Insight Turkey 5th Annual Conference: Turkish Foreign Policy


Keynote Address:

Mehmet Şimşek
Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey

Mr. Şimşek emphasized the robust relationship between the United States and Turkey, though shared trade and investment is lower than he would like.
Focusing on Turkey’s economic outlook, Mr. Şimşek asserted that Turkey has done relatively well over the last decade considering the European economic crisis and the Arab Spring, nevertheless there is a lot to be done as Turkey aims to be counted among the developed economies.
Mr. Simsek pointed out that Turkey needs to re-evaluate its long-term economic strategy. “There are three anchors that will be crucial to improving Turkey’s economic and overall stance globally: the European Union accession process, structural transformation, and sectorial transformation,” said Şimşek. He provided many examples of upcoming legislation reform in Turkey to address these three facets of Turkish policy. Moreover, he stated that even though the situation is complicated, Turkey has a strong foundation and a very good road map to address the issues it is currently facing. Mr. Şimşek concluded by saying that the crises with Russia will not have a significant impact on the Turkish economy and the solution to the Kurdish issue is not violence but dialogue, reforms as well as a more prosperous and democratic Turkey.

Panel 1: Neighboring Civil Wars: Security Challenges from the Syrian Conflict

Chair: Barbara Slavin (Atlantic Council)

Murat Yeşiltaş (SETA Foundation)
Mesut Özcan (Foreign Ministry of Turkey)
Trita Parsi (National Iranian American Council)
Cedric Leighton (Cedric Leighton Associates)


Murat Yeşiltaş focused on the Syrian Civil war and its impact on Turkish border security. The securitization of the Turkish border is very important considering the current geopolitical complexities and its impact can be seen not only domestically but also in the foreign policy. Arab Spring has been a breaking point in this regard and since then there have been dramatic changes in the mentality of Turkish border security. Considering ISIL, PYD/YPG and the Assad Regime as imminent threats to Turkey, Yeşiltaş also stated that there are three main factors that have jeopardized the Turkish border security of late.
(i) the extensive length of the border  making security along it impossible,
 (ii) the open doors policy for refugees fleeing from the war,  making it very difficult to identify the terrorists among them
 (iii) confusion of authority and lack of primary institutions in some cases has caused in-efficiencies in responding to the crisis.

Mesut Özcan focused on the latest events in the region and emphasized that Iran and Saudi Arabia should pursue diplomatic solutions and deescalate the conflict as this may result in more turmoil for the whole region. He stated that the conflict between these two states shed light on the fragility of the region and the urgency to find a solution to the Syrian problem.  Focusing on the Turkey-Syria relations, Özcan assessed that- with the exception of the first Syrian presidential visit to Turkey in 2011 - both countries have been distant neighbors with their ideological differences becoming more obvious after the Arab Spring. Even though Syria has been a main source of security, political and social problems faced by Turkey, there has not been any impact in the economic relations between the two states. Lastly, Özcan highlighted the fact that from the Turkish perspective Assad needs to step down and there is a need for a timetable which must be strictly followed.

Trita Parsi alleged that the position of Turkey is not strong enough to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as there is a lack of trust, which is a critical component to defuse the tensions. Moreover, the nuclear deal was important for Iran as it would help in its rehabilitation to the international community and it also signaled that U.S. considers Iran as a major stabilizing actor in the region. The compromise in GSP was crucial for Iran, considering that they are going to continue their enrichment program, otherwise Iran would have been considered a 4th level country –a member of NPT not allowed to have enrichment. The nuclear deal and the Syrian crisis have put several negative developments into relief: (i) A shift has taken place in the region considering the resistance of Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran’s enrichment program; (ii) the rise of sectarianism, for which Iran itself is not that innocent when it comes to its promotion; (iii) the collapse of the states; (iv) Syria has played a major role in terms of Turkey-Iran relations. Lastly Parsi stated that the Saudi panic might be explained as most of the West has gravitated toward the position of Iran, which has always argued that Assad should not leave and that defeating ISIL is the main priority.

Cedric Leighton stated that relations between Turkey and the U.S are characterized by suspicion that is an artifact of past events, a lack of understanding of the culture, religion and the way of life, and a lack of understanding of the historical context within which the region has evolved. While the U.S. seems to be on the same page with Turkey when it comes to the elimination of ISIL, their paths start to diverge when it comes to the Assad regime. Leighton argues that a sphere of stability – between Turkey, U.S, Iran- may be created in the region and it will leave aside the Sunni ruled nations. In this context the U.S aims at fighting ISIL – which is also the main aim of Turkey, but on the other hand by being in congruence with Iran the U.S. has admitted that the policy to eliminate Assad is not successful. Finally, Leighton asserts that while the U.S has come closer to Iran, this has confused the Sunni ruled nations and such a strategy may result in a decrease of the social and political power of the latter not only around the world, but also in the region.

Panel 2: The Kurdish Question as a Regional Challenge

Chair: Ufuk Ulutaş (SETA Foundation)


Etyen Mahçupyan (Public Policy and Democracy Studies)
Burhanettin Duran (SETA Foundation)
Denise Natali (National Defense University)
Marina Ottaway (Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars)


Etyen Mahçupyan considered the Turkish state and PKK as two maximalist actors and a solution for the conflict between them will not be possible unless the conditions, actors or mentality change. A positive environment was created when AK Party came to power and it managed to occupy a middle ground due to three well-used elements: (i) coming from the periphery; (ii) being Islamic; (iii) providing a different mentality – mainly paternalistic while seeking a heterogeneous society. “There are three options for addressing Kurdish grievances within Turkey,” said Etyen Mahcupyan. “These are the existence of Kurds as equal citizens of Turkey, decentralization of majority Kurdish areas of the country, or full territorial rights for Kurds.” Mahcupyan also pointed out that the answer for the solution of the Kurdish issue is still in Turkey and not in the region.

Burhanettin Duran

According to Burhanettin Duran the current chaos in the Middle East has been a destructive one and there is a need for the global and regional powers to take considerable steps in this regard. The Syrian civil war has resulted in major crises such as the sectarian polarization –which it has transformed into an ideological national competition between powers-, and the Kurdish issue. Both of these phenomena are intermingled and represent critical challenges to Turkey, asserted Duran. Due to this hostile situation it is not possible to go back to the reconciliation process between Turkey and PKK. Moreover, Duran added that the role of the U.S. is very important and it should understand that the security concerns of Turkey are not just humanitarian security issues but most importantly it is a question of national unity.

Denise Natali

Denise Natali asserted that there is an increasing mobilization of Kurds in the Middle East through nationalism, and Turkey’s PKK problem is spreading across Iraq and Syria. Due to the absence of a world leader in the region, the only actor benefitting has been the PKK. Furthermore, Natali states that HDP is hostage to the PKK as it is the political wing of an armed group and not the other way around. However, Natali emphasized that there are many Kurds in southeastern Turkey that despise the PKK and similarly the Syrian Kurds want to have their own area away from the Turkish Kurds. Considering this, Turkey should take advantage of these divisions and show the Kurds the benefits of economic development over nationalist aspirations.

Marina Ottaway

Marina Ottaway claimed that there will be a multiplicity of actors that will shape the future of the Middle East and the Kurds have already started to put some marks on the ground. In terms of the Kurdish issue Ottaway stated that Turkey faces two different challenges. The relations with KRG are fairly simple, as Turkey has accepted the reality –existence of a semi-independent Kurdish region in Iraq. On the other side the situation is different with the Kurdish areas in Syria due to the presence of PKK and its relations with PYD. Ottaway concluded that these two situations are not a challenge only for Turkey, but also for the U.S.

Panel 3: What Kind of Partnership? Turkey- America Relationship

Chair: Kadir Üstün (SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.)

Joshua Walker The German Marshall Fund
Hasan Kösebalaban Istanbul Şehir University
Robert Wexler S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace
Kiliç Kanat SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.


Joshua Walker argued that the main issue that should be considered regarding the relations between Turkey and U.S. is stability, whether in the economic perspective or the Kurdish issue. Considering Turkey as the greatest democracy in the region, he concluded by saying that there is a regional solution for regional problems, while Turkey has been supporting this perspective for many years now it remains to see how the U.S. is going to engage.

Hasan Kösebalaban claimed that the main challenge in this bilateral relation is the recognition of Turkey’s aspirations in the region and the domestic changes towards a more dynamic, democratic and civilized politics by the U.S. Kösebalaban also pointed out that the electoral politics in the U.S. is reflecting Islamophobia and while previously there was a focus on a discourse on terrorism, now it is seen as a discourse on Islam. Finally, Kösebalaban stated that the reluctance of the U.S. to intervene in the region has resulted in a vacuum filled by Russia and this is a threat for Turkey.

Robert Wexler asserted that the relation between Turkey and the U.S. is mainly limited and dominated by the ISIL discourse. Moreover he argued that in recent years Turkey has undergone enormous change and there are possibilities for Turkey to become even better. “Stability is important, the Turkish voters voted for stability and America needs stability which President Erdoğan brings. An unstable Turkey is a disaster for everyone” concluded Wexler.

Kiliç Kanat stated that both states have failed to name what kind of partnership they have. In this perspective Kanat called it an a la carte partnership and the U.S. and Turkey need to agree on the regions and places they want to work and create mechanisms in order to avoid any further crises over the issues on which they do not agree. Kanat concluded by saying that there is a need for a more meaningful, more stable and more predictable relation with multiple channels of communication to fulfill the public need for knowledge and information.