Political relations between Turkey and its neighbors have significantly changed. We can distinguish six major shifts in Turkish foreign policy within the last three months that could be considered historic:
- Turkey prohibits Israel from participating in a NATO exercise on Turkish soil and starts to distance itself from Tel-Aviv.
- Turkey and Armenia sign an historic accord, agreeing to resume diplomatic ties and re-open borders.
- Turkey and Syria start to strengthen their ties by participating in a common military exercise and allowing Syrians and Turks to travel freely between the two countries.
- Turkey releases PKK fighters and authorizes the use of the Kurdish language on national TV and during national political campaign.
- Turkey backs the northern Cyprus government in its attempt to unify the island.
- Turkey accuses western nations of hypocrisy in criticizing Iran’s uranium enrichment program while remaining silent on Israel.
What are the motivations behind those moves? What is Turkey trying to achieve? Like everything in world politics, we can distinguish between different theories about its recent behavior.
Theory one: Turkey’s new attitude aims at reviving its relations with the Middle East. This could be seen as a plan to act as the leader and guardian of the Muslim world.
According to this theory, Turkey would then be at the center of the Middle East geopolitics. This new policy could be called “neo-Ottoman” as it was named by the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. This theory is backed by the lack of progress in the procedure for accession to the EU and Turkish determination to play a role in the world stage.
Theory two: Turkey is not distancing itself from the EU but aims to play the role of a natural bridge between the western and the Muslim worlds. This multi-directional policy targets resolving historical conflict and acting as a mediator between countries of the region (like Turkey is doing with Israel and Syria).
This theory, supported by most Turkish officials, is backed by the structure and the geographic position of Turkey. Having one foot in Europe and one in Asia and having a Muslim population living in a secular country, Turkey is ‘genetically’ predisposed to act as a bridge between different cultures and positions.
Theory three: Turkey is solving its neighboring problems in order to push the negotiation process with the EU. Four out of the six episodes named above are part of the ‘litigious’ points that restrain the Turkish accession to the EU.
By solving those contentious points, Turkey aims at forcing the EU to take its responsibilities by a) going on with the accession process as if Turkey was just another Balkan country and thus recognizing that the political preference of Turkey is in Europe; b) showing the true reason behind the slow admission process of Turkey in the EU and thus recognizing that the political place of Turkey is at the door of Europe.
Whatever path Turkey decides to take Ankara will continue to redefine its relations with the western and Muslim worlds for years to come. And among the next contentious points on the Turkish agenda, we can be sure that Turkey will need to take care of its relationship with Azerbaijan vis-à-vis of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, its relationship with Russia vis-à-vis of the Black Sea region and its role on the world energy stage.