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Sat. December 15, 2018
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Turkey’s Strategic Reset: engagement instead of contention
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By Barçin Yinanç

‘The EU loves to portray itself as a pan-European project. However, it stubbornly rejects and systematically demonises the only two European countries that have steady economic growth, Russia and Turkey. Is the EU on its way to end up as the League of Nations – pretending to be universalistic project, but by excluding major powers, derogating itself to the margins of history?’ – asked prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic, well before the Brexit vote, in his enlightening piece ‘Geopolitics of Technology’.  What is the new dynamics in this triangular equitation?  Let’s examine the Turkish take on this fundamental question.

Ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, members of the Foreign Ministry have had ample opportunity to witness the deeply-rooted relations established between political Islamic movements all over the world and the ruling party. One of the strongest one is with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. 

That’s why it is not surprising to hear President R.T. Erdogan put Egypt in a different category from Israel and Russia.

Frankly, I am horrified by the brutal campaign against dissidents led by the military rule in Egypt. I am equally disgusted by the West’s indifference to gross violations of human rights in that country. Yet, the fact that the country’s former military chief, current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has presided over the flagrant abuse of human rights since taking office cannot justify the current strain in Turkish-Egyptian relations for the simple reason that, while the tension in relations has harmful consequences on Turkey, it has zero effect on Egypt. 

While Turkey has suffered economically due to the loss of trade with Egypt and the region, it has lost any leverage that could have helped the victims of human rights violations.

So, one of the consequences of normalizing ties with Israel will be a mediation effort on the part of Israel that will involve a negotiation based on the situation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. To what degree Egypt’s el-Sisi will agree to prioritize “rule of law” in case of dissidents remains to be seen, especially when that demand comes from a leader who is not himself very fond of the concept. At any rate, Turkey’s ruling AKP elites will at least see that making a difference comes not via contention but via engagement, and that contention makes a difference when you have allies on your side to support your policy.

Prioritizing engagement over contention has proven to be a lesson learned the hard way for AKP elites. And let’s face it, that lesson has been taught by Russia. 

The call for a reset on foreign policy has been made for a long, long time. You did not need to be an opponent of the ruling party or a foreign policy genius to see that need. And the change in foreign policy formulated by the new prime minister - “We will increase our friends and decrease our enemies” - came as a result of the crisis with Russia. And if there will be some sort of reset in Turkey’s policy on Syria, it will come not as a result of ISIL terror, but as a consequence of normalization with Russia.

Economic measures taken by Russia have hurt millions in Turkey. The Kremlin did not choose to punish millions of Turks because of the humiliation it suffered after its jet was downed by the Turkish Air Force on the Syrian border and to avenge the pilot who lost his life. There was an accumulated anger in Russia due to Turkey’s policies in Syria. 

“We thought we could contain our differences in Syria, just like we used to do with other issues we were in disagreement, and continue with business as usual. Each time we talked to the Russians, we would say, ‘Relations are fine,’ while they would tell us ‘things are not good.’ We did not quite understand why they use to talk like that,” a Turkish foreign policy pundit told me.

The situation in Syria will undoubtedly be on the agenda of normalization with Moscow. And there, too, Turkey will see that engagement, not contention, will serve Turkish interests better.

Barçin Yinanç  is an Ankara-based journalist and notable author. She is engaged with the leading Turkish dailies and weeklies for nearly three decades as a columnist, intervieweer and editor. 

 

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