Turkish  foreign policy in 2023:  Some gains, many losses

Türkiye’s foreign policy faced significant challenges in 2023 amid regional conflicts, but it experienced both gains and setbacks in pursuing a balancing act in dealing with its Western allies and Russia, writes Burak Ekinci for Xinhua news.  Yet, taking account of the ledger, losses seem to outweigh gains.



With economic woes at home due to high inflation, sharp depreciation of the currency and rising borrowing costs, Türkiye tried hard to make gains on the diplomatic front in 2023.


The gains:  A permanent alliance with Russia, re-engagement with  Sunni Arab nations

Ankara looked beyond its traditional NATO allies toward other global powers, notably Russia, by strengthening its cooperation with Moscow.


Moreover, since early 2023, Türkiye has also sought to normalize its relations with the West as well as its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel.


Instead of joining the West in sanctioning Moscow after the Ukraine crisis, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued mediating between Russia and Ukraine.


Failed grain deal big loss, Sweden continues to haunt relations with West


Ankara sought to revive a grain deal between Russia and Ukraine that allowed for the safe export of grain, fertilizers and other food supplies, despite no apparent progress has been made until now.


Türkiye’s NATO allies, particularly the United States, criticized this approach, which in turn heightened tensions between Washington and Ankara that have been building in recent years.


The two countries are also at odds over their Syria policy, which is a source of sporadic tensions. On Oct. 4, a U.S. aircraft downed a Turkish drone in northern Syria after it came within 500 meters of a U.S. military facility in a region controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).


Gaza War ended a promising thaw with Israel


Since early this year, Ankara has sought to normalize its relations with regional heavyweights, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel.


Alas, financial aid from Gulf countries is yet to enter the books of Treasury or the Central Bank, while FDI from these sources is trickling in, albeit all very low numbers unlikely to change the economic landscape.

But Türkiye experienced some setbacks in its diplomatic offensive in the region


Ankara’s newly restored ties with Israel returned to tensions in October after Israel retaliated against a surprise attack launched by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip by launching massive airstrikes, bombings and a ground offensive in Gaza, killing more than 20,000 Palestinians.


After recalling the Turkish ambassador to Israel to protest the latter’s brutal assault on Gaza, Erdogan even accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “committing war crimes” in Gaza and putting the entire region in danger for its own political survival.


The renewed tensions end any hopes of a Israel-Turkey undersea natural gas pipeline which would have benefited the external accounts of both countries.


On the other front, Türkiye’s normalization with Syria remained a thorny issue despite Russia’s mediation efforts.


No progress in Syria

The return of over 3 million Syrian refugees was a focal point of the campaigns of presidential and parliamentary elections for all parties amid a strong anti-refugee sentiment among the Turkish population.


Any progress there depends on reconciliation with Syria, which has conditioned mending its ties with Türkiye on Ankara’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, where the Turkish army has launched several offensives against Kurdish fighters since 2018.


Following his win in the presidential elections in May, Erdogan appointed his loyal intelligence chief Hakan Fidan as foreign minister. Analysts interpreted this move as a sign that the Turkish leader will continue to pursue a foreign policy of seeking greater strategic autonomy and reinforcing its position as a middle-range power, both in the region and the world.


Since his reelection in May, Erdogan has embarked on a foreign policy shift aimed at improving relations with the West.


During the NATO summit held in Lithuania in July, Erdogan endorsed Sweden’s entry into the military alliance and advocated for the revival of Türkiye’s longstanding bid to join the EU.


In October, Erdogan submitted a bill approving Sweden’s NATO membership bid to the parliament for ratification. Observers believed that Turkish lawmakers would greenlight Sweden’s bid in a couple of weeks after Stockholm conceded to Ankara’s demand for taking tougher actions against anti-Turkish activities on its soil.


Ankara’s endorsement of the Swedish bid shows its eagerness to anchor itself to the transatlantic community through NATO, despite its pursuit of greater strategic autonomy.


Analysts also believed that Türkiye’s foreign policy shift primarily stems from financial considerations, given Türkiye’s need to attract foreign investment to revive its struggling economy. Moreover, it does not want to jeopardize its trade ties with major Western trading partners, particularly the EU.


“There is definitely an economic incentive. Improving relations with the EU could increase foreign direct investment,” said Batu Coskun, an independent political affairs analyst based in Ankara.


However, the Israel-Hamas conflict has unexpectedly strained Türkiye’s ties with the West, as Erdogan has refused to label the Gaza-ruling Hamas as a “terrorist organization” while slamming Israel’s deadly military assault on Gaza.


The EU General Affairs Council then signaled that it was ready for “engagement” with Turkiye. The statement from the council underlined the fact that Turkiye is a candidate for EU membership and a key associate in various areas — as if this were new information; these facts were known by all sides though none pronounced it loudly, commented former foreign affairs minister Yasar Yakis. “The EU turned out to be generous in promises but not in deeds. The report by Borrell and Verhelyi was expected to be submitted to the EU summit. However, an invisible hand withheld its publication”, meaning any debate of starting negotiations on a new expanded Customs Union treaty will not take place before 2024 mid-year leaders’ summit, if then.


At the end, in terms dollars, Turkey has not gained much from her foreign policy maneuvers in 2023.  Though, Erdogan’s more flexible approach to Arab nations and the West seems to promise a more fruitful year in 2024—lest Gaza war spoils it all.


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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and www.paraanaliz.com and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.