Back to the Hardest: The U-turn of Turkish Foreign Policy

Dr Federico Donelli

After a decade in which Turkish foreign policy has been focused on the use of soft power tools, following the 2014 it has witnessed a gradual and rapid turnaround to hard power. A variety of intertwined factors from both the domestic sphere and the international realm have determined this shift. Specifically, Turkey’s regional approach seems to be increasingly affected by domestic developments, with the transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

The developments on Turkish southern border have made Turkey’s status more unstable and they have influenced Turkish FPE orientation towards neighbours. These latter are perceived like potential enemies – as during the pre-JDP (Justice and Development Party) era. Meanwhile, the perception of threat coming from the great powers has increased, as they are considered as producers of instability within Turkey. The ‘order maker’ role in the region asserted by Davutoğlu proved to be too optimistic as shown by the worsening of the Syrian civil war. These circumstances have also driven to another change in Turkish foreign policy role, from the idea of a ‘central country’ to the one of Turkey as a ‘buffer state’. Similarly, to the Cold War period, Turkey perceives itself as a buffer state. This current conception is security-driven and based on the notion of containment and status quo orientation. As underlined by Keyman (2016) “the current Turkey’s buffer identity has three subtexts: (1) to contain refugees in Turkey; (2) to contain the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) problem in the MENA region, mainly in Syria and Iraq; and (3) to balance Iran’s regional hegemonic aspirations”. This shift is a double backward step towards a position akin the pre-JDP era. Among its determinants are not only external constraints but also several domestic factors. Firstly, the polarization between liberal and secular fractions of Turkish public and the discontent for the JDP’s authoritarian drift. Secondly, the warfare between JDP and Gülen movement within state institutions, blast in the failed coup attempt in mid-2016. Thirdly, the large number of attacks by terrorist groups such as ISIL and TAK (a PKK offshoot) in Turkish cities. Finally, the disappointing results of the June 2015 general elections in which JDP saw its majority fading away. The events depicted above, indicate how the domestic level is currently characterised by growing challenges to JDP’s role and depict the rising polarization among different social and political communities in the country. Accordingly, “it became increasingly difficult for the JDP to govern with soft measures, and some autocratic tendencies prevailed” (Yesilyurt 2017). President Erdogan has monopolised the authority within the JDP. His leader dominant rule has been observed in almost all aspects of Turkish politics including foreign policy, which assumed a peculiar trait of other Middle East regimes the idiosyncratic variable. As well pointed out by Dawisha (1988), the idiosyncratic variable usually occurred in regimes where power is personalized and concentrated, especially in time of fluidity or crises. During last six years neither parliamentarians nor bureaucrats in the ministry of foreign affairs played major roles in the decision-making process. Since 2014, Erdogan has taken the primary role in Turkish foreign policy making, leaving a limited position to Davutoğlu’s circle (Kuru 2015). Alongside, Turkey had to leave aside its ambition to become a regional power, in line with Davutoğlu’s vision, and embraced a more pragmatic and less ideological foreign policy behaviour. Under the leadership of Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu – especially following rise to power of Binali Yildirim as a Prime minister -, Turkey’s strategy has followed a greater alignment with Russian positions, in the economic field as well as in security and geopolitics. The rise of the Eurasianist perspective, not new in Turkish foreign policy (Tufekci 2017), is related to the power struggle within FPE to fill the vacuum left by the wave of arrests of Gülenist affiliated. Among the factions that have acquired more influence is the so-called Perinçek group[i]. The group, which revolves around the leader of the arch-secularist and ultranationalist Patriotic Party, Doğu Perinçek, is known for its staunchly secular, isolationist, socialist, anti-US, anti-West, pro-Russian and Euroasianist characteristics[ii]. Therefore, behind the reconciliation with Russia, that came after Turkey downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015, there is also a change of FPE general outlook. The trilateral cooperation with Iran, aiming to reach a sustainable ceasefire in Syria, represented a milestone in this new path of Turkey-Russia relations.Even if leaders and domestic forces determine what the state wishes or tries to do, it is the systemic level that determines what it can actually do. Indeed, over the years, mainly systemic determinants obliged Ankara to alter its revisionist soft-power oriented policy towards the region. Specifically, Libyan and Syrian crisis have shown to Turkish foreign policy executives (FPE) that “a cautious ‘wait and see’ approach was not a viable option”(Keyman 2016). The uprisings gave new impetus to the regional power struggle. Three regional powers, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, competed to shape the post-Arab Spring regional order and have affected the internal struggle for power within the countries that were experiencing uprisings. Turkey represented a third Islamic-capitalist pole. Its political system – a procedural democracy that incorporates Islamic forces – was congruent with regional peoples’ aspirations. However, as the Syrian conflict deepened into intractable civil war, Ankara government seemed to be ineffectual in controlling the turmoil within its own borders and much less bid for regional leadership (Hinnebusch and Ehteshami 2014). Moreover, Turkish FPE “miscalculated the Islamist movements political chances in post 2011 democratic wave, over-assessed Turkey’s power and influence, and did not predict the reactions of other regional and global actors” (Yesilyurt 2017). In other words, the Arab upheavals and Turkish inability to handle the Syrian crisis with diplomatic tools have jeopardized Turkey’s ambition to be a leading country. Ankara’s over-activism has resulted in a growing number of threats to its security along the southern border. Moreover, the different approaches pursued by Russia and the West have further convoluted the post-Arab Spring geopolitical environment.

In the last four years, Turkey has adopted a more securitized foreign policy in which the hard power regained supremacy on soft power. After the election of June 2015 and the siege of Kobani, Turkey has adopted an aggressive foreign policy that comes together with a clear doctrine of pre-emptive action, that some called ‘Erdogan doctrine’[iii]. The core idea of this new security approach is that facing a wide range of external problems and threats, Turkey must adopt preventive policies.[iv] This doctrine recalled the 2002 G.W. Bush National Security Strategy of ‘pre-emption’, defined as pre-emptive and preventive action. First and clear outcome of such new pre-emptive approach was the military intervention in northern Syria launched in August 2016 (Euphrates Shield). The military operation, ended in March 2017, had the aim to oppose the ISIL advance and to prevent the constitution of an independent Kurdish state in Syria. Yet, in January 2018, Turkey launched a military operation in Afrin region, a Syrian district near the Turkish border controlled by Kurdish forces, in order to prevent the consolidation of Kurdish militia position and to create a safe zone on the border. The Ankara government decided to conduct ‘Olive Branch’ operation although it would have potentially put itself in direct conflict with the US and other NATO allies, considering the circumstances a threat to its own national security.

The leader-dominant model in decision-making has driven Erdogan to use international relations primarily as an instrument to expand and energize his constituency and power inside the country. An example of how the current Turkish approach prioritises domestic politics over foreign policy is visible in the decision of opening military bases abroad. Indeed, the establishment of a military base in Qatar in 2015, the first ever Turkish outpost abroad, and the one that Ankara opened in Somalia (2017), would paint a new picture of success in the domestic sphere, reinforcing the idea that Turkey’s new foreign policy is alive and well (Aras and Akpınar 2017). An unusual aspect of this new deal in foreign policy is that the new concept of pre-emptive action is being discussed a lot in Turkish media. It seems that the government is working to generate support from Turkish public, by promoting the doctrine of pre-emption and cross-borders operation as the sole method to combat the threats. The strategy involves concepts such as the effective use of military force beyond borders when needed, the possible disregard of traditional alliance relations and taking unilateral action independent by the US and NATO. In order to foster public support Ankara government uses a rhetoric that beats the old Turkish fears, namely a hidden project of Western powers to establish a new regional system – an updated version of the Sèvres Treaty – and the territorial integrity threatened by Kurdish claims. Such discourse was also evident in the first few weeks after the mid-2016 failed coup attempt, when President Erdogan and other high government officials accused the US and Europe of supporting the coup plotters.[v]

Since 2015, Turkish gamble policy has driven to an escalation of tensions with several NATO allies (Germany, Netherlands, US), general isolation in the region and beyond. Yet, “Turkey’s ambitious policy based on supporting Sunni Islamist groups was interpreted as a sectarian approach” (Öniş 2014) by Western countries who started to see Turkey as a destabilizing force in the region. At the same time, Ankara’s activism and growing support for the Muslim Brotherhood not only caused a harsh vigorous reaction from Shiite actors, but also did not receive warm feedback from all Sunni actors, above all Saudi Arabia. As pointed out by Aras and Akpınar (2017) the recent Qatar crisis has further demonstrated Turkey’s declining ability to bring parties to the table in the region. Alongside, Turkey’s democratic credentials have witnessed a gradual process of erosion, especially following the failed coup of 2016.

In the medium term, military operations in Syria will not be sustainable by the Turkish state, because of both material resources and their political costs. Therefore, even though it may seem very unpopular, Turkey should launch a new phase of transition in its foreign policy agenda by adopting a more cautious and low-profile behaviour. Nowadays, the priority for national security itself is to solve the Syrian crisis by ensuring a stable and preferably neutral regime. At the same time, the strengthened ties with Qatar and the growing convergence of interests with Iran on several issues – PKK, Red Sea, Qatar blockade, and Syria integrity – may allow Turkey to achieve better results at a lower cost. As a result, there may be a better balance between different hard and soft power tools.


Aras, Bülent, and Pınar Akpınar. 2017. Turkish Foreign Policy and the Qatar crisis. Istanbul: Istanbul Policy Center.

Dawisha, Adeed. 1988. “Arab Regimes: Legitimacy and Foreign Policy.” In Beyond Coercion: The Durability of the Arab States, edited by Adeed Dawisha and William I. Zartman. London: Croom-Helm.

Hinnebusch, Raymond, and Anoushirvan Ehteshami. 2014. “The Foreign Policies of Middle East States.” In. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Keyman, E Fuat. 2016. “Turkish foreign policy in the post-Arab Spring era: from proactive to buffer state.”  Third World Quarterly 37 (12):2274-87.

Kuru, Ahmet. 2015. “Turkey’s Failed Policy toward the Arab Spring: Three Levels of Analysis.”  Mediterranean Quarterly 26 (3):94-116.

Öniş, Ziya. 2014. “Turkey and the Arab Revolutions: Boundaries of Regional Power Influence in a Turbulent Middle East.”  Mediterranean Politics 19 (2):203-19.

Tüfekçi, Özgür. 2017. The Foreign Policy of Modern Turkey: Power and the Ideology of Eurasianism. London: I.B. Tauris.

Yesilyurt, Nuri. 2017. “Explaining Miscalculation and Maladaptation in Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Middle East during the Arab Uprisings: A Neoclassical Realist Perspective.”  Center for Foreign Policy and Peace Research, İhsan Doğramacı Peace Foundation 6 (2):65-83.

[i] Murat Yetkin, “Ankara kulislerinde ürperten senaryo”, Hurriyet, December 6, 2016. URL:

[ii] Patrick Kingsley, “Turkey in Turmoil and Chaos Since Purge Aimed at Dissenters”, The New York Times, April 12, 2017. URL:

[iii] Metin Gurcan, Turkey’s new ‘Erdogan Doctrine’, Al-Monitor, November 04, 2016. URL:

[iv] Burhanettin Duran, Turkey’s new security concept, Daily Sabah, October 26, 2016. URL:

[v] Adam Withnall and Samuel Osborne, ‘Erdogan blames ‘foreign powers’ for coup and says West is supporting terrorism’, Independent, August 2, 2016. URL:

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