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AIC Country Profile: Turkey


Turkey is nestled between Europe and Asia on the Anatolian peninsula, with borders shared with Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and most importantly to us, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It has the advantage of access to the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black seas, a veritable water tank in a region plagued by water scarcity. By virtue of geography, Turkey is naturally poised for strategic importance.

Turkey is a country under transformation. Founded in 1923 on secular principles by its modern leader, Kemal Ataturk, it has today a government much more sensitive to Islam (adhered to by about 97% of its population). It is a thriving democracy with a robust economy, thanks to billions of investment dollars from abroad (attracted by export markets and global business), harkening back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey was the business metropolis of the East. As a world power, Turkey has grown from a young and impressionable US ally to an assertive and opinionated regional superpower with its own interests at the forefront.

Power Shift

Turkey has increasingly taken center stage as a force to be reckoned with, sidelining even the US as it pursued its own course in solving global problems. For instance, Turkey and Brazil co-opted Iran by offering to enrich its uranium to a higher grade, thereby avoiding the possibility that this material would be used for weapons, a plan opposed by the US. In June 2010, the Israeli raid on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza incited global outrage when Turkish activists were killed by IDF commandos. This event was doubly significant because of its implications for Israeli-Turkish relations. Turkish leaders were extremely outspoken and boldly denounced the act, calling for an end to the Gaza blockade. Turkey's attempt to breach the blockade inspired many other countries and groups to mimic the act. Its audacity in challenging the world paradigm for crisis resolution and diplomacy earned it respect and praise across the Arab world.


Turkey as we know it today was founded in 1923 by a secular military revolutionist by the name of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Since this time, the military has had a powerful role in the government and stability, asserting itself in coups every so often. In the 1980s, the Turkish economy experienced a manufacturing boom as a result of the prime minister freeing it from central control. This move helped induced a population shift from rural to urban, and the movement of many traditional Muslims into middle class status. This trend also had a stabilizing effect on the balance between military and politics, as well as on feelings of radicalism within the population, as exhibited by the most recent military coup attempt in 2010, which failed. This latest usurpation's impotency signals the military's political demise as well as the central government's stability. In September 2010, the government received further affirmation of its legitimacy when constitutional changes, intended to bring Turkey's military-imposed constitution in line with the European Union's democratic standards, were approved by voters. The constitutional overhaul included measures to protect the rights of women, children, workers, and civil servants, and made the military subject to civilian courts, as well as removing impunity for the leaders of the 1980 coup.

Turkey's form of government is a parliamentary republic, that long had a president, prime minister, and a legislature (Grand National Assembly). In 2017, however, a referendum was passed that invested sole authority in the Presidency, and promised to do away with the Prime Minister's position. This ballot initiative took place at the initiative of then-President Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, who had already left a significant mark on Turkish society by eliminating many of the strictures that had long been in place regarding public religious expression. Critics worry that with a less political military and a more religiously sensitive government that secularism will be in jeopardy, concentrating too much power in the presidency and parliament, thereby removing the fail-safe of a separation of powers. But Erdogan's electoral success, and the public's referendum-esque approval of constitutional changes, clearly shows that his government has the backing of the majority, emboldening Erdogan to push for a form of government with a strong executive.

Foreign Policy

European Union

Joining the European Union has been a Turkish goal for decades, unreachable because of government debt, low GDP, and high inflation. In recent years, however, Turkey's economic status has improved immensely, even in comparison to EU-member nations (who were hard hit by the global recession). On the cusp of EU eligibility, Turkey's major policy goals are driven toward its induction: lower the annual budget deficit, reduce inflation, and raise GDP. Even so, by 2009 Turkey's trade with the European Union accounted for 40 percent of its total trade. In 2015, Turkey reached an agreement with the EU whereby it would agree to take in mostly-Syrian migrants who had entered Greece illegally while the EU agreed to take in legal refugees from Syria on a one-to-one basis. to provide financial assistance to Turkey to aid with the absorption of refugees, and to continue talks on Turkish ascension to the EU.

United States

Turkey has enjoyed friendly relations with the US for decades, but its rise to regional power and flexing of its diplomatic muscles have created a much more tense dynamic as of late. This is mainly due to Turkey's approach to diplomacy with Iran, and its haranguing of Israel's conduct in the 2008 Gaza War and June 2010 flotilla raid. Turkey is intrinsically sympathetic toward Palestinians, due to their shared Islamic culture. The US and Turkey have diverging views over Hamas and Israel's security, and there are increasing signs that Turkey's stance regarding Syria is moving closer to Russia's as well.


In the wake of Iran's 1979 revolution, relations between Iran and Turkey were strained. The two countries have contrary views on the dichotomy of religion and government; the Islamic Republic's aggressive pursuit of regional power and desire to spread the Islamic Revolution outside of Iran is a challenge to Turkey's own quest for secularism and influence. Iranian politicians have denounced Turkey's secular laws and aided insurgents in the Kurdish Workers' Party, angering Turkey, while Iran complained of Turkish inaction against Iranian dissidents, interference in Azerbaijan, and questioned the legitimacy of Turkey's militarily imposed regime. However, Iran is most concerned with Turkey's Western alignment. Turkey is a member of NATO, and is therefore part of an extremely powerful military alliance wherein it shares many of the West's regional ambitions. When the USSR fell, Turkey countered Iran in the power vacuum that ensued.

However, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the election in 2002, it forged a new path in Turkish-Iranian relations. Though still secular, the AKP's Islamic roots and good neighbor policy, aimed to develop trade and regional hegemony, have helped to soothe tensions. Turkey has signaled its policy shift through frequent high-level diplomatic exchanges and withholding criticism of Iranian political affairs, such as the disputed reelection of President Ahmadinejad in 2009 and the violent suppression of the Green Movement. In turn, Iran has significantly decreased its cooperation with Kurdish insurgent groups.

Turkey's Iran policy is centered on competition for regional influence, especially in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq where Iran has deep religious and political roots. Ankara is ambivalent at best toward Tehran, willing to use diplomacy and trade to stabilize its relationship, but ever wary of instability within the Iranian regime. This ambivalence has been magnified in the years of the Syrian Civil War, starting in 2011. when Turkey split with Syria over what it considered to be Syria's reckless and harsh policies against its civilian population, which fed a war that has severely constrained regional trade and has created a massive refugee problem that Turkey (and Jordan and Lebanon) are having to contend with. This connects to Iran because the Iranian government has continued to stand with Syrian leader Bashar Assad, deepening political tensions between Iran and Turkey.


Turkey was the first majority Muslim nation to recognize the state of Israel, and ever since then, the two countries have been very important regional allies. The two nations prioritize cooperation with each other on all levels, economic, military, and diplomatic. Israel is a main provider of arms to Turkey, and the two often collaborate in training and intelligence. Historically warm relations also made possible the Turkish Israeli free trade agreement and billions of dollars worth of trade between the countries annually.

Although relations with Tel Aviv have weakened since the AKP's ascent to power, Turkey has signaled its intention to mitigate these tensions. Turkey stands to gain from military sales with Israel, and knows that it is not in its best political interest to alienate its longstanding ally and biggest proponent, the US. This relationship had soured dramatically, though, starting with Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, which took place as Turkey was actively brokering Israeli-Syrian talks, followed by Israel’s boarding of a ship in a flotilla (which originated in Turkey, with many Turks aboard) that sought to deliver aid to Gazans in 2010. Diplomatic relations were downgraded for several years after this, but in 2016, Israel and Turkey re-established full diplomatic relations. As a part of this deal, Israel agreed to set up a $20 million compensation fund for families who lost loved ones in the 2010 ship incident, and Turkey will end all claims against the Israeli government as the two nations begin talks on jointly building a natural gas pipeline. Turkey must be careful to balance its Israeli, Iranian, and Arab relations in a way that allows it to be a "good neighbor" and assert its power without offending any of its allies.


Relations between Egypt and Turkey have been cool in the wake of the "Arab Spring" uprisings in Egypt in 2011. The primary reason for this situation is the decision by Tayyip Erdogan to throw Turkey's support behind the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, Mohammad Morsi, upon his election as President of Egypt in 2012. When the Egyptian military interceded and overthrew Morsi after he served less than a year in office, the new Egyptian leader, General Sisi, saw President Erdogan as an antagonist, a sentiment exacerbated by the fact that Turkey chose to offer safe haven for dozens of exiled Muslim Brotherhood leaders. It must be added that Egypt sees Turkey as a rival for regional leadership, even though Turkey is not an Arab nation. Among the signs of this bilateral tension has been initiatives in Egypt's parliament to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks, the sorest of sore spots for Turkey. In the wake of President Erdogan's success at squelching a coup attempt in 2016, and his ongoing efforts to concentrate power in a strong leader (himself!) Egypt fears an emboldened Turkey seeking to exercise greater regional influence, and looks to push back against its potential rival.

Other Arab States

Turkey had come to enjoy free trade with Syria, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon in the years leading up to the 2011 Syrian Civil War, a war that resulted in a diplomatic and economic rupture between Turkey and Syria. In the Levant at large, economic cooperation acts as a balance to Iranian influence, supported by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an association of Gulf Arab states headed by Saudi Arabia that would like Turkey to augment its regional security role, while benefiting from investment in Turkey's burgeoning economy. However, GCC countries favor economic protectionism, and for this reason Turkey does not yet have a trade agreement with the GCC. Turkey also alienated the Saudis when it strongly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of theArab Spring upheavals in Egypt. These relations improved in 2015-2016 as Turkey and Saudi policy interests came into greater alignment regarding Syria (both nations want to see Assad out, and are offering support to many of the same opposition forces).

Turkey's military cooperation with Arab states is still relatively new, though, and it is accordingly tenuous. Turkey has fledgling military cooperation agreements with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and Jordan has contracted a Turkish firm to update its aircraft. However, Turkey must be mindful not to upset the US by making unauthorized improvements to military equipment of US origins, or by forging too bold an alliance with Hamas, whom the US (along with Israel) regards as terrorists.


1. http://www.carnegieendowment.org/arb/?fa=show&article=42145&utm_source=Arab+Reform+Bulletin&utm_campaign=7822ffa074ARB+Weekly+%28English%29&utm_medium=email 2. http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-turkey 3. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/turkey/index.html?scp=1-spot&sq=Turkey&st=cse

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