A gradual shift in Turkish foreign policy has been underway since 2012. In view of Turkey’s complex regional problems as well as growing domestic challenges over the last four years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has undertaken both intellectual and political reviews of its foreign policy, which had been in effect unchanged since the party came to power in 2002. The key change lies in Turkey’s effort to work effectively with Western alliances in its immediate proximity, and to avoid undertaking unilateral action. This contrasts with Turkey’s previous efforts to play an independent regional role and set the region’s agenda. Ankara is also seeking to revive its regional role in preparation for a security and military intervention, aiming to show its power and capacity for deterrence in coordination with its allies.
The new approach was formed based on thinking that developed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions, a period that saw negative implications for Turkey. The first review, in 2012, looked at the need for NATO intervention as a way to bring about change in the Middle East, especially in view of the worsening crisis in Syria. It emphasized the important role Turkey could play as a key member of NATO. The second review, in 2013, discussed an approach of “humanitarian diplomacy,” which gave priority to humanitarian action and focused on expanding Turkey’s activities on the international stage. This was developed in the midst of worsening problems, in particular an increase in tensions with many states in the region. The third review, in 2014, affirmed the need for a “Turkish restoration” by strengthening the nation’s democracy, economy, and renewed diplomatic activism in the region. This could be achieved through strategic international alliances.
The results of the parliamentary elections in November 2015 gave renewed momentum to the AKP and added both political and moral support to its foreign policy positions, which had until then been subject to considerable domestic and foreign criticism. After its victory, the AKP followed a policy of “consensus politics” in order to ensure domestic peace. This enabled the party to fulfill a regional role based on agreement with Turkey’s allies over common goals and collective international action against new threats. This re-assessment, then, can be seen as very much in line with the previous reviews.
This paper discusses the changes underway in Turkish foreign policy in the post Arab Spring period through an analysis of the intellectual and policy reviews of the AKP and the extent to which these have contributed to the new approach. It further assesses the extent of influence that the decisive parliamentary election results of November 2015 had on such approach. With these points in mind, the paper goes on to discuss Turkey’s national security priorities in light if growing regional threats, with a focus on the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria, which Turkey and the United States have agreed to turn into an ISIL-free zone. It questions how much such a zone will diminish Turkish concerns about ISIL, the Kurds, and refugees. Given the increasing influence of international and regional players in Syria, the paper considers Turkey’s options, particularly following Russian military intervention, and the likelihood of Turkey resorting to military intervention in conjunction with its allies. This is considered within the frame of Turkey’s desire to display its capabilities and preserve the balance of power in the region.