Ankara’s apology for the downed Russian jet is part of a broader change in Turkish foreign policy.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, November 30, 2015. Photo: AP
Turkey and Russia have often been historical rivals, but with the end of the Cold War, and especially with the rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party in 2002, relations between the two countries reached a new phase, one characterized by cooperation. This new period of cooperation came to a halt, however, with the breakout of civil war in Syria.
After the Arab Spring, which resulted in the toppling of dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, a number of popular resistance movements, mostly inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared in the Middle East. These movements were seen by the Turkish government - and particularly by former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu - as a positive alternative to autocratic rule for Arab states.
Davutoğlu sought to maximize Turkey’s soft power in the region, adopting a neo-Ottoman foreign policy emphasizing the bonds between the Turks and Arabs derived from the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s leadership hoped to exert its influence to replace President Bashar Assad in Syria with a Muslim Brotherhood government.
However, this ambitious plan fell afoul of Russia’s support for Assad. The deployment of Russian bomber jets to the Hmeymim air base and a campaign of massive airstrikes in Syria (which also hit various groups supported by Turkey) tried Ankara’s patience.
With Moscow threatening Ankara’s interests and the increasing enlargement of the Russian Air Force on the Turkish-Syrian border, tension between the two countries grew. This friction reached its peak on Nov. 24, 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet, claiming that the Russian plane violated its sovereign borders.
With this unprecedented act, Turkish-Russian relations entered a period of serious deterioration for seven months, which finally came to an end on June 27 with President Erdoğan’s apology for the downed Russian jet.
Behind the scene of Erdoğan’s apology
While this apology may be seen as a sudden move, Erdoğan’s replacement of Prime Minister Davutoğlu with Binali Yıldırım in May ushered in a radical change in Turkish foreign policy. Yıldırım’s recent statement on mending Turkey’s relations with Israel, Russia, Egypt and Syria should not be seen only as a desire by Turkey’s to put an end to its loneliness in the region. Turkey’s new approach can also be taken as a counter to Iran, in the framework of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to form a new, unofficial alliance with Turkey, Egypt and Israel.
In addition to these regional developments, the approaching end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s term has also significantly affected the policy shift. It is quite clear that the next U.S. president - whether it be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump - may not tolerate Turkey’s harsh policies towards Russia and Israel. Turkey’s leadership hopes to start relations with the next American administration with a clean slate.
Turkey’s reconciliation policy will seek to resume Russian-Turkish cooperation in various fields including energy, trade and tourism. It is very likely that major joint energy projects will be resumed, including the Turkish Stream pipeline, which is designed to bring Russian gas to Europe via Turkey, and the construction of new nuclear power plants in Turkey.
Syria, once the cause of tension between Turkey and Russia, could be positively affected by this reconciliation. The Israeli-Russian model for diplomatic and military communication, which prevents any direct confrontation between Jerusalem and Moscow in Syria and Lebanon, could serve as a prototype for preventing future friction between Moscow and Ankara in the region.
In the long run, the Turkish-Russian rapprochement - further strengthened by such a model - could serve to bring a sustainable ceasefire and stability to Syria, which would also slow the influx of refugees into Turkey and Europe.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.