Thinking Aloud: “Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty”

June 19, 2014 by Darius 

[The 5th Annual Conference on Turkey, organized by the Middle East Institute, was held earlier this week.  Yesterday, I shared Gönül Tol’s insights about Kurdish politics and how those are playing out in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.  Today, I’ll share panelists’ observations about Turkish foreign policy.]

Two former US ambassadors talked about Turkish foreign policy towards Syria and how that has affected Turkey.  Ambassador Robert Ford was US ambassador to Algeria and, most recently, Syria.  (Since he left the Foreign Service, he has become a vocal critic of the Obama administration for its inaction on Syria.)  Ambassador Robert Pearson was the US ambassador to Turkey from 2000 to 2003.

Amb. Ford gave a rundown of Turkish policy towards Syria since the outbreak of the rebellion against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

In 2011, after peaceful protests started in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu created a “peace plan” for Syria, under which prisoners would be released (which was a main point of contention for protesters at the time), Assad would remain in power, and things would go back to normal.  The Syrian government failed to take the plan seriously, and after the Syrian government started using violence against protesters, Turkish policy swung sharply towards the opposition.

In January 2012, Turkey hosted a meeting with commanders of the armed opposition to get them on board for the Geneva peace talks.  According to Amb. Ford, without this meeting, Geneva would not have been possible.

Since 2011, Turkey has not been afraid to bomb both Syrian government forces and Syrian opposition forces when shells from either side have landed in Turkey, but throughout it has kept its border with Syria open, allowing refugees and fighters to cross back and forth.

This month, Turkey added the al-Nusra Front to its terror list.  (The US designated the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group in December 2012.)  Turkey’s listing marks a shift in policy away from Turkish support for radical jihadist groups.

Throughout the conflict, Turkey has demonstrated that while it is not prepared to intervene unilaterally, it has built very close ties with both the political and military opposition inside and outside Syria.  Support is more visible in Turkey than anywhere else.

Turkey has paid a price for its support of the opposition, though.  Syrian refugees in Turkey are estimated to have cost the country $3 billion so far.  The loss of trade with Syria has also been significant: trade between Turkey and Syria amounted to $2 billion in 2010.  As a result of these costs, 50% of Turks see their government’s policy towards Syria as a failure.

According to Amb. Pearson, the US priority in the Middle East for the last 60 years has been to avoid a general, region-wide war.  The conflict in Syria threatens that goal.  The US needs a stable, powerful Turkey to help stabilize the entire region.  In fact, stability takes priority over democracy.  Thus, the US has not criticized Turkey for its recent anti-democratic domestic policies.

In Turkey itself, Amb. Pearson believes Prime Minister Erdogan’s AK Party is creating a post-Kemalist state.  (In the modern Turkish state founded by Kemal Atatürk, political and economic preference was given to ethnic Turks who were not “too” Islamic.  AK has opened up the political space to Islamists as well as other previously marginalized groups, including ethnic minorities, but the Islamist influence is most evident.)  As a result, many Turks now feel alienated.  In particular, many liberals, members of the press, and even some traditional Kemalists who supported the AK Party early on now feel that they have nowhere to go.  Some AK actions have intimidated these former supporters.

Largely because of this, Turkey is losing the public opinion battle in the United States.  As Amb. Pearson pointed out, one doesn’t hear Americans talking about Turkey as a model for the Middle East or the Muslim world or as a regional leader much anymore.

It was not long ago that Prime Minister Erdogan famously pursued a “zero problems with neighbors” policy.  But at this point in mid-2014, multiple fault lines now exist between Turkey and its neighbors and within Turkey itself.

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