Turkey’s Foreign Policy Surge Chilled by Arab Spring

By Ahmed E. Souaiaia

Starting in 2002, Turkey adopted a dual-purpose foreign policy aimed at increasing its chances of joining the EU and at strengthening its economy. Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan has the final say in all matters of national and international matters, it is easy to notice the fingerprints of Ahmet Davutoðlu on Turkey’s foreign policy matters. Davutoðlu, a former political science professor, envisions a Turkey with zero problems with its neighbors and a multi-faceted foreign policy that takes into account the historical, geographic, strategic, and cultural depths. His theoretical model is spelled in his book, Strategic Depth.

During the second term of the Justice and Development Party’s reign, Turkey turned south and east to expand its economic and political ties. Turkey improved its previously shaky relation with Iran and signed economic deals that would triple trade between the two countries—currently at $10.7 billion. In 2010, Turkey signed a series of agreements with Syria leading to the lifting of visa restrictions. Trade between Syria and Turkey increased from $700 million in 2006 to $2.3 billion in 2010. Similar economic and political deals were inked with its North African neighbors, especially Tunisia and Libya. As of 2010, the business volume between Turkey and Libya had increased by 60% from 2008 levels, reaching $2.2 billion. Importantly, Turkey’s overtures towards its old enemies established its new leaders as pragmatic visionaries. They initiated serious dialogues with Greece and Armenia to resolve their historical disputes while reaching out to the Kurds to put an end to the long simmering civil war in its eastern regions that killed thus far more than 45,000 people.

In theory, the new orientation of Turkish foreign policy was sound. It was the right thing to do economically and politically given the circumstances. In fact, since the signing of the above-mentioned deals, the Turkish economy has been growing at a stunning rate, particularly when compared to the struggling European economies. In fact, the Turkish economy, the 16th largest in the world, sustained economic growth for 27 consecutive quarters, making it one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

Foreign investments in Turkey increased to record levels. Strategically, the improved Turkish-Islamic world relations placed more pressure on the European Union which was inclined before that to offer Turkey only a limited membership status. In the past several years, Turkey’s elevated relations with Iran and Syria allowed for coordinated responses to the Kurdish rebellion in the three countries. The democratic reforms that have taken place since 2002 gave the regime in Turkey the political and moral capital to pursue a more aggressive role in world affairs. In short, Turkey’s geographical and strategic positions greatly improved due to the political and economic progress achieved thus far.

At the moment when Turkey had finally managed to smooth out its diplomatic relations with most of its neighbors, the unexpected happened. Tunisians dramatically toppled the 23 year-old authoritarian regime of Ben Ali. The change in Tunisia happened so fast that Turkey was unable to formulate a diplomatic response. Days later, the Egyptian youth occupied Tahrir Square ousting Mubarak. This time, the Turkish leaders were prepared. They politely called on Mubarak to heed the calls of his people and step down. It was an easy decision since Turkey at that point did not have good relations with Egypt. It is believed that Mubarak personally had rejected Turkish overtures.

Turkish foreign policy strategy was tested when the Libyan revolution began. Worried about their investment deals with Qaddafi, the Turkish leaders were less enthusiastic about the removal of the 43-year old dictatorship. Even when NATO, of which Turkey is a member, took an active role in stopping Qaddafi’s onslaught on civilians in Benghazi and other towns that rebelled against his rule, Turkey refused to take part in the military action.

Turkey faced a second test with the break of the uprising in Syria. At first, Turkey was unable to abandon Assad with whom it has established a multitude of economic and strategic deals. But as refugees started to cross into Turkey and as some European and Arab countries started to pressure the Syrian regime, the Turkish leaders gradually distanced themselves from Assad, who either refused their advice outright or was slow to respond. The damage had been done once they appeared hesitant.

The Turkish mission to establish conflict-free relations with its neighbors is harder to achieve in a fast-changing world. Turkey’s meddling in Syrian and Lebanese affairs and its plans to host the NATO’s RADAR systems soured its relation with Iran. The tepid treatment of Libya’s Transition Council jeopardized its relations with the new Libyan rulers and the Arab masses. Turkey’s abandonment of Mubarak cooled its relations with Saudi Arabia and some Gulf States.  In short, the Arab Spring brought about a new variable that Turkey had not previously considered in its Strategic Depth doctrine. But Turkey is not about to give up.

Determined to leapfrog the contagious change that is sweeping the Arab and Islamic worlds, Turkey is adjusting its foreign policy and aligning it with the peoples’ demands instead of working deals with regimes that may not be around tomorrow. Turkish leaders seem to realize that one way of achieving this goal is by embracing the issues and positions most popular in the region and to upgrading Turkey’s relations with elected regimes, not hereditary ones. This new strategy may indeed vault them above and ahead of troubled waters.

Evidence of this change in strategy can be found in the recent events involving Turkey and its neighbors. First, Turkey escalated its conflict with Israel on the Gaza Flotilla incident. This action already earned approval among the Arab masses who generally sympathize with the Palestinian cause. Second, the Turkish Prime Minister planned a high level visit to Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya—the three countries most affected by the Arab Spring thus far. During the two-day visit to Egypt, Erdoðan was expected to sign economic and strategic agreements and deliver a major address to the Arab peoples. Turkish leaders’ visits to the three changed Arab countries might be an indication that they are recognizing the new reality. Furthermore, it is likely that Turkey will place its relation with Iran in abeyance until the latter holds its parliamentarian elections next year to test the level of stability of the regime and the health of democracy there.

Turkey’s emerging power and influence, and how it responded to the obstacles posed by the Arab Spring are a lesson in political humility. States can no longer devise foreign policies that take only their interests into account. They must factor in the inherent dignity and vital interests of peoples in other countries, too.  The strategic depth sought by the new rulers of Turkey is achievable through work with legitimate partners not dictators. One could argue that the doctrines contained in strategic depth are rooted in political realism, which is necessary for success. But legitimacy, as a condition for partnership, cannot be dismissed as impractical idealism in the age of emerging representative governance.

– Prof. Ahmed E. Souaiaia teaches at the University of Iowa. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.)

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