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Turkish Foreign Policy: What Erdoğan’s victory means for the West

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Editor in Chief

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After a deeply polarising election, Recept Tayyip Erdoğan has emerged victorious. Winning just over 52% of the vote, Turkey’s longest-serving leader has secured another five years in office, beating an alliance of six opposition parties led by the hopeful challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. After spending the previous two decades in office, reshaping the political establishment and culture of Turkey, Erdoğan celebrated his continuing power, declaring at his presidential balcony address, “Turkey won”.

Congratulations from US President, Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President, Emmanuel Macron, followed begrudgingly as the pro-Western opposition leader conceded defeat. For Western powers, another term for Erdoğan means a possible deepening in the already existing divide between Euro-Atlantic and Turkish relations. Kılıçdaroğlu, running on a pro-European integration and pro-democratic reform platform, represented a potential shift in Turkish politics. Moving away from the increasingly autocratic and independent foreign policy rhetoric of Erdoğan, and back towards Western realignment. That shift has been averted.

First ascending to power in 2003, Erdoğan received strong support from Western leaders, introducing several political reforms. Providing greater political representation for the Turkish people and using these reforms to consolidate popular support. Turkey saw its political rights and civil liberties increase, with Freedom House raising its rating for democracy to “mostly free and fair”. Erdoğan further orientated the nation towards European integration, beginning EU ascension negotiations in 2004, meeting criteria on democratic institutional integrity, protection of minority communities and human rights.

However, by the 2010’s the honeymoon period between Turkey and the West was coming to an end. Mass protests against the government, in response to an alleged erosion of secularism and attacks against freedom of speech, broke out in 2013 and were met with widescale police crackdown. Following this societal instability, an attempted coup was launched by elements of the Turkish military in 2016, failing and ultimately culminating in Erdoğan’s centralisation of power. Abolishing the position of Prime Minister in 2017. Democratic backsliding has placed Western leaders at odds with Erdoğan. In 2016 American, British and German administrations denounced clampdowns on press freedom and planned constitutional changes, resulting in a fiery speech where Erdoğan rejected those who sought to teach “lessons in democracy”. Tensions have since only increased with President Joe Biden notably referring to the strongman as an “autocrat” in 2020, highlighting an open hostility rarely seen towards other NATO allies.

Turkey’s diplomatic disputes with the West reached their peak following the 2015 European Migrant Crisis. Bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, Turkey took in over 2.5 million Syrians fleeing conflict. The EU struck a deal, agreeing to provide Ankara with €6 billion in aid and upgrading its customs union. All in return for Turkey refusing migrants entry into Europe. Negotiations however broke down, and following Erdoğan’s authoritarian measures in response to the 2016 coup attempt, the EU refused to adhere to the deal agreements, suspending EU ascension negotiations.

This decisive breakdown of relations has resulted in Turkey cultivating economic ties with rival autocratic regimes. Becoming a major partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an economic alliance of Eurasian states spearheaded by China and Russia. Erdoğan has also developed cultural ties through the Turkic Council, bringing Turkey together with Central Asian states, Azerbaijan and Hungary. Hungarian President, Viktor Orbán, listed Turkey as an inspiration for Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” shift away from Western liberal values. Ankara’s pivot away from the Euro-Atlantic partnership by strengthening ties with strongmen such as Putin, Xi, Maduro and Orbán is likely to continue. With the recent election potentially inspiring other autocratising regimes, such as Poland and Serbia, that there exists a viable alternative to liberal democracy.

Turkey’s relationships with authoritarian regimes have led to a collision course with NATO foreign policy. Following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Erdoğan has maintained a balancing act between the warring states. Refusing to follow Western-imposed sanctions, he has instead referred to Russia as possessing a “special relationship” with Turkey. Maintaining friendly relations with both states allowed Turkey to play a leading role in mediating a grain deal, strengthening its position as an independent diplomatic force. Referred to as “Neo-Ottomanist” foreign policy, Erdoğan has sought to establish Turkey as an independent power player.

Turkish intelligence through private military companies such as the SADAT International Defense Consultancy (whose CEO in 2021 admitted to working with MİT) has established training bases in Syria and Libya, likely inspired by Russia’s Wager Group. SADAT-trained fighters have been deployed under Islamist militant groups in Rebel-held Northern Syria and under the Triploi-based Libyan National Accord forces, also being transported to Azerbaijan to take part in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In a 2020 US Department of Defence report on counter-terrorism, SADAT was found to be a key “destabilizer” in the region.

NATO foreign policy cohesion has been broken numerous times due to Erdoğan’s controversial ambitions. Most notably with Turkey’s open hostility towards Western-backed Kurdish forces in Syria and increased militarization in the Aegean Islands against fellow NATO member Greece. Ankara further broke alliance consensus when it delayed ratification of NATO ascension for Sweden and Finland. Citing concerns over alleged links existing between the Scandinavian governments and Kurdish extremist groups, Turkey along with Hungary, stood defiantly in the face of pressure from its fellow members. Finland was eventually ratified, joining the alliance on 4 April 2023 following lengthy negotiations with Ankara, however, Sweden has still been left in the dark. Biden announced, following the Turkish elections, that he had once again encouraged Erdoğan to ratify Swedish membership and acknowledged continuous concerns about Turkish involvement in the F-16 program.

Turkey has sought to buy $20 billion worth of F-16s from the US, however, since 2016 has been ejected from the program following a dispute between the nations over Russian military contracts and democratic backsliding. Hopes of a new leader who could mend relations between Ankara and Washington are over, instead concessions from both sides will have to occur. Turkey’s ratification of Finland was followed by a $259 million aircraft equipment deal; successful quid-pro-quos may be the only choice for a strategic partnership to defend NATO’s southern flank. Furthermore, economic troubles have resulted in a withdrawal from Turkish foreign policy intervention. After twelve years of frozen relations and conflict, Erdoğan announced earlier this year that he is prepared to meet with Assad. With the West primarily focused on Ukraine, Kurdish groups maintaining an active presence close to the Turkish-Syrian border, millions of Syrians stranded in Turkey and the civil war seemingly coming to and, Erdoğan is looking for a way out.

A closer collaboration between Turkey and Russia over Syria, and the possibility of normalisation between Ankara and Damascus poses serious concerns for the West. The US, UK and France still maintain a vehemently anti-Assad position, and Turkey breaking ranks over the conflict put NATO cooperation into further dismay. To avert closer relations between Turkey and Russia, NATO members face a dilemma. Do they maintain opposition to Erdoğan’s anti-democratic policies and nationalistic rhetoric at risk of alienating a strategic partner, or look the other way and indulge Ankara’s goals in return for greater cooperation?

The EU’s concerns over human rights abuses are not likely to disappear; Turkish integration into European is becoming a pipedream with Ankara instead looking Eastward. Turkey's steadfast backing of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) has long antagonised EU members Greece and Cyprus. In 1977, Turkey invaded Cyprus, establishing a military administration controlling the north then propping up a puppet government in 1983. Four decades later the situation remains tense, despite a decrease in militarisation, the border remains guarded by UN peace-keepers whilst ethnic and political division prevent unification. Turkey's looming influence over the north will be maintained, with Erdoğan days after his victory demanding international recognition for the TRNC despite the EU refusing to recognise its sovereignty.

This does not, however, preclude cooperation with European states over security and conflict concerns as Erdoğan has proved his ability to maintain flexible foreign policy. For example, despite Erdoğan’s relations with Putin, Ukraine has still maintained a relationship, if only out of necessity. Whilst authoritarian-leaning movements have largely failed in much of the West, Erdoğan’s victory will serve as a vindication for himself and his supporters domestically and abroad that strongman politics are here to stay. Turkey is an unpredictable but essential partner for Western states, acting as a gateway connecting Europe to the Middle East and strategically located near Russia. Erdoğan is therefore unlikely to change course, using his nation’s strategic position as leverage whilst continuing his authoritarian reshaping of domestic politics with majoritarian support.

The pro-Western opposition has failed to deliver a decisive defeat, leaving American and European administrations at odds with a regime they cannot ignore nor deny. With the conflict in Ukraine and Syria requiring positive relations with Ankara, Western states may have to overlook their commitments to promoting and maintaining liberal democracy for the sake of regional security maximisation.


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