Turkey has lost its opportunity to become the force for conflict resolution in the region.
When Turkey declared its new foreign policy, “zero problems with neighbors”, the government believed that historical and economic ties are enough to provide a leading role for Turkey in the region. At the time, Turkey’s good relations with both Arab states and Israel as well as increasing bilateral trade agreements in the region provided a solid basis for Turkey to mediate between conflicting parties, to spread peace and encourage democratization. However, Turkey squandered its chance. First, Turkey became increasingly obsessed with being a regional power with the aim of the revival of Ottoman heritage throughout the Middle East. Second, Turkey was unprepared for explosive and pragmatic nature of the Middle East politics. When these two factors came together, Turkey lost its opportunity to become the force for conflict resolution in the region. It veered into taking sides; thus moving away from the main goal of the new foreign policy agenda. Despite the foreign policy failures, Turkey could still become the source for peace and stability in the region. It just needs to fall back on the foundational principles of Turkish foreign policy: caution, neutrality and peace.
What went wrong?
The obsession with regional power status blinded Turkish policy makers to the ever-shifting realities on the ground and the power play of the international actors in the Middle East. Turkish policymakers, departing from the Neo-Ottoman approach, believed that the Turkish leadership can shape the Middle East. Such attitude, without a doubt, alienated Arab decision makers, who saw the Ottomans as a colonial power, rather than a benevolent state. Turkish activism was not a critical problem as long as Turkey did not force itself to the Arab politics and kept its distance. Unfortunately, Turkey has not refrained from attempting to shape the Middle East, although it was ill prepared for getting involved in the Middle East politics. In the end, Turkey was forced to make tactical decisions that defined Ankara’s policies and defused its influence in the region.
Turkey sided with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia because it planned to increase its power through the Brotherhood, which shares similar ideologies with the Turkish government. When President Morsi was deposed, Turkey reacted viscerally and burned the bridges with Egypt. Because Turkey invested its political capital into the Brotherhood, rather than taking a neutral position, the ousting of Morsi neutralized Turkey’s influence.
When rebellion started in Libya, Turkey was very successful in getting all of its citizens out the country. However, it failed to show same success in reacting to the changes in Libya. Initially, Turkey was cautious to get involved in the conflict, which was the right policy to follow in the face of uncertainty. The problem was that Turkey failed to alter its policy when European powers – France and the United Kingdom – got involved in the Libyan conflict and created a no-fly zone. Initially, Turkey was against the no-fly zone and criticized the coalition. Libyan rebels took note of Turkey’s action. When Turkey had a change of heart, it was too late. Failure to act and inconsistency alienated the rebels, and Turkey lost its position and possible influence in the future of Libya.
The Syrian conflict is another example of how Turkey was unprepared for the complexities of the Middle East politics. In Syria, Turkey was one of the first countries to take an anti-Assad stance and began supporting Syrian rebels, because Turkey wanted to be at the table to shape the future of Syria, and probably thought the conflict would be over within months, just like Libya. The problem was that Ankara again failed to read the international politics correctly. In Libya case, the European powers were eager to intervene, and the rebels were able to act under a unified command. In Syria, on the other hand, no one was willing to devote military sources to and get involved while the Free Syrian Army slowly disintegrated to smaller fractions with different goals. Furthermore, Russia took an unyielding pro-Assad stance since the beginning of the conflict. While Turkey insisted on deposing Assad, the realities on the ground have shifted significantly. ISIS, which capitalized the weaknesses of Syrian rebel alliances, got the control of swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq. Using the very radical misinterpretation of Islam, ISIS posed a greater danger to both the West and Russia. However, Turkey failed to recognize the ISIS threat and remained focused on Assad regime. Turkey was unwilling to shift its position despite the significant changes happening in the Syrian conflict. Had Turkey acted more cautiously and tried to find common ground with Syria and the rebels, the situation could have been much different, at least for Turkey. However, Turkey opted for becoming involved heavily in the conflict, supporting rebels groups with questionable allegiances. In other words, Turkey could be considered the “true loser’’ of the Syrian politics so far because of miscalculation and misperception of the developments in the Middle East.
Furthermore, Turkey’s uneasy relation to its Kurdish population has reflected upon its policy decisions regarding the Syrian conflict. Turkey is worried about the peculiar status of Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Ankara considers a possible emergence of any Kurdish state in the region the biggest threat to its national security. Consequently, Turkey positioned itself against strengthening Kurds in Syria because of the fear that their influence might spill over to the Kurdish minority in Turkey. To prevent this, Turkey dragged its feet whenever Kurds needed help. The prime example was Turkey’s inaction during Ayn-Al Arab (Kobane) siege when Turkey did not allow the Kurdish reinforcements to pass through the Turkish territory. As Turkey’s fight against the PKK intensified, the uneasy relations with the Kurds in the region became more complicated.
Because of the renewed fighting with the PKK, Turkey feels “betrayed” by the Kurdish groups and politicians altogether. While the West sees Turkey’s actions in its territory as legitimate, the fighting in the cities drives a wedge between the Turkish government and the Kurdish population. Consequently, the ongoing clashes stall initiation of a comprehensive “peace project” that continued in the last 3,5 years. On the other hand, Northern Iraqi leader Barzani also expects Turkey to fight against the PKK. Thus, failure to do so could worsen the relations between Turkey and Northern Iraq. Turkey’s close cooperation with Barzani, at times, alienated the Iraqi central government. For example, the Iraqi government was not happy to see increased number of Turkish troops in Bashika Camp without consulting with them. However, Turkey could have chosen a different path, a path that truly seeks peace and stability in the region, and this is still possible.
The pursuit of becoming the regional power is a fictional and damaging venture, and it is time for Turkey to leave that pursuit aside. Turkey does not need to be a regional power to become a major actor in the region. Turkey could have used its influence over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to moderate its policies while trying to establish a common ground between different actors. Turkey could have helped the Kurds during Ayn-al Arab (Kobane) siege, which could have paved the way for reconciliation with the Kurds in the region as well as in Turkey. This help could have put Turkey in a much stronger position. However, these are the missed opportunities.
Turkey can still go back to its previous position of “honest mediator”, though it would be a tough task to do, given the positions Turkey had taken over the years. Nevertheless, this is the only way that is beneficial for Turkey, as well as for the international community. Current policy of Turkey is far from stabilizing the region, but also has the danger of destabilizing Turkey itself. The European countries should encourage Turkey to stand back and disengage from the Syrian conflict.
Turkey’s only problem is its uneasy relations with the Kurds. Although Turkey initiated the peace process with the Kurds at home, the recent clashes froze the peace process. The fighting also puts obstacles in front of a possible Kurdish-Turkish rapprochement in Syria, which could greatly benefit the war against ISIS. Turkey needs to make peace with its own Kurds; an issue on which Europeans and the United States have to support Turkey to find a resolution for peace within its borders. Without internal peace, Turkey could not influence the conflicts and support peaceful settlements.
At the moment, Turkey is far away from both influencing the conflicts and supporting peaceful settlements. Turkey’s ineffectiveness is the irony of the country’s fate: within less a decade it degraded itself from the “consciousness of the Middle East’’ to a “lonely country” as its “zero problem policy’’ turned to nearly “problems with all neighbors”. Turkey’s image is at its worst, something Turkey never experienced since the establishment of the Republic in 1923. Unless the AKP government sets aside these “inflexible” policies, the “failure” of Turkey’s foreign policy will continue.