Is Turkey once again veering towards a “zero-problems” foreign policy? by Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad

Is Turkey once again veering towards a “zero-problems” foreign policy? by Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad

On January 14, special envoys from Turkey and Armenia met in Moscow to discuss the normalization of diplomatic ties that were severed in 1993. The envoys agreed to continue the dialogue, while the two estranged neighbors agreed to start chartered flights between Istanbul and Yerevan.

This engagement follows the high-level meeting in Ankara in November of the Turkish president and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to patch up divisions that go back to the early days of the Arab Spring uprisings. In those upheavals across West Asia, Turkey had backed the Muslim Brotherhood, the principal political rival of the Gulf monarchies. Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has also indicated a more conciliatory approach towards Egypt and the UAE in the conflict in Libya. Again, he has announced plans to visit the UAE and possibly Saudi Arabia in February.

These developments signal an extraordinary turnaround in Turkey’s militarized and aggressive posture in the region over the last few years. Does this portend a more moderate and cooperative Turkish approach towards its neighbors?

Turkish foreign policy: three phases

Over the last two decades, during the rule of the Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (AKP, in its Turkish acronym) from 2002, Turkey’s foreign policy has gone through three significant changes in content and approach. In the first few years, from 2002 to 2007, Turkey followed its traditional policy of prioritizing relations with the European Union (EU), a period that is described by Turkish scholars as “the Golden Age of Europeanisation”.

This approach began to change under the influence of the distinguished scholar, foreign minister, and later prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who moved Turkey’s focus from the West to the East, towards the former territories of the Ottoman Empire in West Asia and the Caucasus. Davutoglu spoke of “strategic depth” and “zero-problems” as defining Turkey’s approach to its eastern neighbors. He emphasized that the principal diplomatic instrument that Turkey would use would be its “soft power” consisting of, as a Turkish scholar put it, “multilateralism, active globalization [and] civilizational realism” that would make Turkey “a proactive, trustworthy, and great actor in the region”.

The approach is being referred to as “neo-Ottomanism” since it would be based on the religious and cultural ties that Turkey has with the former Ottoman territories. During this period, Turkey worked actively to address major regional conflicts – such as those between Israel and Syria or issues relating to Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, through its peace efforts rather than military action, Turkey sought to obtain a central place in regional affairs.

This phase of Turkish foreign policy entered a new phase, signaled by Davutoglu’s resignation as prime minister in May 2016. Now, soft power gave way to the use of hard power in pursuit of national security interests – assertive diplomacy and military force being exercised on the basis of strategic autonomy, while retaining its “neo-Ottoman” character.

Domestic factors behind the new approach

In retrospect, this change appears to have been encouraged by important domestic developments that placed serious political and economic pressures on Erdogan’s government, beginning with the Taksim Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in May-August 2013. What started as a sit-in to protest an urban development plan finally encompassed over 70 cities and brought to the streets over three million people protesting against increasing authoritarianism and the perceived dilution of the secular order in the country.

However, it was the abortive coup attempt by a section of the Turkish armed forces in July 2016 that crucially transformed Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policies. He blamed the coup attempt on Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive religious figure who lived in the US and who had a large following in several parts of Turkish society. Erdogan also contended that the CIA was behind the coup and even issued arrest warrants for two former US intelligence operatives.

Again, he felt that the US and the EU, despite being NATO allies, extended only lukewarm backing to him during the crisis, as compared to Russian President Vladimir Putin who extended support telephonically ahead of Erdogan’s NATO colleagues and then invited the Turkish president to Moscow.

In response to these developments, Erdogan put in place at home an authoritarian, Islamist, and security-centric order – factors that also shaped his regional foreign policy. In both domestic and foreign affairs, Erdogan obtained backing from his coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP, in its Turkish acronym), which, as its name suggests, robustly supports his nationalist and militarist approach at home and abroad.

Besides seeking a central place for Turkey in regional and global affairs, these factors have also melded into one specific concern that animates the Turkish leader – the Kurds. After a period of mutual accommodation between the AKP and the Kurds during 2005-15, Erdogan, in response to some acts of domestic violence, began to adopt a harsh approach towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that represents Kurdish aspirations for autonomy but which has been branded a terrorist organization by Turkey and its allies.

This approach seeped into neighboring Syria when the Syrian Kurds, taking advantage of the ongoing civil conflict, took control over large areas along the Turkey-Syria border to establish their ‘Rojava’, or western homeland. Since the Syrian Kurds are closely affiliated with the PKK, Turkey feared that the emerging Rojava would provide a sanctuary and training base for PKK militants.

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