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Turkey’s Middle Eastern Policies and the Concept of Commitment to Principles

Friday, July 27, 2012

Elyas Vahedi
Expert on Turkey and Caucasus Affairs

After a wave of popular uprisings swept Arab countries, Turkish politicians in Ankara felt obliged to adopt a new foreign policy approach to regional developments. As a result, Turkey’s high-ranking officials, especially the country’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu have frequently tried to justify their new approach in Turkey’s foreign policy. Commitment of Turkey’s government to principles in the area of foreign policy is one of the main concepts which have been frequently used by politicians and supporters of Justice and Development Party during discussions in political and media circles.

The conservative Islamists, who have achieved many of their domestic policy goals by introducing new concepts inside the country, are now trying to use the same method for convincing the public opinion about their foreign policy approach as well. The Turkish government has, thus, came up with such concepts as “neither state religion, nor religious state,” “secular government, not secular man,” “civilizing the constitution,” “democratic openness / Kurdish openness / Alawite openness,” and “civil control and supervision over the army” and has been using them to strengthen and maintain the political clout of the Justice and Development Party.

In the area of foreign policy, such new concepts as “minimizing differences with neighboring countries to zero” and the “strategic depth doctrine” looked promising before the revolutions broke out in Arab countries. The use of these concepts has greatly helped the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his close aides to promote global and regional standing of Turkey. However, when it comes to developments in Arab countries, they have directed Turkey’s foreign policy in a direction that now few, if any, analysts maintain that the policy of minimizing tension with neighboring countries has succeeded. It seems that the Turkish government has also adopted this common notion. Therefore, it is trying to justify this failure by claiming that the policy of minimizing problems with neighboring countries has just entered is second phase and the recent political steps taken by Ankara in fact constitute the second version of the same policy which aims to reduce problems with the neighboring states to zero. Turkey believes that the main feature of the second version of this policy is interaction with people in neighboring countries rather than interaction with their governments. Ankara claims that this approach is in line with the general policy of the Turkish government to promote democracy, human rights and respect for people’s rights in the neighboring states.

In reality, however, this new version of Turkey’s policy, which they claim to prove Ankara’s commitment to its principles and to defending the rights of regional nations as the main index of those principles, is in practice bugged with the following contradictions.

1. Equating opposition groups with people: The government of Turkey has taken opposition groups in Arab countries to be equal to their people and is thus supporting them. This viewpoint, despite some shortcomings, was somehow justifiable in some countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, but this is not the case in Syria. The support offered by Turkey for the Syrian opposition groups is not in line with demands of the Syrian people and has, so far, had no other result, but division among the Syrian people. The type of support accorded to the Syrian opposition by such countries as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some Western states has caused part of the Syrian society, which mostly belongs to the Alawite sect, to support Syria’s incumbent President Bashar Assad despite the criticism they have of the political regime he is leading. Therefore, Turkey’s support has not increased political awareness among the Syrian people, but has pushed the country in the direction of further political division and subsequent religious skirmishes. As a result, the final outcome of policies adopted by such countries as Turkey has been practically to the detriment of the Syrian people.

2. The problem of double standards in commitment to principles: Application of double standards is actually a norm in the foreign policies of some Western countries like the United States. However, it has been also clearly observed in the latest approach taken by Turkey’s foreign policy apparatus. The government of Turkey offered unbridled and all-out support for the opposition of Bashar Assad’s government as soon as the crisis started in Syria. However, it has remained silent toward predicament of people in Bahrain. Under the pretext that political protests in Bahrain are not popular, Ankara maintains that the unrest in Bahrain is a domestic issue and has so far avoided taking a harsh stand against the government in Manama. Popular uprisings in Saudi Arabia and Jordan can be added to this exception. The explanation provided by the Turkish diplomatic apparatus has not been able to justify the public opinion in the region and criticism of the Turkish foreign policy has not remained limited to the application of double standards. Turkey’s foreign policy has also nurtured speculations that Ankara has joined the Shia – Sunni conflict which has been fostered by the West. The damage that this notion will do to Turkey’s regional and international standing and prestige will be too costly for Ankara.

3. Impracticality of the second version of the policy which aims to minimize differences with the neighboring countries to zero: Turkey claims that in its second version of the policy which aims to reduce tension with the neighboring countries, it gives priority to interaction with neighboring nations instead of governments. This may be acceptable in the case of countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt. However, this policy cannot certainly be applied to two powerful neighbors of Turkey; that is, Iran and Russia. The government of Turkey has basically no interaction with the Iranian and Russian people. On the contrary, despite high volume of trade with these two neighbors which is constantly increasing, Turkey’s positions on Syria, which are at odds with positions taken by Iran and Russia, have weakened its standing among the people of Iran and Russia. Given political differences between Turkey and the governments of Iran and Russia, Ankara can only have its purported interaction with the people of these two countries by forgetting about the principle of not interfering in internal affairs of Iran and Russia. As a result, Ankara should join hands with Western states and start interference in the internal affairs of these two countries which will certainly pose a great threat to the government of Turkey. As a result, adopting this approach by Turkey toward Iran and Russia is well-nigh impossible.

In view of the above facts, the mere announcement of commitment to principles in Turkey’s policy in the Middle Eastern and Arab countries is not accurate enough. Frequent emphasis put by the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on this point -- including in an interview he took part in during the recent meeting of the so-called “Friends of Syria” in Paris with analysts from three major Turkish newspapers present -- makes one believe that reiteration of Ankara’s position is done with the intent of putting a cap on the failures and weaknesses of Turkey’s foreign policy. On the other hand, the real principles conceived by this seasoned Turkish politician are not the same that he gives voice to and, in fact, claims about Ankara defending regional nations in the face of totalitarian political systems is just an excuse behind which Turkish politicians are pursuing their real principles. Those real principles include opportunism and making the most of the conditions in the region in order to fill strategic rifts and voids in Turkey’s regional status. One of those rifts is a security rift which emanates from threats posed to the national security and territorial integrity of Turkey from Kurdish groups. Although relations between Turkey and Syria were exemplary and uniquely close during the past 10 years, Turks never put their full trust in the Syrian government through that period. Even crossing out the names of Syria, Iran, Russia and Iraq from the list of Turkey’s foreign threats in the national security document of that country (which is known as the Red Book) during past years has failed to eliminate the sense of threat that Turkey feels from certain neighboring countries, especially Syria. During all the time that relations between Syria and Turkey were so close, some security officials in Turkey believed that the threat from Syria as a major source for support for PKK insurgents cannot be totally ruled out. Some analysts attributed that threat to shortfalls resulting from technical and bureaucratic weaknesses in Syria whose administrative system had not been able to keep pace with that of Turkey despite firm resolve of statesmen in Damascus.

Now that the Syrian society has become ready for real change and development, it is not impossible for the Turkish government to have decided to not spare any effort in order to foil strategic threats posed to it from Syria and in doing so, carry the burden of all criticism. From Turkey’s viewpoint, the best scenario in this regard is downfall of Bashar Assad’s government to be replaced by a new government like that of post-revolution Libya which is more in line with Turkey’s policies. In the event of a worst case scenario, which would be survival of Assad and his Baath Party and continuation of his presidency, Ankara will be still able to use the Syrian opposition as a trump card in order to use them in the future as counterbalance to Syria’s trump card; that is, PKK insurgents. If this analysis proves accurate, it will attest to complete opportunism and slyness of the Turkish Islamist politicians which will be at odds with their claims.

In order to influence the public opinion in the region, Ahmet Davutoglu has frequently announced that he supports Muslim people of the region. He has also never hesitated to draw on the cultural heritage of his birthplace, Konia, to flaunt his Oriental spirit and Mesopotamian attachments at the audience in the midst of all the existing political and diplomatic hue and cry. In the latest instance of his gestures, Davutoglu resorted to a line of a poem from famous Iranian poet, Mowlana, in his message to a joint meeting between Iranian and Turkish foreign policy authorities:

“We have come to attach people,
We have not come to detach them [from one another].”

Upon his return from a recent visit to Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, he spent a few hours at the holy shrine of the eighth Shia Imam, Imam Reza (AS). He noted that during the pilgrimage, he had been embraced by Iranian Shias. Putting the welcome given to him by Iranians together with a previous welcome given to him by the people of Egypt, Davutoglu concluded through a totally emotional argument that it was a sign of Muslim people’s agreement with the foreign policy of Syria.

To have a correct understanding of the real tendencies of regional people, it will be better to compare the results of opinion polls conducted in the past few years about the viewpoint of regional people on policies adopted by the Turkish government in the past few years. The polls, conducted by research institutes in Turkey, which have produced results similar to those carried out by the Western polling bodies, clearly show that Turkey’s formerly excellent position among regional countries has declined. Undoubtedly, Ankara’s contradictory positions on the crises in Bahrain and Syria as well as official positions of Turkey’s government on these two issues have played key role in determining the results of the polls.

Even if we tried to justify Turkey’s profiteering behavior in the recent developments of the Middle East and North Africa by ascribing it to that country’s national interests, Turkey would be still in for long-term losses as a result of that behavior. The untoward effects of Turkey’s profiteering conduct can be summarized as follows:

1. Insecurity resulting from ethnic and religious disputes and differences in Syria and countries like Iraq will deal the biggest and most drastic blow to Turkey among all regional countries. The blow will be so decisive as to undermine the achievements of the government of Erdogan and what his predecessors had achieved (since Turgut Ozal was prime minister) in the areas of domestic policies, civil society and economic advances. From a religious standpoint, this is also an unprecedented issue in Turkey. No government in Turkey has so far catalyzed or intensified religious skirmishes and disputes either inside or outside the country and this fiasco will be recorded in the country’s history under the name of the Justice and Development Party.

2. The Turkish society has adopted a moderate and conservative model of the Islamist government after its experiences with rightist, leftist, fundamentalist, and secular governments. Now, if this model fails in the area of foreign policy and problems resulting from the failure of its regional policies (like religious conflicts) find their way into the Turkish society, that political current will face a fate similar to “center right syndrome.” This syndrome was behind sudden fall of the once powerful Motherland Party and the Right Path Party. The negative fallout from this failure will not only afflict the Turkish society, but will rapidly spill over into other Muslim nations in the region. The final result will be the growth of dictatorships, on the one hand, and Salafi-based Islamism, on the other hand, both of which will be detrimental to regional people.

3. Given the way that Western countries have chosen to deal with Arab uprisings, it seems that some of these countries, especially the United States and Britain are not ready to pay a high price over these revolutions. Therefore, they are willing to let regional countries do their part on their behalf with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar being the best options in this regard. The West has, in the meantime, especially reckoned on Turkey due to its numerous advantages compared to the other two options. This has been clearly proven by official remarks made by state officials of the Western countries, especially the United States, as well as political analysts who are close to those officials. Turkey has apparently read the West’s mind and is trying to accept that role on behalf of the West in return for certain concessions. The experience, however, has shown that trusting the West by regional countries, including Turkey, has never led to positive results. Even under the present conditions, despite the fact that Turkey and France are working in collusion in Syria, Paris is not ready to give up its support for Armenians’ claims against Turkey. The accession of Turkey to the European Union has been also obstructed due to serious opposition from certain influential members including Germany and France and future outlook for Turkey’s membership in EU is dismal.

4. The policy of unrestricted and reckless involvement in the Syrian crisis, which is now under serious fire inside Turkey, will cost the country very dearly if Ankara continues along the same line. At the end of the day, it will cause the party to lose part of its supporters, and increase serious opposition to the policies of the Justice and Development Party, especially among the nationalist figures that have constituted an influential current throughout the history of Turkey. The government of Turkey is currently facing scathing criticism from nationalist figures. They allege that while the rights of Turks are being ignored in Karabakh as well as in Balkans through the oversight of the Western powers, the government of Turkey has made defending the rights of the Syrian people its first and foremost priority.

Key Words: Turkey’s Middle Eastern Policies, Commitment to Principles, Justice and Development Party, Opposition Groups, Double Standards, Neighboring Countries, Arab Uprisings, Syrian Crisis, Vahedi

More By Elyas Vahedi:

*The Republic of Turkey and a Trap Called Religious Conflict: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The_Republic_of_Turkey_and_a_Trap_Called_Religious_Conflict.htm

*Arab Spring and Double Standards in Turkey’s Foreign Policy: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Arab_Spring_and_Double_Standards_in_Turkey%E2%80%99s_Foreign_Policy.htm

*Iran’s Opportunity to Play More Active Role in Karabakh: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran%E2%80%99s_Opportunity_to_Play_More_Active_Role_in_Karabakh.htm

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