For much of his first term in office, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursued a balancing act: He sought to reinvigorate ties to the Islamic world while, committing simultaneously committing Turkey to the European Union accession process. After winning reelection in 2007, however, Erdoğan veered Turkish foreign policy further toward the Islamic world.
Turkey's European ambitions fell by the wayside, into the realm of lip service only. Turkey's September 2010 referendum marked another milestone. While the poll centered on constitutional reform, the size of Erdoğan's victory imbued him with new confidence. In its wake, he has cast aside any pretense of compromise and balance. No longer does Erdoğan even pretend to look West; Erdoğan now guides Turkey to the East.
In the Middle East, Erdoğan seeks not to mediate, but to lead. According to diplomatic cables exposed by Wikileaks, American diplomats assess that he viscerally hates Israel not on political but rather on religious grounds. While tension between Turkey and Israel is now the rule rather than the exception, Erdoğan's strategy has been proactive rather than reactive. Many Western journalists assumed the prime minister's attack on Israeli President Shimon Peres during the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos was spontaneous, but Turks report that Istanbul, a city controlled by the AKP, had inexplicably announced that the metro would remain open until 4 a.m. This enabled AKP supporters alerted by text message and carrying Palestinian flags to greet Erdoğan upon his return shortly after midnight.
The Davos incident was one among many. Whether through his party's encouragement of the Gaza flotilla, his harsh rhetoric while visiting Lebanon, or his quiet endorsement of the incitement behind the new mass-release Turkish film "Valley of the Wolves- Palestine," Erdoğan has dispensed with any pretense of mediation and instead leverages anti-Israel rhetoric into popularity throughout the Arab world.
Turkey's new Middle East orientation has practical implications for Western policymakers. Both the European Union and the United States insist that Hamas abide by diplomatic commitments made by the Palestinian Authority. Not only does Erdoğan refuse to isolate Hamas, but he also embraces its most militant, Damascus-based faction.
Erdoğan's embrace of Syria also worries the West. Turkish diplomats defend the relationship as trade-driven. Certainly, trade has skyrocketed: Bilateral trade doubled from $795 million in 2006 to $1.6 billion in 2009, and analysts expect it to triple again by 2013. However, it is other aspects of the relationship which most concern American and European intelligence. The April 2010 appointment of Hakkan Fidan to head Turkish intelligence is troublesome because of Fidan's pro-Iranian leanings. This increases worries that Turkey might become an alternate route for Iranian weaponry destined for Hezbollah. Such fears are not theoretical: In May 2007, allegedly Kurdish terrorists detonated a bomb which derailed a train transiting Turkey from Iran to Syria. In the wreckage, authorities found weaponry apparently destined for Hezbollah.
Turkey's pro-Syria tilt will also have repercussions on Lebanon. In the wake of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination, a broad coalition of Lebanese groups rallied around the flag to demand an end to Syria's occupation and interference in Lebanese politics. While Erdoğan speaks loosely of a Turkish desire to have good relations throughout the Arab Middle East, his embrace Syria and his personal friendship with Syrian leader Bashar Assad has implicitly undercut Lebanon's struggle for sovereignty. So too did his decision to meet with Hezbollah officials during his November 2010 visit to Beirut. Any Turkish claim of neutrality in the wake of indictments from Special Tribunal for Lebanon will aid Syria and Hezbollah at the expense of the pro-democracy movement in Lebanon.
For the West, Turkey's most problematic relationship involves its ties with Iran. When Turkish-Iranian trade surpassed $10 billion in 2009, Erdoğan announced his desire to see it triple. Diplomats—and many Turks—believe that ideology and personal gain drive the rapprochement more than trade. Turkish officials hotly denied a British paper's September 2010 claim that the Iranian government had donated $25 million to Erdoğan's re-election campaign, but The Daily Telegraph has stood by its report and Turkish journalists privately say they believe it to be true. In various meetings not only in Tehran, but also in Moscow and Washington, Erdoğan has requested that foreign firms deal exclusively with Çalık Holding, a company owned by his son-in-law Berat Albayrak.
Erdoğan's defense of Iran's nuclear program will continue to sour relations between Turkey on one hand, and both the United States and European Union on the other. Western diplomats distrust Turkish mediation on Iran's nuclear program because they believe Erdoğan sympathetic to Iran's nuclear ambitions, and also because Turkish diplomats have repeatedly refused to accept concerns voiced by the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors and the United Nations Security Council. While the European Union originally embraced an enriched uranium swap as a confidence-building measure, Iranian backtracking transformed it into a confidence-buster. Turkey's unilateral acceptance of a limited swap—without attention to a year's worth of additional Iranian accumulation of enriched uranium—exacerbated ties to Washington, Paris, Berlin, and London. So too has information that Turkey allows Iranian banks suspected of complicity in Iran's proliferation activities to operate inside Turkish territory.
The prognosis for improvement in Turkey's relationship with Washington and Brussels is poor. Turkey will hold general elections in June 2011. Turkish politicians ordinarily increase nationalist rhetoric ahead of elections, often whipping up anti-European and anti-American sentiment for political gain. As Turkey's economy has rebounded from the banking crisis a decade ago and sustained phenomenal growth, Turkish officials have also concluded that the European Union needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the European Union. Accordingly, Turkish officials increasingly respond to European accession demands with either defiance, or implied threats to orient Turkey even more toward Russia or the Middle East.
Despite public pronouncements that the relationship is healthy, American diplomatic cables confirm the distrust with which American officials hold Turkey. It is not only the political relationship that has soured, but the military relationship as well. In September 2010, the Turkish military held war games with the Chinese Air Force in Turkey without first informing the Pentagon. This is especially problematic for American officials view given both Turkey's access to NATO military secrets, and its plans to purchase the new generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, technology upon which U.S. air superiority will depend for a generation. A week after the Sino-Turkish war games, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao met Erdoğan in Ankara to celebrate the new "strategic partnership."
And while proponents of strong U.S.-Turkish ties point to Turkey's assistance with the NATO mission in Afghanistan, American military and intelligence officials understand that just as many Turks fight against the Americans in Afghanistan as part of Taifetul Mansura, a Turkish al-Qaeda affiliate.
Turkey has always been an important country, and it will remain so. In the near future, however, developments suggest that the Turkish government will continue to pull away from Europe and the West, and instead pursue more exclusively relationships with the Arab Middle East, Iran, Russia, and China.