Turkey’s “Multi-Scenario” Foreign Policy

Turkey’s “Multi-Scenario” Foreign Policy


Turkish foreign policy has always been a puzzling issue for both Western and non-Western scholars. Yet, the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) to power in 2002 made things even more complicated as it signified the gradual break of a national ideological tradition and the emergence of a post-Kemalist, neo-Islamist, ideological framework. Despite the various existing explanations, analyses and interpretations of the AKP’s foreign policy, this paper seeks to contribute to this debate by employing a different (multi-scenario) approach. It assumes that the conduct of Turkish foreign policy is based on the existence of probable scenarios, often substitutionary to each other. If that is indeed the case, then Turkish foreign policy is conducted in an opportunistic way which lacks a specific Western or Eastern orientation, and aims at the maximization of benefits in different isolated issues thus diminishing the possibility of having a comprehensive grand strategy. Through this prism it is made clear that every important issue on Turkish foreign policy agenda plays a central role in its indecisiveness and leads de facto to a Multi-Scenario foreign policy.

Turkey’s “Multi-Scenario” Foreign Policy

Turkish foreign policy has always been a puzzling issue for both Western and non-Western scholars. Yet, the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) to power in 2002 made things even more complicated as it signified the gradual break of a national ideological tradition. What followed was the emergence of a post-Kemalist, neo-Islamist, ideological framework expressed by the policies and rhetoric of the party’s elites – albeit not always with consistency. Among the explanations, analyses and interpretations of the AKP’s foreign policy, there are historical, realist, liberalist, constructivist, political economy, domestic-politics, soft/hard power, and ideology related approaches. [1]

This paper seeks to contribute to this debate by employing a different (multi-scenario) approach. It assumes that the conduct of Turkish foreign policy is based on the existence of probable scenarios, often substitutionary to each other. If that is indeed the case, then Turkish foreign policy is conducted in an opportunistic way which lacks a specific Western or Eastern orientation, and aims at the maximization of benefits in different isolated issues thus diminishing the possibility of having a comprehensive grand strategy.[2] At the same time, this foreign policy behaviour exacerbates the already existing geopolitical instability which Turkey tries to manage. And that is because of the indecisiveness with which it deals with its multiple external problems as a country with an important and sensitive geographical position.

To the end of explaining how Turkish foreign policy can be perceived and branded as “Multi-Scenario Foreign Policy,” we look at what exactly we mean by “multi-scenaribility”, how it works, and, eventually, we focus on some interlinked scenarios in order to show how Turkish foreign policy functions, mainly under the AKP. The primary case study to be examined is the question of Turkey’s European Union (EU) candidacy which is related to multiple and parallel scenarios both domestically and externally while it also reflects Turkey’s ambiguous relations with the West. Turkey’s policy towards the EU is linked – and analysed in relation – to the domestic Kurdish Issue and the process of democratization, and the external Cyprus Problem, respectively. Secondarily, we will look at the country’s Middle East foreign policy through the lens of its Syria policy scenarios. Through this prism it is made clear that every significant decision and scenario in Turkish foreign policy plays a central role in its indecisiveness, and leads de facto to a Multi-Scenario foreign policy.

The Multi-Scenaribility of Turkish Foreign Policy

In software programming there is a very common and often-used mathematical algorithm, namely, “if-then-else”, which works as a command. Whenever the user undertakes an action the software follows a certain pre-calculated pattern of outcomes. For example, the software knows that IF action A is undertaken THEN action B occurs, which again leads to something ELSE. The pattern is not always that simple as the final step (“ELSE”) might lead to a whole new calculation or back to the very beginning. Thus, IF an action other than A is undertaken THEN an action other than B occurs which in turn leads to something ELSE (e.g. action D, E, F, etc.)

In the case of Turkish foreign policy (i.e. the decisions of the foreign policy executive) the actions to be undertaken are often important foreign policy decisions. Each one of these decisions comes with a number of potential repercussions, or demands certain pre-conditions in order to be executed. To be sure, the latter observation is not limited to Turkish foreign policy; rather, it would be valid for any country. Yet, because Turkey faces an unusually big number of outstanding (geo) political problems with long histories, one could argue that its foreign policy-making mechanisms and processes face more difficulty and challenges than the average country.

Further, Turkey’s particular geographical position puts it in between continents and zones of conflict thus having an impact on both its political and ideological identity, as well as on its problems and its approach to solving them. Among other things, some of the most important problems that Turkey faces in its neighbourhood and beyond include the Aegean dispute with Greece, the Cyprus Problem, the Kurdish Issue, its relations with its Arab neighbours and Iran, its EU accession process, the Armenian Issue, etc. – not to mention the recent geopolitical shifts of the “Arab Spring.”

All these issues are very much interconnected in one way or another and therefore a birds-eye perspective is needed to deal with them. In many cases the resolution of one of these problems could lead to the resolution of another one as well. But the real problem is that the Turkish foreign policy rationality and cost-benefit calculations are very particular. It seems that Turkey is trying to get the best out of every situation, thus having a “sectorial” approach to its problems.

This leads to another problem which has over the years turned into a traditional Turkish foreign policy strategy: because the maximal gain is pursued in each case, no essential efforts or concessions are being made to solve the existing problems, out of fear that a settlement might cost more than the maintenance of the status quo. This increases the number of outstanding problems. But most of these problems, which are often bilateral disputes, are decades-old, and Turkey is in a relatively advantageous position or has the upper hand vis-à-vis their current state. Consequently, the result is a “wait-and-see” policy that would logically – according to the Turkish rationality – increase its benefits and improve its position even more as the years go by.

Within this framework, each foreign policy decision to act or to “wait and see,” with regard to an issue of great significance, is seen as a potential strategic scenario. The multiplicity and interconnectedness of the possible scenarios as well as the tendency to maintain the status quo – whatever that may be – overcomplicate Turkey’s foreign affairs and lead it to a behaviour based on probabilities, waiting, bluffs and instability.

In other words any possible outcome concerning Turkey’s geopolitical issues constitutes a possible foreign policy scenario thus rendering policy-making more complex. Another observation is that Turkey’s foreign policy behaviour is affined with the country’s domestic socio-political reality since much of its “wait-and-see” orientation is based on domestic insecurities and historical syndromes which could be triggered depending on the foreign policy problem and decision.[3]

Two issues should be stressed at this point. First, we suggest that the pursuit of maximal gains reflects Turkey’s overall power- and hegemony-expansion strategy. In that sense, our understanding of Turkey’s “wait and see” policy or indecisiveness is not contradictory but rather complimentary as it regards Turkey’s tactics. In other words, although Turkey’s strategic goals seem to be clear, this is not always the case when it comes to the tactics with which they are pursuit; and that is what we try to explain in this paper. Second, we argue that “multi-scenaribility” in Turkish foreign policy is in effect mainly when Turkey deals with long standing, sensitive issues; some of them have been already mentioned. These are, more often than not, geopolitical issues that have impact on both domestic and foreign policy.

It is worth noting that such paradoxes are not new in Turkish foreign policy and yet they emerged as more salient particularly after the election of the AKP to power. This is not to say that Turkish foreign policy under the AKP has not been successful or positively different than foreign policy attempts of previous governments – this is neither examined nor suggested here – but to say that the ideological differences between the party and the previous Kemalist establishment have increased and deepened the contradictions of the country’s foreign policy.

Multiple and Parallel Scenarios: The EU Dilemma

In order to examine and explain these contradictions we need to look at some of the major issues that Turkish foreign policy deals with. Thereby, Ankara’s dilemmas, along with its benefit-maximization strategy and policy of probabilities, will become clearer.

Presenting Turkey’s European accession process as a policy dilemma means that we presume that the European accession is actually a choice that needs to be made and mainly burdens Turkey;[4] as showed in what follows, that is the case, at least to a great extent. Admittedly Turkish-EU relations are not a simple matter as there are many actors involved and many dimensions to be taken into account. Yet, the EU – and the European Community before that – has a historic and central role in Turkish foreign policy while it also bears a great ideological symbolism; that is, Turkey’s Westward orientation, a part of its modernization and secularization program, based on the principles of Kemalism.[5] This is to remind that the accession into the EU has always been a foreign policy priority for Turkey, at least in rhetoric, although this is today up for debate.

One has to admit that during the course of the AKP’s governance Turkey’s stance towards the EU underwent changes, and there were several factors which led to that. The AKP’s enthusiasm for an EU membership during the first years of its governance could be explained in two ways – not necessarily mutually exclusive. First, the AKP really believed in Turkey’s European potential after it was given the status of an EU member candidate country in the 1999 Helsinki Summit, and decided to follow the EU’s proposed reforms to that end. Second, the AKP had to incorporate a pro-EU rhetoric into its strategy to prove its differentiation from the traditional Islamist National Outlook Movement, to avoid a political clash with the Kemalist establishment, and to weaken the control of the Kemalist military-bureaucratic elites over the state – through reforms and constitutional amendments.[6]

It was not long before Turkey’s stance changed, and the primary reason for that was Ankara’s disappointment.[7] Although the accession negotiations between the EU and Turkey began in 2005, as determined in 2004, the process reached a deadlock as soon as 2006. After more than 50 years of efforts Ankara felt as if even the important steps it made did not count; in this light the EU accession seemed to be an impossible dream. At around the same time, Europe, the EU and the Eurozone more specifically, were gradually entering a period of economic crisis. Both these factors played a role in Turkey’s re-orientation towards the Middle East and the Muslim World in general. But in order for such a shift to be successful, certain rearrangements had to be made and tactics to be followed. One such tactic was the stepping up of its pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli rhetoric.

A closer relationship with the Arab/Muslim world was already part of the AKP leaders worldview, something that has been expressed publically both in speeches and written publications. However, it became more obvious in Turkish foreign policy behaviour after Turkey’s disappointment about its EU candidacy. The open-ended framework for accession negotiations which was introduced by the EU after 2004 discouraged Ankara, which saw its negotiations with the EU as never-ending, and it quickly demonstrated unwillingness to further commit to EU’s conditionality for accession. Consequently the EU officially expressed its own disappointment in 2006 thus hinting to its own low commitment to Turkey’s accession as well.[8]

The result was a shift in Turkey’s relations with the EU and its neighbourhood as well. For example, while its trade and diplomatic movement vis-à-vis the Arab world was on the rise, the exact opposite was happening in these sectors vis-à-vis the EU.[9] Moreover, Turkish leaders adopted a rather hostile stance towards the EU especially with regard to the country’s European prospect. In one of many such occasions Turkey’s then Minister of EU affairs, Egemen Bağış, known for his provocative remarks, stated that “Turkey doesn’t need the EU, the EU needs Turkey. If we have to, we could tell them ‘Get lost, kid!’.”[10] And yet Bağış in the same occasion said that Turkey was still committed to its EU accession prospect. There is obviously a contradiction in the rhetoric of the Minister – one of the many examples that demonstrate Turkey’s Multi-Scenario foreign policy, as explained below.

One could wonder why a country would voice its commitment to an EU membership prospect while saying that the EU needs the country instead of the other way around. Not only does Turkey maintain such a stance but it has also threatened to enter the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative to the EU.[11] This kind of statement could serve two goals: the exercise of communicative coercion on the EU for the achievement of a milder stance from its part; and the political preparation of the ground for the actual creation of a potential alternative to the EU. The question that arises is: Why would Turkey want to adopt such a stance? The answer lies in the high stakes involved in the rejection of Turkey by the EU as well as in the concessions and changes that Turkey needs to make both domestically and externally in order to enter the EU. In other words Turkey is not ready and willing to completely abandon the European prospect, but it wants to enter the EU on its own terms.

In order for the EU – or at least many of its key member-states – to be satisfied by Turkey’s performance, a number of issues need to be addressed. For example, domestically, democracy needs further consolidation and that includes the resolution of the Kurdish Issue; externally, issues such as the Cyprus Problem and Turkey’s bilateral problems with Greece need to be addressed. This reality has proved to be challenging for Turkey as each of these issues bears great importance; so much so that it would not give up on their beneficiary future potential in exchange for an EU membership. It rather prefers to put pressure on the EU, or take advantage of its own geopolitical and geostrategic importance to the West, in order to politically bypass the EU conditionality or legal obstacles and enter the organization with the less possible concessions.

As cases in point we look at the above-mentioned domestic (Kurdish Issue and democratization) and external (Cyprus Problem) fronts to point out to the multiple, alternative and substitutionary scenarios of Turkish foreign policy.

Domestic: The Kurdish Issue and Democratization

One of the most important domestic security challenges that Turkey had to face since the early 1980s has been the Kurdish issue. The Kurdish separatist movement has been led by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has been fighting a guerrilla war with the Turkish government for autonomy and the political and cultural rights of the Kurds. It was not until the AKP came to power that important steps were taken to solving this problem. Most of these efforts failed while the most successful one so far has been the latest initiative, called “The Imrali Process.”[12] Despite the fact that PKK militants had started leaving Turkey, as agreed, and that the government is making efforts to incorporate more rights for the Kurds into the new Constitution, it seems that the whole project is not progressing smoothly. The Kurdish opposition, the PKK and its political affiliate, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), have expressed their doubts about the government’s commitment to the constitutional reforms and they indirectly threatened to undermine the peace process should their demands not be met within a certain timeframe.[13] Later, the PKK temporarily halted the movement of troops as a sign of protest when the democratization package introduced by the Prime Minister in late September 2013, which includes enhanced rights for the Kurds, was deemed insufficient by Kurdish politicians.[14]

Although we are far from seeing the result of these peace efforts, we can safely say that they are faced with obstacles which could hinder possible positive outcomes. Thus the Kurdish Issue proves, once more, to be one of the difficult and hard to manage problems the Turkish state needs to address. The reality is not that Turkey cannot solve this problem, but rather that it is not willing to go the extra mile in order to do so. It seems that, for Turkish political elites, the costs of a resolution on the terms of the Kurds are higher than the benefits it could bring – e.g. a more democratized country, closer to an EU membership. It should be noted that the importance of the rights of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, both for the country itself and its relations with the EU, has been made clear consistently over the past years as one of the central themes of the EU’s annual reports on Turkey’s accession progress.[15]

But the rights of minorities, and especially the Kurds, are not the only problems Turkey faces domestically. Despite reforms that aimed at democratizing the state through changes in sectors such as the judiciary, civil-military relations and human rights, Turkish democracy did not remain without shortcomings. Examples of this are the prosecutions against intellectuals and journalists as well as fears that, in terms of the judiciary, “military tutelage is being replaced by civilian tutelage with the complacency of some prosecutors and judges.” The latter, blurred the “relationships between the executive, legislative and judiciary” and increased bureaucracy thus violating fundamental rights and liberties.[16]

These two interlinked issues of minority rights and democratization processes are important in understanding Turkey’s Multi-Scenario foreign policy as it seems that, for Turkey, an improved course towards the EU or the decisive resolution of the Kurdish Issue, through concessions and committed efforts, is not perceived as being in the best interest of the state. Rather, the settlement of those issues on the terms of the other parties involved (i.e. the EU and the Kurds), are perceived as undermining other national interests of Turkey and its elites; and that is why progress is made, but only to the extent that the state wants, regardless of the other parties’ demands. Therefore, the question that needs to be asked at this point is: what does Turkey have to lose from making concessions (i.e. complying with the EU conditionality), from fully democratizing the country, and giving the Kurds the rights they have been asking for?

To be sure, the steps taken by the Turkish government over the past ten years towards the solution of the Kurdish Issue have been unprecedented, despite the fact that they have mostly failed thus far. The reluctance of the Turkish governments to resolve this problem, as well as their failure to do so whenever they tried, reveals a pathogenesis of the very Turkish nation-state. This pathogenesis stems from the deeply rooted principles of the Kemalist ideology which, among other things, strived for creating an ethnically homogenous nation. In this sense, for Turkish politicians to acknowledge that the Kurds are in fact a different ethnic minority that needs its rights recognized, is to pose a threat to the very social foundations of the state and its ethnic homogeneity.[17] On the one hand this explains why the Kurdish Issue has not been resolved yet but, on the other hand, it does not explain why the AKP has appeared willing to grant more rights to the Kurds. Interestingly, Moudouros identifies two levels in the AKP’s Kurdish policy: on one level, he argues, it aims to integrate the Kurds into the state and especially into the AKP’s electoral body while, on another level, the AKP’s policy is related to identity issues and the government’s hegemonic strategy. From that perspective,

AKP treats the Kurds as its allies in an effort to completely eliminate the Kemalists’ power centres. The recognition of the Kurdish identity, the recognition of the Kurdish rights and the pursuit of economic development in the Kurdish region, as part of the government’s hegemony strategy, seek to prove that the Kurds are just like the Islamists, victims of the ‘Kemalist authoritarianism.’ Then, since the Kurds and the Islamists shared the same fate, they can also share the same claims under the hegemony that AKP is building.[18]

If this is the case then even the limited steps taken for the recognition of the Kurdish rights in Turkey are driven by the AKP’s ulterior motives rather than from its will to democratize the country or comply with the EU’s conditionality. In addition, any concessions made in that direction on Turkey’s part need to be made in the AKP’s own time and on its own terms since its power and hegemony consolidation is the primary goal, not the EU membership. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that especially after the failure of the 2009 “Kurdish Opening” and the intensification of violence between the PKK and the Turkish government, a different approach to the Kurdish Issue had become necessary to contain domestic violence on the one hand, and minimize the Turkish national security threat posed by the Kurdish element of the Syrian civil war one the other.[19]

The AKP’s policies regarding the general democratization process of the country reflect a similar reality with that of the Kurdish Issue. Although the EU-backed reforms started being implemented before the AKP was elected, once it took over they started to serve a twofold purpose. Again, on one level the government’s efforts to adopt the democratization packages showed the AKP’s willingness to work towards meeting the EU’s conditions for accession. However, on another level they served its own interests as they were instrumental in weakening the control of the Kemalist bureaucracy over the state mechanism, thus helping the AKP to gradually consolidate its political power. In this regard, during the first years of the AKP’s governance, democratization became synonymous to the transfer of the state power from the military to civil elites.

Paradoxically, during the last few years of the party’s governance, especially since its second election in 2007, the democratization process slowed down significantly. Furthermore, Turkey gradually witnessed the emergence of a new kind of authoritarianism as the AKP became more powerful and the Kemalist elites were no longer an obstacle. We should add that the deadlock in Turkey-EU negotiations also played a role.

In a way, the AKP replaced the authoritarianism of the military with a civic version of authoritarianism. Therefore, further, sincere and deeper democratization initiatives would mean that its increasing monopolisation of political power would be undermined by a more participatory and pluralistic democracy with more transparent and inclusive decision-making processes. The demand of part of the society for such a development as well as the government’s reluctance to respond accordingly was made clear with the “Gezi Park” protests in the summer of 2013 where the government cracked down violently on crowds of demonstrators who voiced their opposition to its policies. In this light, it is clear that the AKP complies with the EU conditionality insofar it does not threaten its own interests and political power.

External: The Cyprus Problem

Although the EU is in itself a foreign policy issue, the multi-scenaribility of Turkish foreign policy with regard to its European dilemma is not only related to the country’s domestic socio-political scene but to other foreign policy matters as well. One example – out of many – is the Cyprus Problem. The reason why it is appropriate as a case study in examining the multiple scenarios calculated by Turkey is because it is outstanding, with long history, and largely unresolved – despite efforts for its settlement – as well as closely connected with Turkey’s EU accession process.

The roots of the Cyprus Problem can be traced to the 19th century and the era of the Ottoman rule in Cyprus. Since then, and by 1960, the involvement of the Ottoman Empire and the Christian Orthodox Church, as well as the parallel or later involvement of Turkey, Greece, and Great Britain, transformed the problem into an issue of ethnically defined clashing communal interests – i.e. Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot. In a nutshell, after the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus in 1960, the situation led to ethnic clashes as nationalism in both communities was on the rise; whereas Greek-Cypriot (G/C) nationalists fought for Union (Enosis) with Greece, Turkish-Cypriots (T/Cs) fought for the creation of a separate state within Cyprus (Taksim).

The tensions peeked in 1974 when after a coup d’état attempt from the military junta in Greece, in cooperation with the Greek-Cypriot nationalist organization EOKA B’, Turkey invaded the island. The invasion took place in the summer of 1974 in two parts (Attila I and II) under the pretext of the restoration of the constitutional order and the protection of the Turkish-Cypriot community. Since then, Turkey has been occupying the Northern 37% of Cyprus; it illegally established a de jure – i.e. legally – non-existent state in 1983 (“Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”), while numerous unsuccessful efforts have been made for a settlement with the involvement of the two communities and international actors such as the United Nations (UN), the United States (US), Greece, and the United Kingdom (UK).

In 2004, two separate referenda took place, one in each community, as a product of years of negotiations, to the end of voting on a “Bi-zonal Bio-communal Federation” settlement based on the UN’s “Annan Plan V.” In short, whereas the majority of Greek-Cypriots rejected the Plan, the majority of Turkish-Cypriots endorsed it.[20] Importantly enough Turkey also endorsed the Plan; this gave it leverage over the Republic of Cyprus as it argued that Greek-Cypriots were reluctant to accept a solution.

Turkey hoped that its support of the Plan would boost its European potential since the Cyprus Problem has always been one of the primary obstacles in its EU accession process given that Turkey’s occupation of Cypriot territories violates multiple international laws and treaties. However, the Greek-Cypriot rejection of the Plan did not reverse Turkey’s responsibilities over Cyprus and thus the EU did not promote any significant changes in Turkey-EU negotiations. Since then, the Cyprus Problem has not come close to a solution while Cyprus’s accession into the EU in 2004 made things even more complicated and difficult for Turkey – and for the problem of Cyprus.

The stance that Turkey maintained towards the Annan Plan and the settlement of the Cyprus Problem up to 2004 is often mentioned as an example of change in Turkish foreign policy and its willingness to make substantial concessions and conciliatory steps to resolve the problem and fulfil its EU accession process responsibilities. Yet a second look, both at the Annan Plan and Turkey’s later stance, shows that a 2004 settlement was not really a major sacrifice that Turkey decided to make in order to promote its EU potential, but rather a tactical move with minor losses in Cyprus and great gains vis-à-vis the prospect of an EU membership.

Although Turkey would have certainly lost much of its influence and control over the occupied territories if the Annan Plan was implemented, the political linkages between Ankara and the Turkish-Cypriot constituent state would not have been entirely cut off. Among other things, many of the illegal Turkish settlers that were brought into Cyprus from Turkey would become citizens of the new federal state. Apart from possible demographic repercussions, such a development would also entail a socio-political divide in the electoral body of the Turkish-Cypriot constituent, between Turks and T/Cs. At the same time not all Turkish troops would have left Cyprus while Turkey would have had a say in certain, if limited, decision-making procedures.[21] Moreover it is well known that the Turkish political establishment has infiltrated to a great extent the administrative machine of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” as Turkey played a central role in establishing it, even though some Turkish-Cypriot political powers do resist Ankara’s influence and control.

Such an arrangement was sufficient for Turkey with regard to its role in Cyprus. On the other hand Ankara knew well how great of a political achievement it would be to support the Annan Plan, for many reasons. Turkey’s decisions would be received with approval from the EU and the international community, and that would be important in itself as the EU membership was still on the top of Turkey’s agenda in the early 2000s. Apart from that, winning the “hearts and minds” of the Europeans would also entail further support from the EU to the AKP’s domestic reform efforts which were vital for the weakening of the Kemalist Generals and their power base.

Furthermore, by taking into account the massive Turkish-Cypriot protests in Northern Cyprus that supported the reunification of the Island, one can easily comprehend the importance of the endorsement of the Plan by Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriot leadership, as that would de-escalate the social turmoil and restore stability in the relationship between Ankara and the occupied territories.[22] Lastly, given that the political atmosphere in the Greek-Cypriot community was full of uncertainty and insecurity, both at the elite and societal level, it would not be implausible to assume that the AKP foresaw the outcome of the Greek-Cypriot referendum thus deciding to capitalize on the community’s potential rejection of the Plan; this, however, remains a speculation.

Putting aside Turkey’s policy towards the Annan Plan, its Cyprus policy since then raises important questions. Let us assume that Turkey’s primary goal was indeed to solve the Problem in order to meet EU’s membership criteria. If that was the case, then why has Turkey since then instrumentalized the Greek-Cypriot rejection of the Plan to avert substantial efforts on the Cyprus Problem instead of re-engaging the issue actively thus revitalizing its EU prospect? [23]

To be sure, the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities have their own share of blame; yet, the object of analysis here is Turkey and its foreign policy. To answer the abovementioned question we should take under consideration Turkey’s deteriorated relations with the EU after the mid-2000s. The reality is that the settlement of the Cyprus Problem would have been much more valuable if it led Turkey into the EU. Thereby the Turkish political elites would also be able to justify the “surrender” of the Cypriot territories which – according to the Turkish historical narrative – were “earned” in 1974. The latter is of great importance as any concessions on Cyprus without an adequate justification from any political power in Turkey, would be a mistake with significant political costs.

What is more, Turkey realizes that the EU – or better put, some of its member-states – do not want it to become a full member for reasons that go beyond Cyprus.[24] In that sense, the Cyprus Problem is just another – important – reason for these states to keep Turkey outside the EU. Thus, Turkey seems to have adopted a “wait and see” strategy both towards the Cyprus Problem and its EU candidacy. This approach leaves both scenarios open and has the potential of yielding more benefits to Turkey than any concessions towards the resolution of the Cyprus Problem but. However, a full EU membership does not seem to be one of these potential benefits in these calculations.

In the meanwhile, Ankara chose to address its own economic and geopolitical needs in an effort to bring about regional stability and increase its relative regional and international power. Given that in order for the Turkish political elites to be able to keep up this foreign policy orientation they need the support of the public opinion, and of other political parties, the promotion of a settlement in Cyprus would make even less sense. As in the case of the Kurdish issue and democratization in Turkey, Ankara’s management of the Cyprus problem throughout the 2000s shows that the EU membership was not important enough for Turkey so as to sacrifice its role in Cyprus, unless the costs were bearable, that is, unless some of its interests were ensured.

Turkey’s Multi-scenaribility in the Middle East: The Case of Syria

As a traditional foreign policy issue, related with other (geo) political problems of Turkey, the EU provided a good example of testing the multiple scenarios that it takes into account when taking a foreign policy decision. A similar, albeit briefer, look at the Turkish Middle Eastern – and specifically towards Syria – foreign policy reveals the same pattern. This region holds a particularly important position both in Turkey’s history and foreign policy-making, not the least because of Turkey’s Ottoman past and the fact that it is often seen as a primarily Muslim-majority and Middle Eastern, yet Westernized, country. This reality adds to the complexity of Turkey’s geopolitical position both in terms of its socio-political identity as well as its role in the constantly shifting regional balances of power and changing alliances.

Turkish-Syrian Relations and the Syrian Crisis

One of the best examples that present Turkey’s Multi-Scenario foreign policy is the case of Syria and its relations with Turkey since the end of the twentieth century. After decades of conflicting relations, Turkey and Syria managed to avoid engaging in a full scale war in 1998. Diplomacy prevailed and the two countries developed excellent relations in multiple sectors.[25] As such, their economy and security became very much interconnected. When in 2011 the civil war in Syria broke out Turkey was suddenly faced with a crucial dilemma: to support the opposition forces, as it did in Egypt and Libya, thus endangering the great benefits it gained from its cooperation with the Bashar al-Assad regime; or find an indirect way of staying by Assad’s side. Both scenarios would bear greats costs for Turkey and its foreign policy.

On the one hand, the improvement in Turkish-Syrian relations throughout the 2000s alleviated one of the most important threats to Turkey’s security: Syria’s support of the PKK as a proxy for the achievement of its own geopolitical goals. If Turkey turned against Assad, no one could guarantee that Syria would not use the same tactic again. At the same time the visa-free, trade, and other bilateral agreements that Turkey and Syria signed led to fruitful cooperation and created great prospects for their individual as well as the regional development and prosperity. Moreover, as Turkish-Syrian relations flourished, so did Turkish-Iranian relations. Given that Syria is perhaps Iran’s most important regional ally, a negative stance by Turkey’s towards Syria would have also affected its relations with Iran; that would be an unfortunate scenario for Turkey because Iran has been a historic hegemonic rival in the region. On the other hand, Turkey’s support of the opposition forces – which later evolved into rebel groups – would boost its image as a democracy promoter and a supporter of the oppressed, while it would please its Western allies who wanted to see Assad overthrown, not least because that would cripple Iran’s influence in the region.

In the midst of this delicate situation Ankara took no decisive steps in either direction. No scenario seemed beneficial enough. Turning against Assad would obviously be a loss for Turkey, while the benefits from such a move were not adequately important. A cautious and diplomatic approach was adopted that called Assad to implement reforms. The “wait-and-see” attitude was in effect and Turkey was once again making foreign policy decisions based on multiple and parallel scenarios which rendered it indecisive and ultimately ineffective.

When months later Ankara finally decided to openly and clearly take the side of the rebels and call Assad to step down, all of its fears became reality: the PKK was again a threat that transcended the Turkish borders into Syria and Northern Iraq; economic and security ties between Turkey and Syria deteriorated dramatically; and Iran was frustrated with Ankara’s hostile stance against the Assad regime.[26] After a decade of Turkey trying to emerge as an autonomous country, not depended on the West, its foreign policy was again in line with Western goals and interests; this did not look good in the eyes of Iran or Russia. However, although Turkey hardened its rhetoric against the Assad regime, it did not in practice act upon its declarations – e.g. the threat for the establishment of a no-fly zone – but rather sought the support of the US and NATO.

Even after three years of civil war in Syria, Turkey finds itself in between scenarios, trying to strike a balance between geopolitical problems and domestic developments. Its continuously indecisive stance stems, among other things, from the fact that it wants Assad to go but it does not want to challenge its relations with Iran any further. In addition, it wants to stand by its Western allies but at the same time secure its own interests as the international diplomatic deadlock on Syria is prolonging the civil war and keeps Turkey’s security under constant threat. Last but not least, the AKP’s latest Kurdish peace initiative is not unrelated to the exacerbated tensions between the PKK and the Turkish government since the break out of the “Arab Spring.”


More examples of Turkey’s Multi-Scenario foreign policy under the AKP could be found elsewhere as well, such as in Turkey’s relations with Israel, Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government, and with Egypt. In this paper we examined the multi-scenaribility of Turkish foreign policy with regard to the EU and the Middle East. In analyzing the former we looked at how Turkey’s EU policy relates to other domestic and external scenarios, i.e., the Kurdish Issue and the democratization process, and the Cyprus Problem, respectively. The multiple scenarios of Turkey in the Middle East were looked at through the prism of the Syrian case.

As far as the case of the EU is concerned there were two distinct policy scenarios apart from the one of Turkey’s EU membership. We showed how in the case of the Kurdish Issue and Turkish democracy, the AKP was not willing to sacrifice the consolidation of its own power in exchange for an uncertain EU membership, in the same way that it was not willing to abandon its EU prospect or partial democratization reforms either. Similarly, in the case of the Cyprus Problem, Turkey was only willing to make significant concessions for its resolution when at least some of its interests were ensured in Cyprus and, therefore, the accumulative benefits of such a decision would be much greater than the costs.

It is important that in both cases the alternative scenarios to the EU were intertwined with both domestic and external issues: both Turkey’s democratization and the Cyprus Problem are related to Turkey’s accession process and the sustainability of the AKP’s political power, while the domestic democratization process is also connected to the geopolitics of the Kurdish issue. In the case of Syria, the primary foreign policy scenarios were the support of the Assad regime, and the support of the rebels. Once again both scenarios had domestic and external extensions affiliated with the Kurdish Issue, Turkish economy, and Turkey’s relations with regional and international actors (e.g. Iran Russia, NATO, US).

Overall, Turkey’s “wait and see” foreign policy, which is partly a symptom of its inability to resolve domestic issues of identity and democracy, allows it the flexibility of seizing opportunities that arise in the different sectors it has to deal with. Although this may be in Ankara’s benefit in some degree and at times, it has negative implications for Turkey’s long term foreign policy as its strategic planning is subject to changes that depend on numerous domestic and external intertwined variables. Further, it causes instability both to Turkish foreign policy and to regional geopolitics as there are no specific grand strategic goals (apart from power-maximization and status upgrade) but rather constantly changing foreign policy sectors which need to be dealt with.

Ultimately, the fact that Turkey keeps many of its foreign policy scenarios open, and that most of them are directly affected by domestic weaknesses and problems, renders the future of the country and its political elites largely uncertain. Lastly, as some of these foreign policy issues evolve, Turkey might indeed manage to seize the maximized benefits that the status quo might offer. However, given that none of these “sectors” is isolated from other foreign and domestic issues, it is highly unlikely that Turkey will ever be able to enter a period where its strategic planning would be resilient to internal and external vibes, especially if it keeps up this Multi-Scenario foreign policy orientation..

Zenonas Tziarras, Doctoral Researcher & Teaching Assistant, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Warwick

Please cite this publication as follows:

Tziarras Z. (July, 2014), “Turkey’s “Multi-Scenario” Foreign Policy”, Vol. III, Issue 7, pp.34-52, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=6605)


[1] See for example, İbrahim Kalın, “Turkey and the Middle East: Ideology or Geo-Politics?,” PrivateView (2008); Yücel Bozdağlıoğlu, Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish Identity: A Constructivist Approach  (New York & London: Routledge, 2003); Ian O. Lesser, “The Evolution of Turkey’s National Security Strategy,” in Turkey’s Engagement with Modernity: Conflict and Change in the Twentieth Century, ed. Celia Kerslake, Kerem Öktem, and Philip Robins (Chippenhama and Eastbourne: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); William Hale and Ergun Özbudun, Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey: The Case of the AKP  (London and New York: Routledge, 2010); Tarik Oğuzlu, “Soft Power in Turkish Foreign Policy,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 61, no. 1 (March, 2007).

[2] Later in the paper we suggest that Turkey has a power- and hegemony-maximization strategy. Yet, the country’s orientations (alliances, dependencies, enemies) as well as the tactics it employs are fundamental for a successful and comprehensive grand strategy; power-maximization is not an adequate strategy or strategic goal in itself. That is why we argue that the Turkish foreign policies we examine here could hinder the formation of a Turkish grand strategy.

[3] Our framework could relate to two other approaches to (Turkish) foreign policy: the two-level game concept, and multi-track foreign policy. The two-level game approach is based on a paper by Putnam which tries to capture the interaction between the domestic and international levels and its impact on foreign policy making. The difference of our approach does not lie in the fact that we try to identify the causality between the two levels nor do we want to trace the most important factors in Turkish foreign policy making. Rather we identify the relationship between different issues in Turkish foreign policy and use them it to explain Turkish foreign policy behaviour in terms of important, long-standing, and sensitive issues. See, Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42, no. 3 (1988); Ali Çarkoğlu, Kemal Kirişci, and Mine Ede, The Political Economy of Regional Cooperation in the Middle East  (London: Routledge, 1998). The second concept is that of multi-track (or multidimensional) foreign policy which entails a Turkish foreign policy that operates on multiple fronts. On our part we do not contest this notion but we argue that the case of Turkish foreign policy goes beyond these dimensions as some of them constitute scenarios that pose significant dilemmas to Turkey. In that sense we see the argument, for example, that Turkey’s multi-track foreign policy will – or is meant to – lead to the EU as simplistic. See, Sotiris Serbos, “A More “Virtual” Turkey? Globalization, Europe, and the Quest for a Multi-Track Foreign Policy,” Turkish Policy Quarterly 12, no. 1 (2013): 138-47.

[4]Marietje Schaake, “Between Rhetoric and Reality: Turkey’s Foreign Policy,” Turkish Policy Quarterly 12, no. 1 (2013): 36-40.

[5]Mustafa Aydin, “The Determinants of Turkish Foreign Policy, and Turkey’s European Vocation,” The Review of International Affairs 3, no. 2 (2003): 308-14.

[6]See, for example, Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, Trials of Europeanization: Turkish Political Culture and the European Union  (New York: Palgrave, 2011); Hale and Özbudun, Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey: The Case of the AKP: 68; Sultan Tepe, “A Pro-Islamic Party? Promises and Limits of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party,” in The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti, ed. Hakan M. Yavuz (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2006), 123-27.

[7]Mehmet Ugur, “Open-Ended Membership Prospect and Commitment Credibility: Explaining the Deadlock in EU-Turkey Accession Negotiations,” Journal of Open Market Studies 48, no. 4 (2010): 967-91. Also, interviews with two Turkish academics and a former Turkish ambassador.

[8]Ibid., 979-81.

[9]Nader Habibi and Joshua W. Walker, “What Is Driving Turkey’s Reengagement with the Arab World?,” Crown Centre for Middle East Studies, Middle East Brief 49(April, 2011).

[10]”Erdoğan lashes out at EU for keeping Turkey at door for decades,”  Today’s Zaman(30/09/2013), http://www.sundayszaman.com/sunday/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=223055; “Minister Bağış: If necessary, Turkey will tell EU to get lost,”  Today’s Zaman(19/06/2013), http://www.todayszaman.com/news-318693-minister-bagis-if-necessary-turkey-will-tell-eu-to-get-lost.html.

[11]Sinem Cengiz, “Erdoğan’s Shanghai Organization remarks lead to confusion, concern,”  Today’s Zaman(28/01/2013), http://www.todayszaman.com/news-305408-erdogans-shanghai-organization-remarks-lead-to-confusion-concern.html.

[12]Johanna Nykänen, “Identity, Narrative and Frames: Assessing Turkey’s Kurdish Initiatives,” Insight Turkey 15, no. 2 (2013): 81-101; also see, Nikos Moudouros, “Initiatives for Solving the Kurdish Question: A Contradiction or ‘an Ideological Conistency’ of AKP,” Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey) 2, no. 7 (September, 2013): 44-54.

[13]Yavuz Baydar, “Turkish-PKK Peace Process Faces Deadlines,”  Al-Monitor(16/08/2013), http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/08/kurds-turkey-peace-process-pressure.html.

[14]James Reynolds, “Kurdish PKK rebels ‘halt Turkey pull-out’,”  BBC(09/09/2013), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24013837; Guney Yildiz, “Turkey’s Erdogan announces Kurdish reforms,”  BBC(30/09/2013), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24330722; Yavuz Baydar, “Is Turkey-PKK Peace Process At a Dead End?,”  Al Monitor(30/08/2013), http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/08/turkey-pkk-peace-process-dead-end.html.

[15]Firat Cengiz and Lars Hoffman, “Rethinking Conditionality: Turkey’s EU Accession and the Kurdish Question,” Journal of Common Market Studies 51, no. 3 (2012): 416-32.

[16]Özgür Aşık, “Legal Reforms in Turkey: Ambitious and Controversial,” Turkish Policy Quarterly 11, no. 1 (2012): 146-47; Soli Özel, “Turkey: The Year of Living Dangerously,” The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs 43, no. 1 (2008): 6.

[17]Ömer Taspinar, “Turkey’s Middle East Policies: Between Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism,” Carnegie Papers 10(2008): 4-13; Yılmaz Çolak, “Ottomanism vs. Kemalism: Collective Memory and Cultural Pluralism in 1990s Turkey,” Middle Eastern Studies 42, no. 4 (2006): 587-602.

[18]Moudouros, “Initiatives for Solving the Kurdish Question: A Contradiction or ‘an Ideological Conistency’ of AKP.”

[19]Ali Hussein Bakeer, Towards the Syrian Nightmare? The Critical Situation in Syria and Possible Scenarios  (Ankara: USAK, 2013). 65-72.

[20] For a thorough analysis of the political, social and legal dimensions of the Annan Plan and the Cyprus Problem see, among others, Andrekos Varnava and Hubert Faustmann, eds., Reunifying Cyprus: The Annan Plan and Beyond (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009).

[21] See, Kofi Annan, The Comprehensive Settlement of the Cyprus Problem (The Annan Plan V)  (United Nations, 2004).

[22] Chris Alden, “Protesting Turkish Cypriots urge reunification,”  The Guardian(14/01/2003), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/jan/14/cyprus.eu.

[23] It is worth noting that Turkey threatened to freeze its relations with the EU as well as any efforts for resolution of the Cyprus Problem before the Republic of Cyprus took over the EU’s Presidency in July, 2012. Turkey acted upon these threats especially with regard to a settlement in Cyprus; less so with the EU. See, Jonathon Burch, “Turkey to freeze EU ties if Cyprus gets EU presidency,”  Reuters (18/09/2011), http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/18/us-turkey-cyprus-idUSTRE78H20L20110918.

[24] For the different EU member-states’ perceptions of Turkey’s EU accession see, Sait Akşit, Özgehan Şenyuva, and Çiğdem Üstün, eds., Turkey Watch: EU Member States’ Perceptions on Turkey’s Accession to the EU (Ankara: Centre for European Studies, Middle East Technical University, 2009).

[25] For a detailed analysis of Turkey-Syria relations see, Raymond Hinnebusch and Özlem Tür, eds., Turkey-Syria Relations: Between Enmity and Amity (Surrey and Burlington: Ashgate, 2013).

[26] For the development of Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Syrian civil war see, Zenonas Tziarras, “Turkey’s Syria Problem: A Talking Timeline of Events,” Turkish Policy Quarterly 11, no. 3 (2012): 129-38.



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3 thoughts on “Turkey’s “Multi-Scenario” Foreign Policy

  1. Ali Hikmet Alp

    Good effort but not sufficient. The concepts such as “grand strategy”, strategic objectives, long term policies, etc. are not much relevant in the present regional (in the larger sense) configuration where several actors have diametrically opposed ideological and political orientations. In the design of the foreign policy the Government has not only to manage these contradictions but has also to take into account the responses of their main partners. In such a configuration a country like Turkey can only be “opportunitic”. The historical lesson provided by European Powers with “grand strategies should not be forgotten. Despite the utterances of the Government, it is realistic to say that if the EU membership, for example,is no more a priority, that is not entirely the fault of the Government. Franco-German axis and the neighboorhood of Turkey to the above mentioned strategic configurations is one of the reason. That convenes the present governement, which undeniable has Islamic inclinations. But still, the failure of its polices are due more than anything else to bad management and interferences from a Prime Minister who understands nothing of foreign policy and a Minister of FA who can do anything else than to obey.
    Could you Show me a Government which does not follow opportunistic policies in terms of deeds, not in words. And don’t worry, most people in Turkey knows that The Cyprus issue is more a pretext for Europe than a vital issue for Turkey.

    1. Zenonas Tziarras

      Dear Ambassador,

      Thanks for you comment – comments are always welcome.
      The paper is theoretically light and therefore I did not analyse in depth all the concepts I have employed. I see your point about grand strategy but I don’t necessarily agree with it. A country in the region can have a grand strategy; moreover, accomplishing strategic goals is about managing or dealing with unexpected exogenous and domestic developments or obstacles. Turkey is not primarily dealing with them; more often than not it waits and sees.

      Further, I am not saying that Turkey is the only opportunistic county in the world. I am saying it is opportunistic and I think that’s enough. It should also be noted that opportunism here entails policies which are at the expense of others – quite often illegal policies. Again, Turkey is not the only country with illegal practices. But it’s one of them – and, again, I think that has some analytical value in itself.

      When it comes to the EU and Cyprus. 1) Cyprus is no the only issues that leaves Turkey outside the EU, and you know that very well. Every EU accession progress report on Turkey makes a number of other points among which democratization and the Kurdish issue – as I noted. If AKP’s Turkey was really committed to a membership it would follow sincere steps to solving these problems. Yes, the EU bears some of the blame for the stalled negotiations; but not without justification. Turkey has not been the most cooperating candidate either, admittedly. 2) Cyprus maybe more of a pretext – as the Turkish-Cypriots were for the invasion and occupation of Cyprus by Turkey – but it is a legitimate one, as I noted.


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