Flurry of diplomatic activity marks Turkey foreign policy shift – Sudden rapprochement with Israel and Russia suggests Erdogan adopting a more conciliatory approach

by: Laura Pitel in Istanbul – FINANCIAL TIMES  – 28 June 2016 – When Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s new prime minister, recently declared that Ankara wanted to increase its friends and reduce the number of its enemies few observers expected things to unfold as rapidly as they have.In a flurry of announcements, Turkey this week cemented a long-awaited deal to restore diplomatic ties with Israel after a five-year freeze, and offered an olive branch to Moscow with a surprise apology for the downing of a Russian fighter jet over the Syrian border.

The sudden rapprochement suggests that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, is adopting a new, more conciliatory approach to foreign policy following an ill-fated period that was characterised by isolation and tensions with former allies. A return to a more pragmatic philosophy for the Nato member and regional power, which straddles Europe and the Middle East, would be a rare positive step in a region marred by instability — and one welcomed by foreign diplomats and investors.

Under the rule of Mr Erdogan, the nation’s dominant political figure for more than a decade, Ankara’s guiding principle had traditionally been “zero problems with neighbours”. But the wave of uprisings that swept across the Middle East during the 2011 Arab Spring encouraged a more ideological approach from Mr Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party [AKP]. This was based in part in the belief that Sunni Islamist political movements would rise to power.

But five years on with the Middle East blighted by conflicts and instability, Ankara is pressing the reset button, analysts say.

“The former paradigm of an ideologically driven foreign policy has failed miserably,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of Istanbul’s Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. “It has taken Turkey a number of years to make that assessment and then to recover from it.”

There is a welcome hint of pragmatism in efforts to mend fences

While Mr Yildirim announced the recent changes, the cogs were in motion before the former transport minister and Erdogan loyalist took office last month, driven by a combination of security, political and economic challenges. There was also the realisation that the previous approach delivered few results, with the country finding itself fighting too many fires with too few allies, analysts say.

The mainly Kurdish south east of Turkey has been plunged back into violence with the resurgence of a 30-year battle between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That conflict, coupled with Russia’s military intervention to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has forced Ankara to take stock of its aims in regards to the war in neighbouring Syria.

“It comes from a realisation that Turkey was left alone and isolated in a hostile Middle East,” said Mensur Akgun, director of the Global Political Trends Center at Istanbul Kültür University. “It needed to find new allies both in the region and also abroad.”

Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Russian involvement in Syria has “completely changed Turkey’s strategic position” towards that crisis.

He did, however, caution that Turkey would not suddenly lift its insistence on the removal of Mr Assad but was instead “recalibrating its efforts.”

Losses by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels set against gains by US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, as well as concerns that Russia could back Kurdish factions linked to the PKK to destabilise Turkey, have also forced Ankara to reassess.

President Erdogan’s restive foreign policy is aimed at building support at home

There are also economic factors at play. A string of deadly suicide bombings in Turkey and the row with Moscow over the downing of the Russian warplane over the Syrian border in November have combined to batter the important tourism sector. Official figures released on Tuesday revealed a 35 per cent fall year-on-year in visitors last month, with Russians — a vital source of tourists — down 92 per cent.

Tim Ash, a strategist at Nomura, said the collapse in tourism revenue “risked exposing traditional vulnerabilities in the Turkish economy”, including a large current account deficit and a reliance on short-term financing.

It was also hurting the AKP’s supporters in the construction, real estate and banking sectors, he said.

Mr Erdogan was due to speak by phone with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, on Wednesday for the first time since their bitter falling-out last year, their spokesmen said.

By easing the pressure on some of Turkey’s myriad challenges, Mr Erdogan could also create more space to pursue his central political ambition for the months ahead — amending the Turkish constitution to create a powerful executive presidency.

Akin Unver, an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, said: “All foreign policy shifts have domestic-electoral angles. President Erdogan has fully prioritised a constitutional shift into an executive presidency and to that end, he wants to make sure that he is unburdened by foreign crises to focus on internal issues.”