A combination of hard power and diplomacy has been the key to Ankara’s achievements.
From bringing Ukraine and Russia to thenegotiating table tonormalising relations with regional states and organising events like theAntalya Diplomacy Forum, Türkiye appears to be on the diplomatic offensive. Given its string of activity in recent years, from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean, one facet of Ankara’s diplomacy efforts is worth examining: those in conflict and crisis settings.
To explain Turkish foreign policy in these areas, one needs to understand Türkiye’s three-pillar approach, which is grounded in hard power, refraining from zero-sum games, and the pursuit of realpolitik to facilitate diplomacy. This approach, combined with the conduct of Turkish diplomats, has allowed it to enter serious negotiations with its counterparts or even pressure others to come to the table.
Türkiye’s relationship with Russia is exemplary of Ankara’s strategy. In Syria, Libya, and Karabakh, it either engaged directly in conflict or supported its ally and brought Russia to the negotiation table and compelled Russia to sign agreements or make deals.
In Syria, after a week of military operations during Operation Spring Shield, Türkiye managed to reach an agreement with Russia. Before that, a two-month-long negotiation period and continuous meetings between Turkish and Russian diplomats had not yielded any results.
The coordination and cooperation between Turkish generals and diplomats enabled Türkiye tosafeguard over three million Syrians in Idlib. In other words, in contrast to the rhetorical condemnations and threats of sanctions, it was action on the ground that resonated with Moscow. As seen now with the Ukraine conflict, the former two cannot deter the Kremlin’s aggression.
The Turkish way foresees a joint approach by all of the state apparatus — “We are on the field and at the table” is a common phrase used by Turkish officials. The Turkish government believes that it cannot protect its interests in conflict zones and crisis areas that directly affect Türkiye if it has to rely solely on soft power, economics, or others to do its bidding.
This approach helped facilitate the Ukrainian-Russian negotiations in Istanbul as well. For instance, Türkiye didn’t join the coordinated Western sanctions against Russia and signalled its sincerity to both Moscow and Kiev in mediating negotiations. For this, Türkiye used the Antalya Diplomacy Forum as an international diplomacy event and brought both nations' foreign ministerstogether, then followed this with the Istanbul Summit.
Also, in the context of the Ukraine conflict, Turkish diplomats managed to transform a potential crisis into a source of trust. The Montreux Convention gives Türkiye the right to close the Straits in war times, but closing it just to Ukraine and Russia would deteriorate the relations with Moscow and be seen as a hostile move, as NATO vessels could enter the Black Sea. Not closing it would be against the convention and would harm relations with Ukraine. Instead, Türkiye closed the Straits for all andsucceeded in meeting the demands of Kiev and Moscow alike.
In the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Greece and the Greek Administration of Southern Cypruswanted to exclude Türkiye and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Türkiye blocked all unlicensed economic activities on its continental shelf with its naval power, struck amaritime delimitation agreement with Libya, and secured the internationally-recognised Libyan government from a military takeover by warlord Khalifa Haftar. Through its intervention, Türkiye prevented a fait accompli in the eastern Mediterranean that forced other states to change their position and evaluate the option of working with Ankara. After the USsnubbed the East Med project of Greece, Israel and Türkiye even beganexploring the possibilities of a gas pipeline.
The second pillar of Turkish diplomacy is Ankara’s consideration of the interests and threat perceptions of the other — employing “strategic empathy.” Turkish diplomats do not approach issues as zero-sum games. In doing so, Türkiye has managed to gain more in the long run as other states learn to trust its diplomacy.
The above-explained aspects of hard power and refraining from zero-sum games are necessary but not sufficient for diplomatic success. Combined with an ideology-based foreign policy, these two aspects would not facilitate diplomatic gains. If it would, theUS’ liberal foreign policy under Barack Obama would have performed better.
The key here is that Türkiye approaches its policies in crisis settings and beyond, not on an ideological basis but on realpolitik. As seen in the Turkish normalisation efforts with the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and outreach to Armenia, Türkiye’s foreign policy is interest-driven, pragmatic, and realistic. The wielding of hard power in foreign policy enabled this normalisation process, but it was the ability of Türkiye to be realistic that made it happen.
Overall, one can expect this to lead to an enhanced Turkish role in the region, from the Black Sea to the Middle East, to secure its recent gains and fill the void left by the US’ focus on China without antagonising potential regional allies.
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