Domestic politics must not divert attention from significant foreign policy developments.
There is no doubt that Türkiye has assumed the most influential role in the international arena since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That role has two aspects. First, the Turks managed to take one of the few positive steps amid the Ukraine crisis by facilitating the grain deal and a prisoner exchange. Indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s diplomatic achievements attracted plenty of global attention in 2022. Secondly, Türkiye made attempts at conflict resolution whilst seizing geopolitical opportunities created by the Ukraine crisis better than any other country.
Having adopted an active and balanced policy of neutrality toward Russia and Ukraine, Türkiye did not join in on sanctioning Moscow and made advantageous breakthroughs in many areas. In addition to peace diplomacy, the country has focused on energy, food security and logistics to strengthen its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Europe. Whereas Greece and Israel have launched ambitious initiatives to supply energy to Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought up the possibility of Türkiye serving as a natural gas distribution center – which demonstrates that the country is one step ahead of others.
That superiority is not exclusively linked to the idea of delivering Russian natural gas to Europe via Türkiye. President Erdoğan attended a trilateral summit between Türkiye, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan last week to conclude five agreements. That summit primarily focused on shipping Turkmenistan’s natural gas to Türkiye, via the Caspian Sea, and Europe. The existing natural gas pipelines, TANAP and TAP, are already operating at full capacity which is why there are discussions about an additional pipeline. Obviously, that kind of cooperation along the Middle Corridor would strengthen the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) too.
Moreover, President Erdoğan attended the opening ceremony of Europe’s largest natural gas storage facility in Silivri, Istanbul, where he pledged to transform Türkiye into a global center, where the reference price for natural gas would be determined soon.
Ankara’s recent initiatives benefited from the normalization policy and cordial relations with Russia. Despite objections from a couple of Western states, Türkiye has taken its exceptional relations with Russia to the next level.
The leader-to-leader diplomacy between Erdoğan and Putin, which started amid serious issues in 2015, has been discussed within the context of the S-400 controversy, investments in nuclear energy, competition in Libya and military operations in Syria. In the wake of Türkiye’s successful moves in Libya and Karabakh, competition has given way to cooperation and turned into a new chapter. Finally, in light of the Ukraine crisis, Erdoğan came to play a more active role in diplomacy, energy, food security and regional initiatives vis-a-vis bilateral relations.
At this point, even in Central Asia, Moscow slowly embraced a new balance between competition and cooperation with Ankara. That was the direct outcome of Türkiye’s autonomous foreign policy and Erdoğan’s ability to fill geopolitical vacuums.
It is noteworthy that Erdoğan brought up the possibility of a trilateral engagement between Türkiye, Syria and Russia on the flight back from Turkmenistan. Recalling that he proposed a meeting among the three heads of state (following contacts between intelligence services, defense ministers and foreign ministers) to Putin, the Turkish president hinted at setting a new negotiating table for Syria.
Having already announced that he is open to contact with the Bashar Assad regime, Erdoğan took a step that would serve Putin’s needs as well. If that proposal leads to a political process, and a series of meetings materialize to facilitate the repatriation of Syrian asylum-seekers in Türkiye and to push the PKK/YPG terrorists beyond a 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) security corridor, the situation in Syria could change drastically.