Turkey is an example of a country whose regional and international role skyrocketed in a short time, before collapsing dramatically in less than three years.
Before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged, Turkey, for more than 80 years, had turned its back on the Middle-Eastern, Arab and Islamic countries, content to be a stooge of the Western camp and its spearhead, Israel.
The AKP’s vision, which is based on a “strategic depth,” was developed by Ahmet Davutoğlu, who has been the country’s foreign minister since 2009. This strategy is based on the country’s openness to its regional environment, from the Balkans to the Middle East and the Caucasus. Arab and Muslim countries were at the heart of this strategy. A “Zero Problems” policy unleashed the Turkish giant, and led to Ankara having excellent ties with the whole Arab world without exception, as well as Iran, Armenia, Cyprus and Israel.
On the one hand, Turkey pursued this policy in order to expand its economic ties with everyone, bringing about economic integration with Iraq and Syria and mutual investments with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. On the other, this policy helped Turkey consolidate its role through various mechanisms, most importantly its intermediary role in solving problems between countries and even within individual countries. Turkey, thanks to this policy, gained the trust and respect of global public opinion and became an example of a politically and economically successful country. However, the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, which Turkey welcomed, represented a turning point in terms of Turkey’s own view of its policies, role and position.
Turkey abandoned its policy of remaining equidistant from all countries, and started showing bias towards some countries against others, as well as towards specific groups within specific countries. Later, it began to consider itself as part of the internal conflicts in each of these countries, thus shedding its neutral image.
By supporting the Muslim Brotherhood not only in the countries that witnessed the Arab Spring but also in other countries within the GCC, Turkey has given precedence to its ideological tendencies. With this support, Turkey has provoked the GCC and Jordan and thus weakened its once-strong ties with them.
What raised suspicions about Turkey’s role is that, by capitalizing on the tensions in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the AKP believed it could seize the opportunity to break its regional partnership with Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt and consequently monopolize power in the new Middle East, which it would draw up and lead. This is evidenced by Davutoğlu’s famous speech to the Turkish parliament on April 27, 2012, in which he said that Turkey would “be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East,” and Ankara’s desire to revive the Ottoman dream, which neither Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan nor his top diplomat have tried to conceal. The prospects of the return of the Ottoman colonisation to the region has touched a nerve for Arabs and non-Arabs alike.
Turkey has failed in its assessment and interpretation of the events unfolding. Ankara did not expect Russia and China to continue their firm position on Syria. It also failed to take into account the considerations that govern the US stance towards the developments, particularly its position on Al-Qaeda-linked organizations, Egypt, and its relationship with Iran.
Ankara’s regional policies reflected badly on its economy, and created ethnic, religious and political tensions within the country. As a result of this, Turkey found itself, three years into the Arab Spring, an isolated country, no longer friends with all of the countries it once had cooperative and integrative ties with. On the one hand, it lost Syria, Iraq and Iran. On the other, it lost Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, with the exception of Qatar. Most significantly, with its loss of Cairo, the second strategic pillar of its Ottoman–Brotherhood project collapsed. Furthermore, Turkey’s ties with Israel remained tense, with no sign of improvement. Its ties with Russia reached a record level of tension. This is not to mention the ongoing tensions between Ankara and Washington over several issues, particularly the relationship with Israel, Turkey’s support of fundamentalist groups and Erdoğan’s undemocratic handling of the protests in Taksim Square. In the light of its loss of all of these friendships, it was normal that Turkey would no longer be able to perform an influential role in the region.
The variables on the ground in Syria have brought Turkey face-to-face with emerging unexpected risks to its national security. The appearance of a Kurdish entity in Syria along a long stretch of the borders with Turkey comes at the forefront of these challenges.
Moreover, with the fundamentalist groups controlling the remaining parts of its borders with Syria, Turkey’s political and military influence has suffered in Syria, its most significant front. Turkey’s desire to extend bridges to the Kurds in the region, particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan, may not be enough to compensate for its loss of influence in the region, given its phobia regarding the future of the Kurds. With this loss, Turkey has become almost paralysed. Perhaps Turkey’s most significant loss is that its return to the region after eight decades of absence has been short-lived, and the trust it built with everyone during those few years has collapsed and will be difficult to restore in the foreseeable future.
All Turkey can do today is reduce the losses it has incurred through its policies. Any maneuver on the part of Turkey to reposition itself and compensate for what it has missed will take time. In any case, any future relations between Turkey and its opponents should be based on pure competition and national interest rather than on sloganeering along the lines of “the common fate of the region’s people” or “the brotherhood of Muslims.” Whatever the AKP leaders attempt to do to patch up relations and change its policies, Turkey’s regional status cannot be restored unless those who formulated Ankara’s foreign policy over the past three years—turning Turkey into an isolated and helpless country—resign.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.