Turkey, Standing on Its Own Two (Strong) Feet

Nowadays, Turkey seems to be the new darling of the Middle East: The Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri visits Turkey at the beginning of the year, relations between Damascus and Ankara has never been so close, Turkey has welcomed many officials from the region in Ankara for political or economic reasons and Turkish officials have been more and more solicited by Arab countries for their good offices to play the role of an active mediator, instead of the passive and useless Arab League. Indeed, Turkey has played the middle man between Iraqis and Syrians to ease the tensions in September 2009, while animosity between the Israeli and the Turkish government has increased to reach an almost withdrawal of the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv a week ago, avoided only after public and official excuses from Israel. At the same time negotiation with the European Union are dragging on, while different polls show European public opinion in certain countries more and more hostile to an adhesion of Turkey to the EU.

Are we observing a “neo ottoman” imperialist policy turning towards the East as in the past during the Ottoman Empire, because the West has turned its back on Turkey and has not kept its promises towards Ankara, as certain analysts claim it? Has Turkish foreign policy been “islamicized” with the arrival to power of the AKP, the Justice and Development Party, a “bunch of Islamists” hiding behind costumes and ties for many western analysts, and opposes the West, a statement widely spread in many Israelis and Europeans circles?

In our opinion, such an analysis is not supported by solid scientific bases, but is more based on political calculations directed against the current government in Turkey and constitute a simplistic vision of foreign policy, centered on a culturalist or essentialist view. Turkey has always rejected accusations and denied very clearly on many occasions its supposedly Neo ottoman policy, speaking more about a new « vision » allowing Turkish policy-makers to identify potential crises before they erupt and devise appropriate policies to tackle them, as stated by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. To a question asking about the Turkish disaffection of the West, Egemen Bagis, Turkish Minister for European Affairs answered that he was tired of this non sense debate,

“Turkey has been staring at the West for now a few centuries. It is a candidate for EU’s membership, a NATO member and I am proud to see it as a bridge. But to effectively serve those who want to cross a bridge, it should have two strong legs. Turkey is currently increasing its strength from both sides, including the East”.

Turkey’s foreign policy evolution is the result of two characteristics:

The democratization process of the State, particularly at the expense of the army, and the rise of a new political context, especially with the end of the cold war.

Assertion of its nationals interests, based notably on the policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbor and of “ strategic depth”, allowing it become a key regional player by its geopolitical and geostrategic position, explained largely by the current Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in his book, « Stratejik Derinlik » (Strategic Depth), published in 2001.

Democratization of the State and New International Political Dynamics

The evolution of the Turkish foreign policy starts around 1998-1999, at the time of the social democrat Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, a few years before the AKP’s accession to power. Reforms in relation to democracy and human rights are initiated during these years, notably under European pressure in the framework of a future adhesion to the EU, and which in other words also means the weakening of the army’s power in the country. This latter has actually always considered Foreign policy as its private area, characterized by a defensive and closed attitude inherited from the cold war towards States hostile to a Turkey allied to the USA and Israel. In the last ten years, the army’s General Staff had to reduce considerably its field of maneuvers, namely because of the agreement signed by Turkey with the European Union asking for a progressive withdrawal of the army from political and civil issues. The weakening of the army can be obseved with regards to the civil power, particularly since the adoption of a reform reducing the jurisdiction of military courts, and especially removing the immunity hitherto enjoyed by the soldiers against ordinary courts. No military officials are therefore now immune from arrest or at least a notice requiring them to have to testify before civilian judges. This opening also allowed the population to express more loudly its preferences in relation to the Palestinian issue. Throughout the late nineties, public opinion in the country overwhelmingly opposed military collaboration with Israel and showed high sympathy for the Palestinian Cause. This pro Palestinian feeling grew clearly among Turkish citizens following the second Intifada in September 2000. Turkish officials and notably President Sezer reacted to these sentiments by voting a UN resolution condemning Israel for the use of excessive force against civilians in the Occupied Territories.

However, the army still remains influential, but has no longer the exclusivity on foreign policy, which has been far more proactive and has carried more and more the signature of the different civilian governments. In addition to this process of democratization, the political dynamics have also played a major role in the reevaluation of Turkish foreign policy. The end of the Cold war, American policy in the region and Russia’s come back as an important power towards the end of the nineties and the beginning of the new millennium had direct consequences on Ankara’s vision.

Ahmet Davutoglu, Architect of the New Turkish Foreign Policy

The “Zero Problems” Era

This new context opened a new era in Turkish foreign policy. Two major events had important consequences on Turkey’s evolution. Firstly, the expulsion of Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK and number one enemy of Turkey, by the Syrian government after serious threats by the Turkish authorities in 1998. Following this act, the normalization process began between both countries. Secondly Greek and Turkish relations improved considerably following the earthquake in 1999 which provoked important damages on both side of the borders, therefore creating a sense of solidarity between the people of Turkey and Greece. From these two events and especially with the arrival to power of the AKP in 2002, officials have aimed to end its long-term hostilities with its neighbors. This policy brought back Ankara in the regional political scene. As stated by the current Foreign affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in his book “strategic depth”, Turkey is now an essential country in the region, ready to act according to its own national interests and not anymore as a forward base for NATO as it used ti be in during the Cold War following foreign, and especially US, interests.This change has been witnessed when the Turkish parliament in 2003 refused any kind of cooperation during the invasion of Iraq launched by the USA and stood opposed to the war. Turkey also opposed loudly the nomination of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the new Secretary General of the NATO. It was only after harsh negotiation between the USA and Turkey that this latter accepted this choice but bargaining in return the post of assistant to the Secretary General of the NATO, as well as two civil posts, including Special Envoy to NATO in Afghanistan, the possibility of joining the European Defense Agency, which Turkey was refused for several years, the prospect of benefiting from two or three posts in the integrated military structure of the NATO and last but not least the Prime Minister of Turkey has received from A. F Rasmussen the commitment to close the television station Roj TV, linked to the organization PKK (Workers Party of Kurdistan), considered as terrorists by Turkey, which broadcasts from Denmark. Turkey is definitely now giving priorities to its own national interests.

This is also very clear with its relations with neighboring countries which Ahmet Davutoglu is the key architect of the new policy of “zero problems”. This new political strategy consists of strengthening social, cultural, economic and human relations in addition to diplomacy with neighboring countries. Diplomatic exchanges have therefore expanded and improved importantly with numerous countries. The best example is certainly relations between Syria and Turkey, which were on the verge of war in 1998. Things have changed tremendously since then, and last December, during a visit of Prime Minister Erdogan to Damascus, Erdogan mentioned the strategic partnership between both countries as a model to follow for the countries of the region. Trade between Syria and Turkey more than doubled since the signature of the bilateral free trade agreement two years ago. Cooperation agreements on a wide range of issues, starting from politics to economy were signed, as well as suppression of visas for citizens of both countries. Similar agreements have been concluded with several Arab countries such as Libya or Lebanon. Iraq has not been left out and more than forty agreement were concluded this year between the two countries. Turks have also devoted this year to deepening the relationships with the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq. This resulted, in November 2009, to a landmark meeting in Erbil, between Massoud Barzani and Ahmet Davutoğlu, after which the latter did not hesitate to declare that the time had come “for Arabs, Kurds and Turks to rebuild the entire Middle East.” Although Turkey still remains firmly opposed to any kind of independent Kurdish State, they wish and act for the economic development of this region, where 50 000 citizens and 1200 companies from Turkey work.

Turkey’s aura in the region has increased considerably, leading its government to serve as mediator for numerous negotiations. Turkey was at the centre of the Israeli Syrian negotiations which stopped since the attack on Gaza by the Israeli forces in December 2008. Turkey has launched also a mediation between Iraq and Syria to overcome the crisis stemming from accusations against Damascus from Baghdad, related to the fight against terrorism. Besides, Ankara encouraged discussions between the different Palestinians political parties, as well as assisted Egypt in various events such as very recently with the “Viva Palestinia” caravan. The Turkish government has very often been solicited in the year 2009 to solve or act as a referee in several political issues, a direct consequence of a pro active diplomacy praised by many.

In relation to Iran, Turkey has welcome Mahmoud Ahmadinejad twice since his contested re-election and has denounced the attitude of Western powers refusing to Tehran a nuclear independence, deeming it unfair. Turkey is also playing the role of mediator between the West and Iran, working towards avoiding any diplomatic crisis. Ankara also opposes any more sanctions on Tehran, which would only strengthen conservatives groups in Iran which is no one interests. Turkey has also deepen its relation with Moscow notably through active economic cooperation, strategic converging issues such as in the energy sector and the Economic organization of the Black Sea revival.

In relation to Europe, although the process of adhesion is slow and still some loopholes exist concerning notably Human Rights, the “report progress” delivered in October by the European Commission is one of the best of these last years. Turkey has repeated several times that it will not accept any other suggestions except full adhesion.

Relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv have deteriorated since the Israeli offensive on Gaza and Erdogan’s fit of anger in Davos in 2009. Military officers from both countries also displayed publically their opposition by cancelling the annual military training “Anatolia’s Eagles” last October, while Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Israel was also postponed to an unknown date. However, these tensions are also to put on the account of the radical positions of the new Israeli government relatively isolated on the international scene. The positions of Ankara are actually close to those of Europeans and Americans calling for the creation of a Palestinian state and of a halt to new settlements. The Turkish Foreign Minister has besides declared that when Israel’s policy is back on the path of peace, a relationship based on trust with this latter will be restored to where they were before, adding that the massive Israeli offensive on Gaza, at the end of last year had brought a great blow to peace efforts. No break of diplomatic relations with Israel or no termination of the military cooperation agreement concluded in 1996 is for all that not currently in question.

Turkey’s new foreign policy has abled the country to become a key actor of the region launching mediation between Arab countries to settle political crisis or between Iran and the International Community, as well as intervening in the Israeli Arab conflict with everyone’s blessing. This pro active foreign policy and new power Turkey’s benefits from had as a consequence to raise Turkey in the circle of Great Powers, although certainly not being on the same level as the others such as China, Russia or the United States. Turkey’s opinion and interests are definitely not anymore ignored inside the International Community as we can notice it by its election, supported by 154 countries, to the UN Security Council as non permanent member.

3 Responses to “Turkey, Standing on Its Own Two (Strong) Feet”
  1. FEM4Ever says:

    The "imperialist" dreams of nations are outdated nowadays, by default. The dreams of gaining direct acquisition over land or resources have been replaced largely by dreams of extension of power –or as you put it: 'raising itself in the Circle of great power', like it once was back in the Ottoman times. Turkey can not stand on its own two feet by itself, it always helps to have the blessing of neighbours; hence, the 'zero problems' policy. This is not to say at all that Turkey is being manipulative of the Middle Easterns' good hearts! After all, common interests are what bring neighbors together, and Turkey certainly has more in common with Syria and even Iran, than it has with France or Italy.

  2. Thank you again for your very interesting feedbacks.But I disagree with you on the imperialist point; I personally think imperialist policies are not over unfortunately. The USA is the best example, invading Iraq, for numerous reasons, but also in order to control its resources and in order to extend its power over the region. The US also controls many other countries in relation to their resources (Saudi Arabia) or for their political role in a region (Egypt). US government’s role in South America is also not very clear, supporting few years ago a coup by the army against Chavez in Venezuela or very recently accepting the coup in Honduras because supported by the liberal elites which share economic an politic interests with the USA. Turkey’s foreign policy is directly linked in my opinion to its process of democratization which increases people’s saying and diminish the role of the army. Turkey’s foreign policy is just reflecting the population’s opinion and its political and geographic role: a bridge between Europe and Asia. Turkey’s national interests are finally being respected and enhanced in building strong relations with its neighbors, both in Europe and in Asia

  3. FEM4Ever says:

    I was actually referring to nations of the 'old world.' The way I see it is that the countries with Colonial past (France, England, and definitely that includes Turkey) are moving away from imperialism. The US is , undoubtedly, not included under that general heading. Anyhow, whether Turkey's current policies are a byproduct of democracy , or a part of some sort of political 'scheme', there is an important lesson to be learnt here for othr Middle Eastern countries.

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