Erdogan Mending Fences Across the Middle East Post-Failed Turkey Coup

Senior fisherman with national flag and sunken tomb
Senior fisherman with national flag and sunken tomb

August is often a quiet month in diplomatic circles; but not this year, and not in Ankara. With only one month since the failed Turkish coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed a flurry of diplomatic activities with Russia, Iran, and Israel this week--in addition to an upcoming visit by the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on August 24th. All this represents a continuation of Erdogan's recent pragmatic steps to restore strained diplomatic ties with key neighbors and allies--with potential impact on the current crisis in Syria as well as the country's relation with its Sunni Ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

These diplomatic overtures have gained momentum after the attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, and signal Erdogan's determination to break Turkey out of its increasingly isolated diplomatic position. Turkey's "No Problems with Neighbors" foreign policy of 2004-2011, during which Turkey enjoyed increased prestige, economic growth, and regional clout, came under severe strain from the Arab Spring and -- in far greater measure -- by the region-wide upheaval of the Syria conflict.

Coming out of last month's failed coup attempt, President Erdogan signals an energetic leadership that could help navigate Turkey back into a leading regional peacemaking role--one key relationship at a time. Borrowing from the "No Problems" guidelines, all these relationships are based upon enhancing political cooperation in equal measure with boosting trade and investment ties. While this diplomatic campaign is still ongoing, it is worthwhile to consider briefly how this strategic reorientation may impact Turkey's key bilateral relationships.

Last week, a key shift occurred between Turkey and Israel, where the parliament suggested a rapprochement with Israel in the coming weeks and to formally ratify the resumption of diplomatic ties. For some time, Turkey and Israel have enjoyed strong political and economic ties for decades, including the first years of the Erdogan era. However, Turkey-Israel relations soured in 2008-2010 after Erdogan walked off a Davos panel including Israeli president Shimon Peres and in the aftermath of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which several Turkish citizens were killed during a humanitarian aid visit to Gaza.

This past June Turkey and Israel reached an agreement on compensation for the Mavi Marmara, which laid the foundation for resumed ties, and agreed to commence discussions on a natural gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey and on to Europe. At the time, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden who himself is scheduled to visit Turkey on August 24th congratulated Netanyahu's government over this "significant positive security and economic benefits for both countries." Then in a rare meeting with Russian President Vladmir Putin--one of the key Allies of Syria's Assad regime--Erdogan's August 9 sit-down with his Russian counterpart signaled a long way toward resetting Turkish-Russian economic and political ties that are still severely strained by the conflict in Syria.

Since a nadir caused by a Turkish shoot down of a Russian fighter in November 2015 near the Turkey/Syria border, relations have remained tense -- particularly regarding the crisis in Syria and in dealing with the Islamic State. Erdogan formally apologized for this incident in late June, and Russia subsequently voiced support for Erdogan immediately after the failed coup attempt wracked Turkey in July. Erdogan and Putin, while acknowledging differences over Syria, pledged to work towards a cooperative solution of the now six-year old conflict. Moreover, both leaders pledged to revive trade and tourism ties, which both declined dramatically in 2016.

In an interview with the Turkish state news operator Anadolo, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that his government and Russia, "have similar views on the ceasefire in Syria, humanitarian aid and finding a political solution." This is while last week, Turkey offered Russia to carry out joint military operations against the Islamic State in Syria, with Cavusoglu calling ISIS the "common enemy" of the two nations.

"Let's fight against the terrorist group together, so that we can clear it out as soon as possible," the Cavusoglu said last week during an interview with the private NTV television station.

The second main supporter of the Assad regime is Iran--a country that have maintained a fairly unwavering relationship with Russia. This is while Turkey's Relations with Iran was quite strong prior to the Syrian conflict, even including a key Turkish role, along with Brazil, as an intermediary for resolving the Iran nuclear issue in 2010. But Turkish-Iranian relations suffered, however, as the Syrian conflict grew in intensity and Turkey advocated Syrian President Assad's removal. Assad continues to be a key Iranian ally, witch subsequently places Turkey and Iran on opposite sides of the conflict.

However in less than a month since the failed Turkish coup, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif's visited Ankara last week--only days after the Erdogan-Putin meeting--where both countries agreed to cooperate over the situation in Syria.

During a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart, Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif said that Iran is "ready to work and cooperate" with Turkey and Russia on the issue of Syria, adding that it welcomed "the new cooperation that has started" between Moscow and Ankara.

"We believe all sides should work together to return tranquility and calm to the region and fight extremism in Syria." said Zarif. In addition, during the joint press conference, both presaged an increased bilateral trade with a target of $30 billion annually as well as investment volumes and continued energy cooperation.

This is while, the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry, continues to roil the region, including divergent views on Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq; and the greatest test for Erdogan's realignment towards a Turkish regional peacemaking role may remain the Saudi-Iran friction. However, as the only regional country enjoying strong ties with both these regional players, Erdogan may be able to steer this rivalry onto a more constructive path.

Turkey's relation with its long-term friend Saudi Arabia blossomed under the reign of King Salman, with Turkey nominally joining a Sunni anti-terrorism coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia in early 2016. But Turkey's support for anti-Assad forces in Syria has brought limited gains, and Turkey's ongoing reset of relations with Russia, particularly after July's coup, have apparently led Erdogan to seek a more balanced position between Saudi Arabia and its chief regional rival and--Russian ally--Iran on the Syria issue.

Perhaps, Turkey's apparent readiness to adopt a constructive role in resolving this conflict may now help to step some of the negative repercussions it has spawned. A pragmatically-minded President Erdogan's recent moves may signal such a strategic rethink, back toward Turkey as a regional peacemaker.

Turning back ISIL, stemming refugee flows, resolving the Syria conflict, and reviving moribund Middle Eastern economies are certainly daunting challenges. But as the last half decade has shown, what role Turkey chooses may well determine whether the Middle East continues along its current tragic path, or turns towards a brighter future of peace and prosperity.