Too big for its boots
Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East from 2002 to 2018
July 2018
Too big for its boots
Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East from 2002 to 2018
Erwin van Veen & Engin Yüksel

Over the past 16 years, Turkey has replaced its peaceful, economically-based foreign policy towards the Middle East with a more security-focused one that includes greater support for the Muslim Brotherhood, deals aggressively with Kurds in both Turkey and Syria, and adds a growing Eurasian focus to its traditional Western emphasis. These foreign policy developments have largely happened as a result of the deep and prolonged domestic political contestation over the Turkish state that occurred between 2002 and 2018. Understanding Turkish domestic politics requires understanding the development and fortunes of the political party that has been dominant since 2002 – the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP). From its pragmatic and moderate Islamist beginnings – which saw the AKP make representative popular politics and a liberal market economy a reality in Turkey – we are now seeing the reassertion of statism, nationalism and authoritarianism under the cloak of the party’s revived religious conservatism.

The results are profoundly illiberal within the country’s borders and have reduced both the scope and effectiveness of Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East as it has become less predictable, more revisionist and lacks an overall strategy. More specifically, gradual rifts are discernible in Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East from promoting ‘regional economic cooperation’ (about 2002 to 2010) to ‘Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Sunni sectarianism’ (about 2011 to 2015) and ‘anti-Kurdish militarism’ (about 2015 to 2018).

The initial period of regional economic cooperation fitted comfortably with the continuation of many traditional elements of broader Turkish foreign policy (i.e. modernisation, a Western focus and EU accession talks). Yet, the following periods that featured more focus on Sunni sectarianism and enmity towards the region's Kurds introduced tensions and dissonance between Turkey's Middle Eastern policies and aspects of wider Turkish foreign policy. In general, nationalistic, personal and religious assertiveness made for a more ad-hoc and explosive mix. While the AKP’s focus on achieving control over the Turkish state, with support from the Gülenist movement (see Box 1), was well served by a ‘status quo’ foreign policy during the first period, this was not the case for the second and third periods during which AKP political dominance alternated with new challenges to its rule from the Gülenist movement and Turkey’s Kurds.

This has profoundly changed Turkey’s position in the Middle East and in the West. Instead of a regional role model and soft power, Turkey has become a conflict party. Turkish relations with its neighbouring Syrian regime have nosedived and, although it has successfully contained the region’s Kurds, this has been at the price of resuscitated Kurdish nationalism and militancy. Moreover, it has raised growing distrust among Ankara’s Western allies – without Turkey having an alternative in terms of economic relations – and its institutionalised partnerships with the US/Europe have been downgraded. As the recent elections are unlikely to bring greater stability to Turkey’s domestic politics in the near future, it is to be expected that these risks will deepen.

A productive approach for European countries is to deal with Turkey as a society caught between the rock of a prolonged authoritarian domestic crisis and the hard place of regional power competition. One practical element of such an approach is to keep the economic relationship as stable as possible to dampen further shifts towards populism and strong-arm politics. Another practical element is to stimulate Turkish-Kurdish dialogue as well as remaining democratic and liberal elements of Turkish civil society with the aim of supporting more balanced understandings of democracy than purely majoritarian ones. Through this mix, European countries can strike a balance between the interest of good neighbourliness and providing a modest counterweight to Turkey’s growing authoritarianism. In the process, they should expect little change of Turkish interests and behaviour in either Syria or Iraq.

About the authors


Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow with Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. A political scientist by training, Erwin applies this lens to the analysis of relations between political order, security and justice in conflict-prone environments. Extensive travel in the Middle East also generated Erwin’s lasting interest in the region’s conflicts.

Engin Yüksel is a PhD candidate at Leiden University who studies contemporary manifestations of hybrid warfare.

Photo credits

New Presidential Compound in Ankara, AOÇ (Beştepe) © Wikimedia