Turkey: A game spoiler or challenger to US interests?

Trump’s decision on Jerusalem was received by the Turkish public as an offense against its religious values.

January 2, 2018 21:06
4 minute read.
Turkey: A game spoiler or challenger to US interests?

DEMONSTRATORS HOLD BANNERS and Turkish and Palestinian flags as they shout slogans during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, after Friday prayers at Haci Bayram Mosque in Ankara, in December.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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President Donald Trump’s December 6 decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel caused a wave of outrage throughout the Middle East and beyond. In recent days remarkable diplomatic activity was directed by Turkey at mobilization of international opinion against Israel and United States. Particularly, the Turkish president threw his political weight behind convening the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest organization in the Middle East, against the decision and co-sponsoring the United Nations General Assembly resolution to delegitimize Trump’s initiative in the global arena.

This Turkish engagement was not a sporadic outburst of anger, but rather part of an ongoing policy aimed at challenging US interests in the region. The reasons behind this policy are worth exploring.

For many reasons, Turkish efforts to delegitimize Washington’s decision on Jerusalem lacked practical utility. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to convene the OIC and demonstrate solidarity among the Muslim-majority countries didn’t go as the Turkish leader would have wished, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE all sending low-level officials to the event. Further, while the Turkey- sponsored UNGA resolution vote managed to reveal that the US and Israel are in a minority over the issue of Jerusalem, the resolution itself will not be of any practical use in resolving the conflict, like most UNGA resolutions against Israel.

The ultimate utility behind such engagement must thus be its symbolism.

Trump’s decision on Jerusalem was received by the Turkish public as an offense against its religious values. Therefore, the Turkish government was responding to domestic political demand in rallying support against it. But more importantly, Turkish decision-makers were motivated by a desire to demonstrate Turkey’s capacity to mobilize the international and regional community against US interests and initiatives.

Turkish foreign policy has been framed by negative changes in bilateral relations with Turkey’s major ally in the Middle East, the United States, and the Turkish reaction to these changes has consisted of a series of steps intended to send a clear signal to Washington that Ankara is too important on the global and regional stages to ignore the demands or pressure the political leadership of.

This style of foreign policy was developed as a result of concurrent process taking place in the region and Turkey itself. The Turkish ruling party, AKP or the Justice and Development Party, came to power in 2002 and gained legitimacy internationally as a moderate “Islamist” political force that the Bush administration was willing to use as a facilitating agent in the region within the framework of the US agenda of democracy promotion in the Middle East.

During the “Arab Spring,” however, the AKP-led government showed on multiple occasions that instead of supporting America’s democracy agenda, Ankara enthusiastically supported forces in the Middle East that were trying to undermine the status quo authoritarian order without demonstrating any credibility in terms of devotion to the ideals of democracy, freedom and tolerance.

The rising concerns in Washington over Ankara’s regional agenda were further reinforced by domestic political dynamics in Turkey itself.

The AKP’s evolution from a popular movement to a political party under the charismatic leadership of President Erdogan coincided with the decreasing quality of Turkey’s democratic process. Social polarization and the Turkish state’s failing capacity to respond to security challenges were the conditions for centralization of power in the hands of a strong president.

The issue of democracy erosion has been occupying the agenda of Turkey’s relations with the European Union and US for several years since. To fend off criticism and to challenge attempts of the Western capitals to impose a regime of undeclared isolation on Ankara, the Turkish government opted out for a closer relations with Russia. Talks about possible purchase of S-400 air defense systems and participation in Russian-led diplomatic initiatives were used by Turkish leadership to protect the political regime from outside pressure.

Turkish initiatives that challenge US interests in the Middle East or at least serve to “spoil the game” of Washington must be examined through the lens of the Turkish political leadership’s views on the future of American presence in the region and global stance. One way to explain Turkey’s recent endeavors is to interpret them as a rational strategy in light of the relative decline of US power. In this light, Turkey’s decision to cooperate with Iran and Russia or seek support among other emerging nations to combat US hegemony is an attempt to advance Turkey’s own stance and secure its future.

An alternative explanation, however, seems more plausible and deals with the fact that Turkey was able to gain prominence in the Arab-majority region within a close economic, political and military alliance with the West. Following this argument, the Turkish ruling elite may want to demonstrate that Turkey may use its serious destructive potential if ignored or pressured over domestic political decisions. Ultimately,the Turkish leadership on multiple occasions demonstrated its willingness to engage in a closer dialogue with the US and in no way wants to endanger US assets in the region, directly limiting its criticism to rhetoric and symbolism.

In practice this would have serious regional implications as it would mean that Turkey may become a much harder interlocutor, especially regarding issues that are relevant for the security of all the countries in the Middle East. Particularly, Turkey may be less inclined to contribute to containment of Iran. Washington and its regional partners must take this into account.

The author is an Ankara-based freelance journalist who writes about politics and society in Turkey.

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