military industry, including armed drones, manufactured its first electric car, discovered energy resources in its Black Sea waters, increased its power in the eastern

Mediterranean, helped Azerbaijan reclaim territories from Armenia, led the creation of the Organ, and Erdogan avoided blame for Turkey’s economic woes, his government’s poor reaction to the February earthquakes, and widespread corruption by boosting national pride, stoking security worries, and demonizing his opponents. This strategy calls for his foreign policy to remain nationalist and triumphalism.

Erdogan’s attempt to institutionalize his authoritarian move was greeted with a popular backlash that forced a presidential runoff but won’t change his mind. Releasing dozens of political prisoners in accordance with European Court of Human Rights judgments would be shocking.

EU membership unlikely

Reviving Turkey’s EU membership negotiations would need Erdogan to restore check and balances, the rule of law, and democratic standards, which seems unlikely. Despite an acute foreign-currency crisis, Turkey’s deteriorating economic prospects necessitates EU engagement. With the central bank’s international reserves in negative territory, Erdogan’s economic policies have halted foreign portfolio investments to Turkey.

Erdogan’s pragmatism requires Turkey to maximize its NATO and EU partnerships. Erdogan is unlikely to abandon his double game between Russia and the West, having profited from it. Given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economic gestures before the elections, like postponing Turkish gas payments, he wouldn’t want to offend him.

On May 17, Putin extended the Ukraine grain agreement Erdogan brokered, giving him political credit. Turkey’s Russian-built nuclear power plant and gas and grain commerce will boost bilateral relations together with Syria and Ukraine diplomacy.

Erdogan values eastern Mediterranean energy resources, therefore tensions with NATO partner Greece and the Greek Cypriots are likely to persist.

Despite Ankara’s regular disputes with Western allies, those predicting a NATO-Turkey split have been wrong. At the NATO meeting in July, Ankara may allow Sweden’s admission after approving Finland’s in March. Ankara cannot remove the Russian S-400 air defense systems as long as its relationship with Moscow is vital.

China closer?

Erdogan could prioritize the Zangezur Corridor plan, a transport route that would connect Azerbaijani territories via Armenia and provide Turkey with a direct link to Azerbaijan proper, in his third term to strengthen Turkey’s role in the Caucasus, gain access to the Caspian Sea, and strengthen ties with Turkic states in Central Asia. It would require normalization with Armenia, Iran management, and Russia discussion.

Erdogan has also mentioned the possibility of Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization led by Russia and China. He might pursue East Asian relations despite Beijing’s reluctance.

As former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told The New Arab, Turkey’s bridging role between West and East would continue, but Ankara’s focus could now shift to “being anchored in the East and willing to hold the West, meaning Europe and the US, more at arm’s length.”

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