From Strategic Depth to Soft Balancing Strategy: Turkish Foreign Policy after 24th of June

Turkish foreign policy was radically altered by Ahmet Davutoglu — an advisor who later became Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister — under the administration of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) which became victorious in the 2002 General Elections. The traditional policy of non-interference with the Middle East and perseverance of the status quo was abolished to make way for a proactive foreign policy strategy that demanded Turkey be a regional and global actor within the international balance of power system. Moreover, Turkey began to engage intensely in the Middle Eastern issues.

As indicated in Davutoglu’s Strategic Depth (Stratejik Derinlik); Turkey, which had the potential of becoming a regional power and a global actor due to its near geography and Ottoman heritage had began a quest to become a “central state” through active diplomacy. In this context, Turkey began to pursue an unprecedented proactive diplomacy which lasted until the Arab Spring of 2010 and had extended to a vast geography from Latin America to Africa and the Middle East as well as Europe, the Balkans and even China. This new understanding of foreign policy based upon Davutoglu and his work, led to notable dynamism in Turkish foreign policy and heightened Turkey’s influence around the globe. In addition, Turkish foreign policy became multidimensional and was diversified along the framework of soft power and public diplomacy. While new institutions such as the Yunus Emre Institute, Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities and Coordinating Office of Public Diplomacy supplemented Turkish foreign policy, establishments such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and the Red Crescent (Kızılay) began to be utilised more effectively. Hence Turkey harmonized a multidimensional foreign policy strategy that comprehended soft power diplomacy, public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, humanitarian diplomacy, diaspora diplomacy and foreign aid diplomacy.

However, with the leaping of the Arab Spring into Syria in March 2011, Turkey’s multidimensional foreign policy was forced to be trapped into its neighboring country for a long period of time. In fact, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, Turkey had foreseen the opportunity to manage the process and be a model. Albeit Turkey’s tools and facilities including its soft power was way beyond administrating the Arab Spring. With the advent of the Syrian Civil War and the threat it possessed towards Turkey’s national security, Ankara was forced to abandon its soft power strategy in favour of hard power.

In the aftermath, Turkey began to trail a struggle for perpetuity due to the emergence of threats from ad-Dawlah fī‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām (DAESH/ISIS/ISIL) and the extension of Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Workers’ Party/PKK) in Syria, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party/PYD)/ Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Unit/YPG). Furthermore, the unison alliance between Turkey and the United States (US) based on strategic partnership during Bush administration and the model partnership of Obama’s first term began to disintegrate due to differences regarding PYD in Syria. With the inclusion of Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü (Gulen Movement/Fethullah Terror Organisation/FETO) into the equation, the alliance between Turkey and the US was dealt a great blow.

In short, the conflict of interests between Turkey and the US in Syria, conduced cooperation with Russia. Peculiarly, the participation of Ankara to the Astana Process in January 2017, influenced the Astana Axis and constituted a de facto concord. The rapprochement of Turkey —US’s staunch Cold War ally — with Russia, in a period of regional and global geostrategic clash between the US versus China, Russia and Iran induced the controversy of “Is Turkey forfeited?”. Intrinsically, this plight eventuated due to the United States allying with PYD — designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey — in Syria. In contrast, through military engagement strategy Turkey proved its presence on the field at the expense of conflicting with US interests. Hence, Ankara commenced on with Operation Euphrates Shied in August 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in order to protect its interests in Syria.

The successful military operations carried out by Ankara within the context of its Syrian policy as well as its reconciliation with Russia prompted the US to make concession with Turkey, which led to assent in Manbij. In this sense, Turkey’s coercive diplomacy toward Manbij has been efficacious. On the other hand, by coming to terms in Manbij, the US has forestalled the deepening resolution with its former ally in order to halt its rapprochement with Russia.

Based on the current events in Turkish foreign policy and the recent conciliation with the US, it is stipulated that Ankara will switch to soft balancing strategies in the post-election period. Ibrahim Kalin, the current spokesperson of the President of Turkey who also has authored numerous studies on Islam and Western relations is stipulated to be the architect of this new era of foreign policy. With Ibrahim Kalin, being the new patron of foreign policy, it could be argued that the remnants of Davutoğlu such as conquest and heroic discourse will be abandoned and to be taken the care of the use of a more conciliatory and more diplomatic language. Thus, the image and perception of Turkey in the international arena will be targeted to be changed in a positive way.

In addition to these considerations, the abolition of the State of Emergency (OHAL) can also be stated to contribute positively to Turkey’s image and particularly its relations with the European Union (EU). Furthermore, with the abolition of the State of Emergency and with the efforts of Ibrahim Kalin who works in the field of Islamic-Western relations, it may be desirable to capture a new momentum in Turkey-EU relations. The conjuncture also requires Turkey to focus on relations with the EU in the new period. Because the closer relations of Turkey with the EU may serve to reduce the pressure on itself within the scope trade wars between the EU and the US as well as the US-Russia rivalry. For this reason, it could be argued that Turkey will focus on a strategy to use the EU as a soft balancing instrument against the US in the new era.

On the other hand, it is predictable that Turkey will follow a soft balancing strategy between the US and Russia in Syria. Turkey, on the one hand could be in cooperation with Russia in the execution of military operations in Syria, on the other hand, extend its sphere of influence in developing cooperation with the US as in Manbij. Therefore, it is strongly likely that Turkey will continue to seek the soft balancing of working together with both of these powers rather than making a choice between them. However, after the missile attack by the US, Britain and France coalition forces in Syria, French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement in April that “We have separated Turkey from Russia”, has clearly revealed that Washington and Paris want to end the rapprochement of Ankara-Moscow.

Moreover, the rapprochement between the two countries in the military sense, as NATO ally Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile defense systems from Russia is seen by the US contrary to its own interests. Indeed, the adoption of the bill, which includes the suspension of the issuance of the F-35 fighter planes in the US Senate, in response to Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system from Russia, has targeted directly the Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia. Because Turkey has established strategic relations with Russia in both military and energy fields.  Neither it is possible for Turkey to give up these strategic relations with Russia, nor it could get the Patriot missile system from the US instead of the S-400 from Russia.

In this context, it may be suggested that Turkey can carry out its relations with the US and Russia in the coming period, just with a soft balancing strategy without preferring one another. It is also understood that Turkey will give more weight to its internal balancing strategy in the framework of its breakthrough in the defence industry. Because Turkey is increasing the power projection by implementing the internal balancing strategy in the field of defense industry by constructing the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) armed unmanned aerial vehicle (Drone), the stand-off munitions (SOM) missile, ROKETSAN antitank missile system, Altay tanks, Combat helicopters, T-155 Storm, Aerial torpedo, Turkey Scientific and Technological Research Institution’s (TÜBİTAK) smart bomb, Göktürk discovery satellite, Tornado Rocket System, Atmaca (Hawk) anti-ship missile, National ship (Milgem) and finally the airplane ship.

Therefore, as the US has made it clear that it wants to end the Turkish-Russian rapprochement and giving weapons to terrorist organisations instead of Turkey, Ankara on the one hand will continue its strategy of becoming a power that reduces its dependence by producing its own weapons on the other hand, it is predicted that it is entering in a difficult period to maintain the relationship with these two powers in a balanced manner. In addition, although Turkey wants to continue to seek cooperation with the US in the new era, it can be expected that problems such as PYD, FETÖ, S-400, F-35 and Jerusalem will remain obstacles in bilateral relations.