Istanbul, Turkey – The sight of Russian and Ukrainian negotiators meeting in Istanbul for direct peace talks highlights the position in which Turkey finds itself as a perceived neutral party in the war in Ukraine.
Turkey could have found itself in an embarrassing situation as two would-be allies fought a devastating war. Instead, NATO member Turkey continues to supply arms to Ukraine, while refusing to sanction Russia, and is respected enough by both sides to host Tuesday’s talks.
This balanced position is part of the continuity of a policy which, over the past year, has resulted in a rapprochement with various countries in the region with which Turkey maintains tense or non-existent relations. Ankara’s diplomatic initiatives have included efforts to mend ties with adversaries such as Armenia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Relations have improved in all areas. Turkey had long since severed its ties with its neighbor Armenia; now officials are reuniting and direct flights have resumed. The 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul immediately soured Saudi-Turkish relations, but the two sides are now seeking to put that behind them and their foreign ministers met last week.
The deputy foreign ministers of Egypt and Turkey met for the second time in 2021 last September in Ankara, while Israeli President Isaac Herzog made a particularly notable visit to the Turkish capital this month, meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was the first time an Israeli head of state had visited Turkey since 2007.
However, it is the improved relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that is perhaps most interesting, in light of years of tension between the two countries, which have found themselves at odds in a number of regional disputes.
In November, the United Arab Emirates promised to invest $10 billion in Turkey, funds that Ankara badly needs as the country is in the midst of an economic crisis with ever-rising inflation, soaring costs of goods consumption and weakened purchasing power caused by the sharp devaluation. to read it.
Erdogan visited Abu Dhabi in February and was greeted with pomp and circumstance, with the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, flying the Turkish flag and the Turkish national anthem played from the Dubai Fountain.
“The fact that Erdogan visited was not shocking to people who had observed relations between the two countries lately,” Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University, told Reuters. Abu Dhabi, at Al Jazeera. “What surprised a lot of observers was how visibly celebratory he was. You can invite someone over and not greet them in such an overtly celebratory way.
Countries like the UAE are eager to strengthen their economic ties with Turkey as they seek to reap financial benefits in light of the latter’s severe economic downturn.
“Turkey is an underground business at the moment given the deplorable state of the lira, and the UAE has long sought to invest and diversify its investments away from oil. Investing in different sectors of the economy Turkey is therefore a wise decision from the perspective of the United Arab Emirates,” added Marks.
“Zero problems with neighbors”
Turkey’s controversial “zero problems with our neighbors policy” is the brainchild of former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a longtime ally of Erdogan. Davutoglu has since split from Erdogan and formed his own opposition party, but the Turkish Foreign Ministry still posts a detailed policy overview on its website, touting his achievements.
“I think that policy largely failed after some initial successes, basically in the aftermath of the Arab Spring when the Turkish government moved to sectarian policies and really started supporting Sunni groups in the Middle East and tried to undermine governments in the region and adopted increasingly revisionist policies,” Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul Sabanci University, told Al Jazeera.
Davutoglu’s strategy centered on a “scapegoat” of Turkish nationalism for Turkey’s problems with its neighbors, according to Esen. The former prime minister said the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) experience in moderate political Islam – rather than nationalism – would be able to solve Turkey’s regional problems.
Esen argued that Davutoglu’s policy had failed, which provided the impetus for the wave of Ankara rapprochement efforts.
“I think the main motivating factor going beyond political and economic goals is the failure of old policies. With the collapse of Turkey’s revisionist agenda over the past two years, I think it became quite clear to Erdogan that his government’s previous foreign policy measures were no longer viable and that something had to be done,” Esen said.
Others postulate that the “zero problem” policy was established before the emergence of a difficult political context that did not allow it to fully materialize.
“When the policy was rolled out, the Middle East had a different zeitgeist than it does today. The policy did not survive long enough to be considered a success or failure due to the Arab Spring, which has brought about a seismic geopolitical shift for the region,” Yusuf Erim, editor-in-chief of Turkish English-language public broadcaster TRT World, told Al Jazeera.
“The rise of Daesh [ISIL] and two major conflicts on Turkey’s borders necessitated a shift to a forward-deployed diplomatic posture to deal with new security threats and instability across the border. Today there are new realities as the region undergoes a wave of rapprochement,” Erim added.
The Ukrainian Balance
Turkey’s most critical relations at present are undoubtedly those with Kyiv and Moscow, with Turkey’s political and geographical position accelerating Erdoğan’s agency in the wider region and vis-à-vis the ‘West.
“Erdogan has been sort of cast aside almost as an outcast on the international stage for the past two years. Biden has refused to talk to him. In the big highs, Erdogan has cast a solitary profile. But things have really changed , it seems, since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Esen said.
Ankara’s main objective now appears to be regional stability, knowing that any other outcome could mean further financial difficulties.
“Turkey is probably one of the countries that is directly affected by this instability,” Erim said. “Turkey did not take part in the sanctions because it understands that these sanctions will probably harm Turkey as much as Russia, so Turkey wants to continue to take a balanced position and it will do so for as long as possible as long as possible. that Russia does not cross any serious red lines.
“Turkey is very invested in the ability to negotiate peace,” Erim said, “because it would be one of the big winners if peace could be established between these two actors.”