Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan greet supporters at the AKP headquarters in Ankara on June 25, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adem Altan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election to the Turkish presidency renders him the absolute sovereign in the Turkish political system, as he was aspiring to be. Gaining the enhanced powers that were adopted by the popular referendum of April 2017, he is ready – as he himself has frequently reiterated – to continue not only with the internal transformation of Turkey but with the external orientation of the Turkish state as well. The new system establishes a hegemonic position for the presidential post.

In essence, the newly introduced political system violates an old principle of politics, the separation of powers that the French philosopher Montesquieu codified during the Enlightenment, which is regarded as the main pillar of modern liberal-democratic political systems. It is not a secret that Erdogan is against the separation of powers. He has described the separation of powers as “the government’s main obstacle that is preventing it from introducing new services.”

Specifically, the Turkish president will be able to intervene in all branches of power, from the judiciary to the legislature, where he will be in a position to issue decrees and bypass the parliament, especially on executive issues and foreign policy. In other words, any checks and balances will be absent in the new presidential system, leading to over-concentration of powers in the post of the president.

In this article we are mainly concerned about Turkish foreign policy, since it will affect a lot of states in the Near East (Israel and Syria for example) but Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean as well.

Political Islam and foreign policy

Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman vision for his region is incompatible with international law, as it seeks to revive the legal and political status quo in the region. More specifically, not only Erdogan but also other Turkish officials have many times questioned the sovereignty of many Greek islands. Erdogan’s new term in the presidency – with his enhanced powers – will provoke further instability in the region.

Erdogan is influenced by the theories of former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Specifically, the theory of “strategic depth” is considered as the political bible of the Islamists in Turkey. According to this theory, Ankara aspires to make Turkey the epicenter of its region because of its particular “historic, geographic and cultural weight” as a successor state of the Ottoman Empire. In this regard, Turkey desires to become a world pole of power and not just a regional power. Apart from its military power, one other instrument at the disposal of Ankara is the projection of so-called soft power to Muslims everywhere.

Turkish-Israeli relations

Erdogan will continue to present himself as the champion of Muslims and especially of the Palestinian movement of Hamas in Gaza, broadening the gap between Turkey and Israel, allies until 2010, when the Mavi Marmara incident disrupted their relations. Convergent economic interests brought Israeli-Turkish relations on to a path of reconciliation, but the tragic incidents in Gaza in May strained their bilateral relations once again.

Greece and Cyprus

Αs regards Turkey and Greece, the Turkish goal to gain vital space at the expense of Greece will continue to strain relations between the two countries, while Erdogan’s revisionism regarding the Treaty of Lausanne and the frequent Turkish violations of Greek airspace will be a constant element of instability and imminent escalation. The Turkish president’s witticism that “the legal borders are different from the borders of his heart” shows unambiguously that Turkish foreign policy is moving to irredentism and expansionism.

Focusing especially on the Cyprus question, it is unlikely that the newly re-elected leader will make any genuine gesture toward a solution of the problem. The Turkish obsession with retaining guarantee and intervention rights over Cyprus evaporates any hopeful perspective toward a viable and fair solution of the problem.

Moreover, Ankara will continue its coercive tactics and threats toward the Republic of Cyprus regarding latter’s rights to its exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean. Turkey’s decision to send its first drilling vessel to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in order to find natural gas and oil is indicative of its intentions.

Violation of Syrian sovereignty and the Kurds

The Turkish army violated Syrian sovereignty, invoking concerns about Kurdish actions in northern Syria. We predict that as time progresses, Turkey’s strategic plans will become a source of friction with Damascus and other local and regional actors as well.

Moreover, Turkish actions in Syria create suspicions about its intentions. What is Turkey planning to do in Syria? Will it leave the area that it occupies or does it plan to stay? Many analysts are suspicious that Ankara is employing neocolonial policies in northern Syria. It has already opened three universities there and plans to open another one in the town of al-Bab, which Turkey captured during Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017).

An important question is, what will happen with all these institutions established in Syria? If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad takes control of these areas, will the universities will be placed under the Syrian government’s control?

US-Turkish relations

US-Turkish relations have deteriorated gradually since 2002 when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came in power. However, the two sides have never considered abandoning their formal relationship, as both are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Kurdish issue in northern Syria often strained relations between the two allies because Kurdish fighters were the main partners of the US on the ground fighting Islamic State (ISIS).

However, Ankara was alarmed by the Kurds’ efforts to connect their cantons in Syria, as it feared that this could result in secessionist tendencies in southeastern Turkey, where around 10 million Kurds reside. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on June 4 and the announcement of a roadmap for Kurds’ withdrawal from the Syrian town of Manbij does not seem to have evaporated the differences between the two countries.

Some hours after, Cavusoglu accused the US of being responsible for the deterioration of bilateral relations. On its part, the US Congress stands by its decision not to deliver F-35 fighters to Turkey if it proceeds with acquiring the S-400 missile system from Russia.

Finally, Turkish relations with the European Union are at a very bad point. Talks on Turkish accession to the EU are in essence halted because of gross human-rights violations after the failed coup of July 2016.

Almost 20 years after the Helsinki Summit (1999) when Turkey was given by the European Council the status of candidate country for the European Union, negotiations are stalled. Particular economic and geo-economic interests for both sides have not yet derailed Ankara’s accession route to the EU, but Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman vision for Turkish foreign policy does not guarantee this for the future.

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Nicos Panayiotides

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

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