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Turkey’s opposition foreign policy promises gradual departure from Erdogan’s

Turkey’s opposition alliance vows to prioritize diplomacy and de-escalate tensions in Ankara’s foreign ties, yet it might adhere to policy continuity on many issues should it win the elections next month.
Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) Chairman and Presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks during a rally in Canakkale, western Turkey, on April 11, 2023.

A return to “factory settings” in Turkey’s foreign policy and defusing tensions in international ties are key elements in the election platform of the country’s opposition bloc, but it might well maintain existing policies in some areas should it win the May 14 polls.

A policy continuity is likely to be seen in the energy rivalry in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s territorial disputes with Greece, even though the six-party Nation Alliance is expected to prioritize diplomacy and abandon the confrontational style that has marked Turkish foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the past decade.

The AKP-led People's Alliance has yet to unveil its election manifesto. Amid economic turmoil at home, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently sought to mend Turkey’s fraught ties with regional heavyweights, making U-turns on ambitious foreign policy chapters. 

Turkey has conducted a series of military operations in Syria and Iraq since the last elections in 2018, with Erdogan vowing to create a 30-kilometer-deep (19-mile) security belt along the country’s southern borders against perceived threats from Kurdish groups. Ankara’s military interventions extended to Libya in 2019, and its military support helped Azerbaijan defeat Armenia in a war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020.

In the past couple of years, however, Erdogan has turned to fence mending in the region, restoring ties with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel, countries that he had vehemently criticized. Rapprochement with Cairo and a bid to normalize ties with Damascus are also underway. 

As for the many thorny dossiers with Washington, Erdogan has managed to resolve none and President Joe Biden has held off from inviting him to the White House. Erdogan has extended support to Ukraine in a bid to balance the Western annoyance over his close ties with Russia. Yet he has still to unblock Sweden’s bid to join NATO, though he has removed objections to Finland’s membership.

Disputes with NATO ally Greece over territorial rights and maritime zones, coupled with the Cyprus conflict, remain a minefield despite a recent thaw in bilateral ties thanks to “earthquake diplomacy” after the devastating Feb. 6 temblors in Turkey.

Armenia’s post-quake assistance to Turkey has similarly warmed the bilateral climate, but the two long-estranged neighbors have yet to formally make peace and establish diplomatic ties. 

Hoping for economic gains, Erdogan has backed Azerbaijan’s push for a transport route via Armenia, which would provide Turkey with a direct connection to Central Asia, and spearheaded the creation of the Organization of Turkic States. Amid strained ties with the West, he has raised also the prospect of Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is led by Russia and China.

The opposition alliance, led by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), pledges to fix the muddle that Turkish foreign policy has become. In a joint policy document, it says its foreign policy will be based on Ataturk’s adage “Peace at home, peace in the world” and adhere to universal values and international law, free of ideological considerations. 

The Foreign Ministry — which has lost much influence, with foreign policy becoming increasingly personalized — will regain its institutional weight in policy- and decision-making, the document says, signaling an end to the appointment of noncareer individuals to ambassadorial and other diplomatic posts. 

The opposition upholds Turkey’s bid for full membership in the European Union and pledges to respect all rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. 

As for NATO, the document says, “NATO is of critical importance for our national security in terms of the deterrence it provides. We will maintain our contributions to NATO on a rational basis and in line with our national interests.” Relations with the United States, meanwhile, will be advanced institutionally on the basis of mutual trust and an understanding of dialogue between equals, it states. It pledges efforts to return Turkey to the F-35 joint strike fighter program, but says nothing about the S-400 air defense systems that Erdogan’s government purchased from Russia, prompting Turkey’s expulsion from the program.

The opposition pledges to maintain ties also with Russia, based on a “balanced and constructive dialogue on an institutional level.”

On Greece, it says it will pursue diplomacy and dialogue to find just solutions to bilateral problems, while stressing that it will not make any concession on Turkey’s national interests and not allow any development that could harm the country’s sovereign rights in the Aegean. The document describes the Cyprus issue as a “national cause,” emphasizing that any settlement should ensure the sovereign political equality of the island’s Turkish and Greek communities.

On the energy exploration rows in the eastern Mediterranean, the opposition says it will prioritize multilateral negotiations to seek solutions to disagreements on the delineation of maritime zones and ensure a fair sharing of the resources.

It pledges to further strengthen ties with Azerbaijan, while expressing commitment to advancing the fence-mending with Armenia.

On Syria, the opposition pledges to work for the “safe return” of Syrian refugees as soon as possible. It stresses respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all regional countries and noninterference in their domestic affairs, but falls short of outlining a road map for normalization with Damascus. It promises “intense contacts and dialogue” with Damascus and opposition representatives, barring militant groups, to help peace efforts in Syria, but says nothing about how it would handle the armed rebel groups that Ankara has backed.

The alliance speaks of fighting terrorism, without outlining the scope of its objectives. It makes no mention of Turkey’s Kurdish issue, even though its joint presidential candidate — CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu — relies on Kurdish support to defeat Erdogan. The de facto Kurdish-led self-rule in northern Syria, which Ankara has sought to crush, is similarly omitted.

The Kurdish problem remains a sensitive matter for the diverse opposition bloc. The CHP tends to heed the state’s red lines on the issue and the nationalist Good Party, the second-largest force in the bloc, promises no moderation to the Kurds. Standing out in this context is the small Democracy and Progress Party, which has sought to reach out to the Kurds. 

Libya is also absent from the joint policy document despite Turkey’s intervention in the country’s civil war. Kilicdaroglu has previously urged the government “to keep Turkish soldiers away from the Libyan deserts” and called for a United Nations peacekeeping mission instead. The CHP and the Good Party voted against a parliamentary authorization of Turkish military deployment in Libya in 2020, though both parties backed the maritime delineation agreement that Ankara signed with the Tripoli government in 2019. 

In October 2021, the CHP voted against a two-year extension of the government’s mandate for military action in Syria and Iraq, while the Good Party backed the motion. 

The joint policy document makes no mention of Iran, a country that has often confronted Turkey in Iraq, Syria and the Caucasus. Ukraine, too, is absent, as is China, though the opposition has often questioned the government’s ties with Beijing and called for a stronger defense of the rights of the Uyghur community. As such, the document signals a controlled and distanced pragmatism in relations with Russia and China. 

The opposition’s criticism that Erdogan has turned foreign policy into a partisan and highly personalized affair is at the core of its pledges of reinstitutionalization. Yet restoring the central role of the Foreign Ministry requires also a review of the forefront role that the National Intelligence Organization has acquired in foreign policy, especially on security-related matters — an aspect that has yet to be openly discussed.

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