After Failed Coup, Turkey Faces Foreign Policy Challenges

In recent days, Erdogan clashed with Egypt's Sissi, won the backing of Iran and outraged the European Union and the United States. Still, Turkey’s foreign policy will be determined by economics.

Turkish Erdogan waves to the crowd following a funeral service for a victim of the thwarted coup in Istanbul, Turkey, July 17, 2016.
Alkis Konstantinidis, Reuters

Turkey’s military attaché in Kuwait missed his flight to Germany on Monday. It wasn’t because he was late getting to King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia, but because the Saudi authorities acceded to Ankara’s request to arrest him. He hasn’t been extradited to Turkey yet, but the Saudis will likely accede to this request as well.

When the Turkish coup failed on Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who was vacationing in Morocco, called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him. But no such call arrived from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

In fact, Sissi ordered his UN ambassador to thwart a Security Council resolution calling for the preservation of Turkey’s “democratically elected government.”

The ambassador said Egypt opposed the resolution because the council isn’t authorized to decide which governments are democratically elected.

Turkey’s response wasn’t long in coming. Erdogan, in his first public appearance following the coup, waved his hand with four fingers outstretched and the thumb folded – the sign used by supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose government Sissi overthrew. The message wasn’t subtle: Turkey wasn’t like Egypt, where the army seized power in 2013.

Erdogan supporters wave their hands, in making a four-fingered gesture referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, in Sidon, Lebanon, July 16, 2016.
Mohammed Zaatari, AP

Two days later, a spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry reinforced this message. “It’s natural for those who obtained power via a coup to refrain from denouncing the coup attempt in Turkey, which was intended to topple the president and the government, who reached their positions via democratic elections,” he said.

Unlike King Salman, who has embraced Turkey as part of the Sunni coalition he is building to block Iran’s influence in the region, Sissi wouldn’t mourn Erdogan’s departure. This despite Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim saying before the coup that there’s no reason for the two countries’ relationship to remain hostile.

Turkey’s return to its strategy of maintaining good relations with all its neighbors isn’t likely to be affected by the coup attempt. Its reconciliation with Israel is expected to proceed. Indeed, both this and the reconciliation with Russia could serve to underscore the “normalcy” to which post-coup Turkey has returned. Nor is any change expected in relations with Iran, especially after President Hassan Rohani hastened to back Erdogan.

Nevertheless, Iran also got its digs in, courtesy of one of the foreign minister’s advisers, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (until recently the deputy foreign minister, before being fired for his anti-Saudi animus), who declared: “Assad and Erdogan are the legitimate leaders of Syria and Turkey.”

Erdogan probably won’t rejoice at being lumped together with Bashar Assad, since he continues to insist that the Syrian dictator is an illegitimate leader who must go.

Just two weeks ago, Yildirim announced that as part of Turkey’s new foreign policy, it would renew relations with Syria. But he was quickly forced to explain that relations would be restored only after Assad has gone.

In Europe and the United States, the failed coup aroused both surprise and concern. The European Union hastened to warn Ankara against reviving the death penalty, which Turkey abolished in 2004 as part of efforts to join the EU. Theoretically, its revival could block Turkey’s bid.

But Turkey’s new counterterrorism law, which enables anyone who criticizes or opposes the government to be jailed, has already outraged the EU. It is demanding the law’s cancellation before it agrees to let Turks enter Europe without a visa.

Visa-free travel was the most important reward – alongside a cash grant of over 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) – that Ankara received in exchange for agreeing to stop the flow of refugees through Turkey to Europe. But Erdogan’s growing power following the failed coup, and the increased legitimacy he earned by thwarting a military takeover, could now cause him to defy Europe’s demands, thereby endangering the refugee agreement.

The character of Turkey’s democracy has long been a bone of contention between Ankara and Brussels. Even before the coup, the EU had criticized Erdogan for persecuting political rivals, jailing journalists wholesale, waging political war on the country’s Kurdish minority and passing pro-religious legislation. These disputes are liable to worsen now that Erdogan has embarked on a massive purge of almost 10,000 army officers, judges, prosecutors and civil servants who are suspected of being followers of Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher whom Erdogan accuses of being behind the coup.

Gulen is also the subject of a dispute between Ankara and Washington. Turkey has demanded his extradition, and there have already been hints that the temporary shutdown of the Incirlik air base following the coup was meant to pressure the United States into acquiescing. Incirlik is a major NATO base and nuclear weapons are stored there.

Nevertheless, Washington is unlikely to extradite Gulen absent real proof of his involvement in the coup or other subversive activity.

Yet for all these disputes, Turkey’s foreign policy toward Europe, the United States and Russia will be determined mainly by economics. The problem isn’t just the blow its tourism industry has suffered; the country also needs massive foreign investment to increase employment.

Such investment tends not to be forthcoming when a country’s political situation is unstable, when terrorists are attacking it or when it is viewed as a rival of the investing countries. Turkey currently meets all three criteria, which could make it an undesirable and even risky country in which to invest.

This is currently Erdogan’s biggest challenge, because Turkey’s political stability – and his ability to rule it – will depend not only on purging his domestic rivals, but also on maintaining his image as the country’s economic savior.