Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived Samarkand Uzbekistan on Sep. 15 to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders’ summit for the first time, marking a possibility for Turkey to hold a different place in the balance of power in the World within this rapidly changing process.
First of ull, it is useful to underline a trap that journalists often fall into. If you look at the archives of Turkish newspapers about the 1975 Helsinki Summit, which changed the balance of power in the world, consequence of which extends to today’s Russia-Ukraine war, the only debate you will find will be the shallow arguments on what Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel’s attitude on Cyprus issue were.
A meeting with Assad or not?
The rumors that Erdogan will meet Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Shanghai Summit was put forward by Iran’s Tasnim news agency. Syria is not a member of the Shanghai Summit. The observer member is not a “dialogue partner” like Turkey. Assad’s departure to Samarkand can only happen at the special invitation of President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, or of President of Uzbekistan, Shevket Mirziyoyev via Putin’s request.
If Erdogan meets with Assad, this will undoubtedly be headline news in Turkey and front page news in the world, and it will open the door to change all the balances in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, if a meeting takes place and steps are taken regarding the return of Syrian refugees, it will even benefit Erdogan in the 2023 elections.
However, if Assad does not come, if there is no meeting, it will not be considered the end of the world and the importance of the Shanghai Summit will not decrease.
In that respect, the Summit should be viewed in terms of the new global balance of power and Turkey’s place in it.
Will the axis slide or not?
When we look at the new balance of power, another shallowness emerges. It is the discussion patented by American think tanks: “Will Turkey’s axis shift or not?”. According to this discussion, Turkey is part of the “Western axis” due to its membership in NATO and the Council of Europe, but it shifts to the “Eastern axis” in the Russia-China-Iran triangle, since the Islamist Erdogan is in the lead.
It should be said that this discussion was produced by a NATO-centric view that puts the military priorities of the strategy in focus. If there was a truly strategic “Trans-Atlantic” mind, that is, North America-Western Europe, Turkey would have been admitted to the European Union in 2004, despite all its shortcomings – which was then in better condition than most Eastern European countries – and would not have been sacrificed to Cyprus. Turkey would be considered on the Western axis if Turkey was not threatened with sanctions and appreciated for its actions in the Russia-Ukraine war, when it sold TB2 to Kiev and kept its relations with Russia.
Hypocrisy all the way
If Turkey’s axis is shifting, it shifts in terms of moving away from universal criteria in the fields of democracy, human rights and the impact of religious affairs on state affairs with the effect of this exclusion. Otherwise, if the US President Joe Biden meets face to face with Erdoğan during the UN General Assembly -for example, with the intervention of the Israel lobby- or even better, if he accepts him at the White House, be sure that the wind will turn.
If such a meeting takes place and Biden repeats that most common phrase “we are strategic partners with Turkey”, you should have no doubt that the pro-government, nationalist and Islamist press will turn away from the most anti-American, anti-imperialist rhetoric and switch to the “free world” discourse. There will be no imposition of “not using it against Greece” condition for the sale of the F-16, or recent condition of “not using it against the PKK”; nor the reminder that it is Erdoğan administration that is responsible for the visa queues and rejection for Turkish citizens. Hypocrisy is standard in both the US and EU’s attitude towards Turkey and the Western attitude of conservative-nationalists in Turkey.
Shanghai Summit and strategic autonomy
However, the Shanghai Summit is a very important and a strategic leverage opportunity for Turkey if used well even if there will be another government in Turkey.
What the US-centered view, I won’t say does not understand but prefers not to understand is that Turkey acts outside the logic of “either/or”. In fact, this has been the case since Prime Minister İsmet İnönü said to US President Lyndon Johnson, “A new world will be established, Turkey will take its place there” during the 1964 Cyprus crisis. This was also the case when Prime Minister Turgut Özal signed the first natural gas agreement with the Soviet Union in 1984. Erdoğan embodied this at the extreme point, especially after the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, by purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia. Removal from the F-35 was not unexpected, it is debatable whether it was true or not, but in fact it was abandoned.
It is not only Turkey that has adopted the concept of strategic autonomy in order to strengthen its position as new power balances are formed in the multipolar world. Here is an example of India. In certain respects, even Germany suffers from this.
New balances of power, Shanghai and Turkey
It should be remembered that the multipolar world declaration was issued by the President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin and the President of China Jiang Zemin, one year after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established in 1996, first under the name of the Shanghai Five.
The concept of a multipolar world is the production of the Shanghai group and the reality of the world we now live in. Neither Turkey, nor Germany nor the USA can act as if this reality does not exist.
This Summit will be the first face-to-face meeting between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping after Russia’s Ukraine War and China’s Taiwan tensions. The world’s attention is mostly on there.
Erdogan will meet with both Jinping and Putin. Turkey’s transition from a dialogue partnership to an observer membership in Shanghai Cooperation is also on the agenda. Thus, for the first time, a NATO member will be promoted to observer status in Shanghai. It is an opportunity that the US and EU capitals and NATO can also use as leverage if they have a strategic mind far from political myopia.
Opposition in Turkey and Shanghai
It would be beneficial for the opposition in Turkey, especially the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and İYİ (Good) Party, to look at the Shanghai Cooperation with a strategic thinking that goes beyond Erdogan and the AKP government, not with the influence of Western capitals.
There are lessons for the opposition to learn from the fact that Turkey’s relations with the Middle East countries increased during the AKP era, when its relations with the EU were also on the rise, and when it deteriorated, only the money source relationship returned.
The concept of a multipolar world is actually a concept that fits better with the principle of “Peace at home, peace in the world” proposed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the basic principle of Turkish foreign policy than the necessity of choosing sides in the bipolar world of the Cold War.
On the one hand, Turkey’s membership in NATO, which sees Russia and China as enemies, and on the other hand, developing cooperative relations with Russia and China does not diminish its importance, on the contrary, it increases it. The important thing is to be able to do this without taking sides in the domestic politics of others, especially neighbors, in a way that we do not want to be done to ourselves, as we have seen the worst example in Syrian politics. To be recognized again as a constructive actor, not a destructive one.
Shanghai is an opportunity in this respect.