ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is downplaying Ankara’s tensions with a host of countries as he launches a charm offensive on a variety of fronts. Meeting with the ambassadors of EU member states in Ankara on Jan. 12, Erdogan said that he expects to “turn a new page” in ties with Europe and “set a positive agenda” in 2021. However, his comments came at the same time as Brussels draws up an expanded sanctions list targeting Turkish individuals over Ankara’s decision to drill for offshore natural gas near Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. The punitive measures are set to be announced in March. Turkey also initiated the 61st round of exploratory talks with Greece on Jan. 25 to resolve longstanding conflicts over energy rights and maritime boundaries that pushed both countries to the brink of war last year. Similarly, Turkish and French presidents, after trading barbs last year, especially over their divergent regional policies, recently exchanged letters in which they agreed to resume talks to improve ties. The two countries are working on a roadmap to normalize relations. Despite growing tensions last year over the drilling activities of the Oruc Reis research ship in contested waters off Greece, Erdogan also called for cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean rather than competition. Experts remain skeptical about the success of this diplomatic sea-change and the hidden motivations behind it. Whether these steps will lead to tangible gestures in the region and globally is still a matter of concern. Ian Lesser, vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, believes Ankara is trying to modulate its foreign policy messaging, above all with the US and the EU. “Part of this is tactical, including the desire to forestall or limit future sanctions, and to offset the influence of more hawkish voices within the EU. According to Lesser, Ankara would prefer an agenda that is more German and less French in the coming months, and this will also be read closely by the new administration in Washington. “With the important exception of the eastern Mediterranean, the Trump administration was not overly concerned about Turkish-EU relations or the range of issues affecting these relations. The incoming Biden administration is likely to pay more attention to migration, human rights and media freedom, all issues on the EU agenda with Ankara,” he said. But according to Marc Pierini, a visiting academic at Carnegie Europe in Brussels and a former EU envoy to Turkey, “we have seen this movie before.” “When Turkey finds itself stuck with failed policy choices, it performs abrupt U-turns, this time on monetary policy, and relations with the US and the EU. In the meantime, Ankara hopes to rebuild its relations with Washington under Joe Biden, and failed to react harshly to the appointment of Brett McGurk, a staunch Turkey critic, as the National Security Council’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. Pierini believes that such Turkish U-turns have zero credibility. “You can’t say that Turkey’s future is in Europe — only weeks after saying Germany was ‘Nazi’ and France needed to get rid of its mentally impaired president,” he said, referring to the feud between Erdogan and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron last year when the Turkish leader advised Macron to have a mental health checkup over his comments on Islam.
“While dismantling the rule of law week after week, Turkey’s leadership wants European leaders to believe that major governance reforms are around the corner and that its accession ambitions are alive,” Pierini said.
“The same goes with NATO, at a time when Turkey has deliberately facilitated Russia’s strategic objectives against the Atlantic alliance,” he added. Ankara’s stubborn stance over the S-400 Russian air defense system remains a strong deterrent for any normalization with the US administration as the system is considered incompatible with the NATO version and could be used by Moscow to obtain classified details on the US F-35 jets. However, experts are divided about whether these efforts will prove successful. Lesser believes that rhetoric does make a difference, and that the Turkey debate has become so critical on both sides of the Atlantic that leaders and observers are looking for concrete change on the S-400 issue and other fronts. “This will not be easy. There is probably a time-limited window for Ankara to demonstrate that there is substance behind these multiple signals of detente,” he said. For Pierini, to find a way out of these massive contradictions, EU leaders will have to strike a balance between their own credulity and the artificial narratives emanating from Ankara. “Before doing so, they will talk to the Biden administration,” he said. At the end of 2020, Erdogan also expressed a desire to mend ties with Israel amid speculation that both countries would reappoint ambassadors. Gallia Lindenstrauss, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said that the drivers behind Turkey’s overtures to Israel include: Preparations for the incoming US administration; tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, and the desire to drive a wedge between Israel, Cyprus and Greece; the Abraham accords and the end of the blockade on Qatar which requires Turkey to rethink its policies toward the Middle East; and the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that reminded Ankara of the advantages of cooperating with Israel. Although the return of diplomatic ties is a feasible aim, she doesn’t expect any change before the Israeli elections in March and the formation of a new government. “However, this will not fundamentally improve relations as there is deep suspicion between the two states. “Also Israel will likely make additional demands from Turkey to show that its overtures are sincere, such as Ankara halting Hamas military activity organized on its soil and directed against Israel and the West Bank, as well as more transparency about Turkey’s projects in East Jerusalem,” she added.