"Mea Culpa" Foreign Policy

Turkey's relations with its near neighbors have been strained over the last few years, being pushed to breaking point with Israel since 2010, with Egypt since 2013 and with Russia since November 2015, for various reasons. Hoping to turn a new page, Ankara has recently adopted a policy of mea culpa in a bid to normalize its relations with Russia, and also gave signals of normalization of its relations with Israel and Egypt. Before looking at what changed since 2010, 2013 and 2015 that caused Turkey to decide to normalize its relations with Israel, Egypt and Russia, it is worth recalling the reasons that led to the deterioration of relations with these countries through flashbacks.

Israel: On May 31, 2010, Israeli security forces attacked a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid as attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists. Following the incident, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and expelled Israel's ambassador to Ankara, while also suspending military cooperation, pulling out joint military exercises and reducing intelligence sharing. For nearly three years Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Gaza flotilla incident as unintentional, but resisted pressure to apologize; but after a visit to Israel by US President Barack Obama in 2013, Netanyahu finally apologized for the deaths, which was duly accepted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, paving the way for a normalization of relations between the two countries. This process, however, was curtailed by Turkey's demand for Israel's full mea culpa including compensation for the victims' families and the lifting of the Gaza blockade. This demand of Turkey was rebuffed by Israel.

Egypt: The Turkey-Egypt relationship became strained after the coup d'état that took place on July 3, 2013 that led to the ouster of the President Mohammed Morsi, the democratically elected leader who had been supported by Turkey during the democratization process in Egypt following the Tahrir Revolution in 2011. Ankara declined to recognize the new Sisi government, and refused to establish diplomatic ties with Egypt. The following harsh criticisms from Turkey, Egypt decided to cancel its involvement in joint naval drills with Turkey, and not to renew the sea and land transit transportation agreement for roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) ships with Turkey that expired on April 23, 2015, effectively blocking the transportation route for Turkey's exports to the Gulf. Beginning in early 2016, the Sisi government met with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) three times, giving the message that it could support it in return for intelligence that would be gathered on members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey. Furthermore, the Sisi government gave the green light to the PYD to open an office in Cairo.

Russia: The downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter jet by Turkey in November 2015 after it violated Turkish airspace, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's interpretation of the incident as a "stab in the back that will have a serious consequences for Russia's relationship with Turkey" marked a severe break in the friendly relationship. Russia launched sanctions against Turkey that included the launch of a visa regime, a ban on charter flights to Turkey, and an embargo on agricultural products and a ban on the hiring of Turkish nationals. Russia's sanctions hit the tourism sector heavily in Turkey, sharply declining the number of tourists coming from Russia at a time when terrorism in Turkey was already keeping foreign visitors away. In May 2016, tensions between Turkey and Russia were escalated further after the shooting down of a Turkish military helicopter by a PKK militant using a Russian made SA-18 Grouse, which led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuse Russia of providing the PKK with anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

A New Page has Turned? What has changed since then in Turkey and these countries is a shift to a more conciliatory approach. The situation in Syria and Iraq has been the main catalyst of this mea culpa foreign policy and unexpected diplomatic breakthrough. Beginning with Turkey, it can be said that Turkey has been hit harshly by terrorism not only because of its ongoing fight with the PKK, but also by a series of terror attacks of the ISIL, the most recent being the attack against Istanbul Atatürk Airport that claimed many lives. All these tragic events indicated the need to follow a new and more conciliatory foreign policy approach.

With a steady rise in both economic and security concerns, now more than ever, Ankara is under pressure to make up with Russia, although the path will not be easy. Russia has long supported the Assad regime in Syria, and has lent its support by bombing forces opposing Assad. Furthermore, Russia has declined to recognize the PKK as a terrorist group, and is actively supporting the Kurdish groups in the region, in direct contradiction with the Turkish side. Turkey considers the PYD, a leading force in the fight against the terrorist ISIL, a terrorist organization with links to Kurdish separatists - PKK in Turkey. Given the Russia's policy on separatist movements in its own neighborhood, particularly Georgia and Ukraine, and the secessions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, more recently, Crimea along with above-mentioned developments, Turkey's mea culpa policy towards Russia can be understood more clearly, looking beyond merely economic concerns.

Russia's military involvement in Syria also changed 5 years status quo in the Syrian civil war. This change in status quo made Israel more careful not to collide with Russian forces. Israel is concerned that Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that could be used by Assad against Israel, or may be delivered to Hezbollah. The energy issue - natural gas in the Mediterranean - has emerged as another factor driving reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. The last but not least factor that facilitate the deal is Kurdish issue that drove Turkey back to Israel. All these developments in their neighborhood strengthened the argument that Netanyahu and Erdoğan needed to cooperate and work together in Syria.

Full mea culpa thus came from Israel three years later in June 2016 when Israel agreed to pay 20 million USD in compensation to the families of those killed and wounded in its attack against the Gaza flotilla, in return for an agreement from the families to drop any future claims against the Israeli military. Although the deal did not meet the Turkey's demand that Israel lift the Gaza blockade, it did grant Turkey permission to build a hospital in Gaza and to invest in infrastructure projects, and in return, Turkey will use its influence on Hamas to help recover Israeli citizens missing in Gaza. The current deals' economic aspect includes an agreement for natural gas to be supplied to Turkey by Israel.

In addition to the easing of tensions with Israel after full mea culpa of Israel, Turkey's relationship with Saudi Arabia has seen a recent recovery as a result of the new King's foreign policy towards Muslim Brotherhood, which may yield results in the efforts to normalize the relationship between Turkey and Sisi's Egypt. The Turkey-Israeli deal has already started to bear the fruit with the opening the Israeli gas supplies to Europe via Turkey now in sight, as well as the launch of Turkish humanitarian aid to Gaza with the permission of the Israeli government. The positive outcome of mea culpa diplomacy has been seen in Turkey-Russia relations, when the Kremlin agreed to end the ban on Russian tourism in Turkey after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's mea culpa to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the shooting down of a Russian warplane and sent his condolences to the relatives of the deceased Russian pilot.

We have witnessed a lot of interesting and unforeseen twists and turns in the region since the beginning of the Arab Spring, and this mea culpa policy seems to be the latest trend in foreign policy approaches, with the potential to yield positive outcomes for Turkish economy. However, Turkey needs to see a positive outcome in its security concerns, which are currently highest on the agenda. President Erdoğan's conciliatory approach to Israel, Russia and Egypt raise the following question in our minds: Is Ankara preparing to follow the same conciliatory approach domestically towards its opponents, or will it maintain its current coercive policy?