Rooting for Turkey’s Success in Nicosia and Jerusalem?

March 11, 2014

Turkey, once the region’s most stable democracy, is now more focused on its domestic rather than foreign policy priorities, yet there may be a surprising set of the ruling party’s foreign opponents and electoral punching bags that will be rooting for the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) success in the upcoming elections. Having reoriented Turkey into a 21st century regional power largely on the back of the Turkish economy, the AKP’s foreign policy has often followed the contours of its domestic priorities which has alienated traditional allies like Israel and enemies like Cyprus. Ironically with elections looming and an ever more destabilizing domestic context, these players may now be quietly rooting for the AKP’s success since their respective settlements with Turkey very much depend on them.

First among these is Israel. Ever since the Mavi-Marmara incident, Prime Minister Erdoğan has unleashed his full rhetorical wrath and vowed to never settle with Israel until the Gaza blockade is lifted. Yet behind the scenes, Turkey and Israel have maintained important strategic ties and Erdoğan has recently been more pragmatic in his criticisms, having assented to President Obama’s efforts to broker a deal with Prime Minister Netanyahu during Obama’s last trip to the region. As a result, Ankara and Jerusalem are now aligned in ways that few would have predicted at the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” including coming tantalizingly close to signing a final agreement on settling the Mavi-Marmara incident. However, with Turkish elections in full swing along with the anti-Israel rhetoric that accompanies campaign season, only after the ballots have been counted can a final settlement be agreed on politically.

In the current climate, no Turkish politician wants to admit publicly to seeing eye-to-eye with Israel, but like Jerusalem, Ankara faces a new world in the aftermath of a Syrian civil war that has destabilized the region while encouraging power struggles and proxy battles throughout the region. Unlike the United States, Israel and Turkey face challenges in their own neighborhood thanks to the uprisings, which are forcing leaders in both countries to be ruthlessly pragmatic. Leaders in both capitals have had to make difficult foreign policy choices—like aligning with imperfect partners. Turkey backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Sunni Syrian rebels, while Israel has quietly cheered for the reemergence of the stabilizing Egyptian military and a stalemate for Assad.

Neither Israel nor Turkey wants militant Islamists in charge of neighboring governments. However, their definitions of, and opinions on, movements like the Muslim Brotherhood differ, meaning that they often find themselves publicly backing different sides as in Egypt and Syria, while conferring privately on strategic implications. Now Ankara finds itself in the same position as Jerusalem on these two critical issues, without ambassadors in either country where it once was seen as a major powerbroker.  Having built Turkey into a 21st century regional power, if Ankara aspires to lead once again, its most valuable partnership may be with Israel, which has to be delicately balanced given the conspiratorial nature of Turkish politics and society.

The incentives for Turkish-Israeli cooperation have only increased given recent energy discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean. The cheapest, quickest, most secure and profitable way to get this energy to market is a pipeline through Turkey. Yet such a pipeline would have to be negotiated with Nicosia, which might not be possible without a Cyprus settlement on the horizon.

Having gone through the worst economic crisis in its history, Greek Cyprus’ political class no longer sees its EU membership as an automatic insurance policy and instability in Turkey now causes equal concern in Nicosia and Lefkosa.  Given Turkey’s domestic political baggage of having singlehandedly supported the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since 1974, reaching an agreement with Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders would be a huge win for Erdoğan and a major financial burden lifted from a sputtering Turkish economy. Bashing Greeks in Athens has been out-of-vogue since the AKP’s arrival, but Nicosia has weathered its fair-share of Ankara’s fury since voting against the Annan plan that Turkey worked hard to convince Turkish Cypriots to vote for against the wish of their leaders.

Strikingly, for the first time under the Obama administration, the United States is playing a leading role in pressing for a Cyprus settlement, even earning the name “Obama Plan” to describe the contours for the most recent round of talks on the island. With Noble Energy, an American company, leading the way as the main operator in the Eastern Mediterranean’s historically troubled waters over the past decade, here too Turkey seems to have pragmatic allies rooting for political stability in Ankara.

Washington is pursuing its interest in insulating its allies against further Middle East instability by supporting closer ties to the European Union through “pipeline diplomacy” between Israel, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. This enhances all parts of a broader regional strategy. As Turkey’s EU membership continues to stall, Washington must be creative and fresh in its approach, including finding a place for Turkey in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Program given how spooked foreign investors have been in recent months.

Ultimately, the Turkish elections will not hinge on foreign policy and there may be further domestic turmoil from new revelations or scandals. In Turkey’s factitious parliamentary system, Erdoğan has, since the beginning of the year, been campaigning simultaneously for Mayor of Istanbul, President, and Prime Minister in a populist tone—puzzling many outsiders not used to the style of Turkish politics. Listening to the nationalist and populist tone of Turkey’s most successful campaigner and politician in living memory, analysts continually try to equate Erdoğan’s words to Turkey’s actions to no avail. Therefore, while in election rhetoric foreign policy concerns will fall by the wayside, looking beneath the surface reveals opportunities that are born out of necessity and pure pragmatic logic. Indeed, amidst Turkey’s most consequential set of elections in decades, don’t be surprised to see Jerusalem and Nicosia rooting for Erdoğan’s success since their respective settlements with Turkey very well may depend on them.


Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and previously served as a Senior Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. He is a contributor to War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: UNCTAD