TURKEY ON THE BRINK PART I: THE DEBACLE OF FOREIGN POLICY

Singapore, 8 October 2014

[This is Part I of a two-part series analysing the precarious situation that Turkey has created for itself in the most recent conflict raging in the Middle-East against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.] 

For years Turkey has tried to become part of the European Union and for years been rebuffed by the core European countries because of their fear of being overwhelmed by Turkish diaspora and economic endeavours. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003 as Prime Minster he consciously began the process of repositioning Turkey as a Middle-East power. The geographical position of the country facilitated the success of this move although it was at the cost of jettisoning the status Turkey had enjoyed in the West as a secular role-model in an otherwise Islamic neighbourhood. However, Erdogan continued to advertise his nation as the role model for Islamic democracy and eagerly provided overt and unequivocal support to the then blossoming ‘Arab Spring’. Turkey was simultaneously also being projected as a good neighbour to all the Middle-Eastern regimes, irrespective of the hue of a particular nation’s governance style. That the Arab Spring has rapidly moved into winter, without even halting briefly at a token summer or autumn, and created unimaginable chaos in the region has impacted Turkey’s foreign policy ambitions and brought it to an abrupt halt. Turkey’s foreign policy is now reeling under the combined assault of the failure of five major policies that have turned disastrous in a short span of time.

Erdogan had crafted his foreign policy almost completely based on the premise that the Arab Spring revolts in the Middle East would all be successful.  The calculations were founded on the visible success of the rebellion in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring originated. However, it also happens to be the only nation in which it can be considered to have succeeded. A successful list of Arab Spring revolts was meant to make Turkey, with its support for the rebellions, the uncontested leader of the new and emerging Islamic democracies. Therefore, it supported a regime change in Syria and backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—essentially making the transition of other countries to democracy a foundational pillar of its own foreign policy. One detects a simplistic naivety in these fundamental calculations—no established nation creates its foreign policy based on possible happenings in other sovereign states. Turkey obviously suffers from an overblown sense of grandiose hubris and was attempting to create a neo-Ottoman foreign policy.

In the event, Syria has become the bloodiest battleground the Middle-East has so far witnessed, while the government of Bashar al-Assad continues to hang on to power; Libya has become a confirmed failed state with the beginning of a civil war in sight; and Egypt has returned to being an autocracy. The first policy to backfire was Turkey’s stance on Egypt during that nation’s initial rebellion and subsequent elections. Essentially it was in Egypt that Turkey’s broader foreign policy initiatives started to unravel. While Turkey was vociferous in its support for the Muslim Brotherhood throughout till it formed the government, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries surreptitiously undermined the Muslim Brotherhood and supported to coup against it. These nations now support the Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sissi who is anathema to Turkey. This has led to a fallout between Turkey and the other Middle-Eastern States, leaving Turkey at odds with all of them.

Second was the short-sighted policy that was adopted in relation to events in Syria. Turkey had achieved a gradual thaw in its relations with Iran before the eruption of the Syrian Civil War. However, the bilateral relations have been frozen, with Iran wholeheartedly supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government and Turkey clearly ranged against him. The anti-Bashar stance made Turkey adopt a number of policies, which have all without exception miscarried and gone ‘belly-up’. Relatively, they were the biggest foreign policy mistakes that the Erdogan government ever made. In its haste to be seen as leading the support for the rebels in Syria, Turkey opened its borders to facilitate the flow of anti-Assad jihadists into the combat zones in Syria. The mistake was that it was done without distinguishing between the different groups battling the government. Turkey for some reason did not realise that the so-called moderates had the limited aim of toppling the Assad regime, whereas the more extreme elements, out of which the group Islamic State (IS) also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged, had a broader aim of creating a ‘Caliphate’ in the region. The moderates have ben snowed under by the virulent hatred and extreme violence of the IS and large tracts of land that border Turkey are under their control now. The immediate fallout has been the flow of more than a million refugees into Turkey with the attendant security risks to the nation itself. Erdogan’s indulgence of the anti-Assad Islamists has Turkey now concerned about the import of terror to its own cities, especially in Istanbul where there is open support for the IS being expressed. The chickens have come home to roost.

Even though the IS is proving to be as much a threat to Turkey as to other States in the region, Erdogan is still ambivalent regarding the actions to be initiated against the group. This is the third mistake that is being perpetrated. The Turkish parliament has voted in favour of the nation joining the fight against IS, giving the executive a broad mandate valid for the next one year to initiate military action as deemed necessary. However, the President (Erdogan had himself elected President at the end of his legal tenure as Prime Minster, gaining a majority endorsement in the country’s first ever direct election of a President, this summer) is still pursuing a watch and wait attitude, hedging his bets. This springs fundamentally from his belief that checking and defeating the IS must not be done at the cost of permitting Iran to emerge as a more powerful player than it already has become in the Syrian imbroglio. Cutting Iran down to size and effecting a regime change in Syria has higher priority than defeating the IS, at least in Erdogan’s policies. There are still overtures being made to cultivate what has been termed the ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria, a group that is now virtually non-existent. In fact there have been reports that the coalition air strikes in Syria are bringing together the disparate terrorists groups. Further, regime change in Syria has taken on more importance in the Turkish foreign policies than achieving reconciliation in the Sunni-Shia divide that is the fundamental reason for the Middle-East explosion. Turkey is again embarked on a Foreign Policy initiative that is disconnected with reality.

The fourth policy debacle is the manner in which Turkey has dealt with the Kurdish issue so far. The Kurds spread across three nations—Iraq, Syria and Turkey and their decades-long independence movement has time and again engulfed the entire Kurdish region, not distinguishing artificial State boundaries. Turkey under Erdogan has been in a long-drawn peace negotiation with the Turkish Kurds with some degree of success. However, now the Kurdish militia, primarily Iraq and Syria based, are in the forefront of the fight against the IS and is being actively supported by the Western coalition forces. Since the conflict is partly being conducted in Kurdish regions, there is an influx of Kurdish refugees from Iraq and Syria into Turkey. This makes the Turkish government nervous and the peace negotiations, if at all they continue in any meaningful way, are unlikely to have the traction needed to provide any lasting solutions. Turkey had banked on a quick regime change in Syria, which was supposed to give it a greater role in the ‘new’ Syria, to undermine Kurdish demands for autonomy/independence in its own backyard. Another foreign policy dud. The fifth policy mistake was the attitude The Erdogan government adopted towards the West. Although a full NATO member, Turkey refused permission for the coalition to use their bases or even overfly their territory during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Even thereafter the attitude towards the Western democracies has been one of disdain and of a barely concealed tolerance. This has not won any friends for the country either.

Turkey has displayed a lack of understanding of the regional as well as international political developments, compounding it with a belligerent and barely concealed self-serving attitude towards both long term friends and recent acquaintances. The result has been a low ebb in their foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives, which in fact have been a list of complete debacles. Turkey now is left with no friends in the region and its international allies stand snubbed and wary—a direct result of President Erdogan’s belief in the manifest destiny of the nation and his own intimate role in bringing Turkey back to its glory-days.

Erdogan’s leadership style is authoritarian and he has almost single-handedly crafted the foreign policy of the nation for more than a decade. The failure of the policies has only increased his authoritarian streak with democratic and secular institutions being sidelined in what was once a leading secular and progressive State. He now leads a government in the throes of paranoia that has led to the media and businesses being subjected to greater scrutiny. The deliberate move towards an autocratic rule is there for all to see. Even more worrying is the Islamisation of the State through both overt and covert means with Erdogan’s statements and domestic policies being totally in line with the Sunni supremacist stance of most of the Middle-Eastern Arab nations. Joining the coalition, with the ‘approval’ of the Parliament, is a complete change of track from the policies that Turkey has so assiduously followed till now. Erdogan had made a statement before the debate started in the Parliament that Turkey can no longer stay out. This was the pragmatic statement of an embattled President watching years of foreign policy initiatives coming to nought; the nation becoming increasingly irrelevant even in the Middle-East; and its Western allies becoming wary of Turkey’s determined move away from its secular credentials.

The secular State set up by Kemal Ataturk is almost a distant memory to the world at large and even within Turkey. One is tempted to state that Ataturk, watching the shenanigans of the elected government of his beloved Turkey from his heavenly abode, must indeed by shuddering in dismay and perhaps disgust. It is pertinent to mention here that Erdogan’s handpicked Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was responsible for the conceptualisation of the neo-ottoman revival theory, the basis for all the failed foreign policy initiatives. Without any doubt, Turkey has now identified itself with the Sunni side of the Sunni-Shia divide. In viewing this open declaration of the coming together of religion and the executive—a retrograde step if ever there is one—one cannot forget that Turkey is a nation where one in five of its citizens is an ethnic Kurd and another one-fifth of the population are heterodox Shia Alevis. Sectarian violence is at its borders, and the government is preoccupied with perpetuating its political control over the nation through the selective use of religion. Navel gazing has been perfected to an art. Turkey is no more a beacon of moderate and modernising Islam, irrespective of what its President would have the world believe.

…..Part II to Follow.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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