Arab Spring and Double Standards in Turkey’s Foreign Policy

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Assessment of Turkish Government’s Position on the situation in Syria and Bahrain

Elias Vahedi
Expert on Turkey and Caucasus Affairs

Regionalism, which had entered a new phase in Turkey after Justice and Development Party won public elections, has been more based on détente with neighboring countries (save for Israel) under Erdogan’s government. As the wave of the Islamic awakening started to sweep through the Arab Middle East; Turkey, which was inspired by policies of the Justice and Development Party, showed its support of civil liberties and human rights inside and outside the country. Ankara also supported people’s demands in those countries in order to get close to new political systems which were established in various regional countries. Turkey’s approach to such popular uprisings usually started with giving advice to rulers. As the uprising reached its climax, Ankara lent its full support to those uprisings and in some cases, like Libya, it even embarked on military intervention within framework of such political blocs as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

With regard to Syria and Bahrain, however, moderate Islamist figures in Turkey changed course. In case of Syria, the government of Erdogan has interfered in that country’s internal affairs more than was expected by anybody. Ankara has easily passed over 10 years of relations with Damascus and this has caused serious concerns inside Turkey.

The country’s approach to Bahrain has been quite to the opposite. While giving its full support to the opposition of Bashar al-Assad’s government, Ankara has raised no objection to bloody suppression of Bahraini people. On the opposite, Turkey invited the Emir of Bahrain to visit the country in 2011, thus introducing itself as supporter of the Bahraini government. Although diplomatic and political interactions between the governments of Turkey and Bahrain did not go beyond that level, Ankara refused to take a clear position on the bloody massacre of people in Bahrain which has made Bahraini people believe that Turkey is supporting Al-Khalifa dynasty. This use of double standards in foreign policy will have the following consequences for Turkey and the whole region:

1. The use of double standards in Turkey’s foreign policy approach will mar the image of Justice and Development Party both inside the country, and among Islamic states and even international human rights bodies which are not affiliated to dominant Western powers. This will further restrict the party’s capacity to serve as role model and inspire other Muslim nations.

2. Since Islamist politicians in Turkey are Sunnis, their hostile opposition to presence of an Alawite government in Syria (regardless of undemocratic nature of the Syrian regime), indirect support for Sunni government of Manama which is massacring Shias as well as collusion with anti-Shia activities of Saudi Arabia has led to speculations about possible opposition of Turkish government with the growing geopolitical power of Shias in the region. If such speculations are verified, Justice and Development Party is sure to lose its base among Turkey’s Alawites as well as Islamist Shia figures in other regional countries. This trend will, on the other hand, led to the empowerment of secular and nationalist political currents in Turkey which will lend support to Turkeys’ Alawites against the Islamist government. outside Turkey, Ankara will not only lose the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but its position in such countries as Azerbaijan (a key country in south Caucasus and strategic ally of Turkey) will be greatly undermined due to opposition from Azeri religious figures. In the meantime, Justice and Development Party will be the main party to be blamed for introducing Turkey as an opponent of Shias despite the fact that the country has never been considered an anti-Shia state.

3. Weakening of the existing Syrian regime will greatly cast the current pressures on the Zionist regime and will provide Tel Aviv with unlimited maneuvering room. This will be in stark contrast with previous positions of Turkish government as well as Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. In addition, after the recent strain in Ankara’s relations with Tel Aviv, Israel has been increasing cooperation with Greece in East Mediterranean since 2003 and the new Israeli policy’s conflict with Turkey’s Mediterranean interests reached its acme in 2010.

4. Excessive interference in Syria’s internal affairs by Turkey will be considered by Turkey’s opposition political parties (especially the nationalist current) as Ankara’s playing according to Western rules of game at the cost of sacrificing the country’s traditional strategic interests (especially in Cyprus). They will believe that this game will only serve the United States’ regional interests and increase hostility between Turkey and its neighbors. Meanwhile, some analysts maintain that the current trend will help Turkey and the West to know each other again and this will, in turn, fill the existing gap between the two sides. In doing so, however, Turkey will forfeit the benefits it has earned through many years of its past regional approach and through its strategic depth doctrine without winning anything in return.

5. Although the Turkish government has projected certain scenarios in order to protect its interests in Syria in any case (even if Bashar Assad remains in power), possibilities such as religious and ethnic unrest in Syria will pose serious threat to regional stability. In that case, Turkey will lose more than other regional players in view of its special domestic issues as well as regional economic interests. This concern has been clearly expressed by Turkey’s analysts.

6. Some positions taken by Turkey on recent regional uprisings, especially with respect to Syria, have backfired among Arab circles and have even increased their suspicion of Turkey’s goals. In an important conference which was held in Turkey on the situation in Syria and was attended by 100 scholars from 25 countries in December 2011, Arab thinkers noted that new political activities by the government of Turkey represented Ankara’s political opportunism. They added that they had lost hope in Turkish government. On the other hand, Turkey will no longer be considered a role model of emerging Arab governments after conflicting positions of Ankara’s foreign policy come into the light.

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*Turkey’s Recent Positions on Syria and Libya:

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