It seems that media consensus has been conclusively reached: Turkey has been forced into a Middle Eastern mess not of its own making; the ‘Zero Problems with Neighbors’ notion, once the foreign policy centerpiece of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is all but a romantic notion of no use in realpolitik. Turkey’s “policy’s goal – to build strong economic, political, and social ties with the country’s immediate neighbors while decreasing its dependency on the United States – seemed to be within sight,” wrote Sinan Ulgen nearly a year ago. “But the Arab Spring exposed the policy’s vulnerabilities, and Turkey must now seek a new guiding principle for regional engagement.” This reading was not entirely unique and was repeated numerous times henceforth. It suggests an air of naiveness in Turkish foreign policy and overlooks the country’s barely selfless regional ambitions. It also imagines that Turkey was caught in a series of unfortunate events, forcing its hand to act in ways inconsistent with its genuine policies of yesteryears. This, however, is not entirely true.
The recent skirmishes of Oct 4 at the Syrian-Turkish border were reportedly invited by mortar shells fired from the Syrian side. Five people including 3 children were killed and the incident was Turkey’s ‘last straw.’ Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported of an official Syrian apology through the United Nations soon after the shelling and the Syrian government promised an investigation. However, their seriousness remains doubtful. But the Turkish military was quick to retaliate, as the parliament voted to extend a one-year mandate to the military in order carry out cross-border military action. Irrespective of the violence at the Syrian border, the mandate was originally aimed at Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq and it had already been set for a pre-scheduled vote in mid-October.
The peculiarly evolving episode seems unreal. Not long ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had, to the displeasure of Israel and the US, reached out to both Syria and Iran. He referred to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his ‘brother,’ knowing of the full political implications of that term. When Turkey voted against Iran sanctions at the United Nations in June 2010, “it provoked a crisis,” a Wall Street Journal article read. Later, Turkey quarreled with NATO over the missile-defense initiative, a system that is clearly aimed at Iran and Syria. “Turkey is becoming the Alliance’s ‘opt-out’ member in operations in Muslim countries,” said the WSJ. These developments took place at the heels of the deadly Israeli military raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which carried mostly Turkish peace activists as part of a larger effort – The Gaza Freedom Flotilla – aimed at breaking the siege on Gaza. Israel killed 9 Turkish civilians and wounded many more on the Mavi Marmara.
Erdogan and other Turkish officials rose to the status of superstars among Arabs at the time when ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was himself complicit in the Gaza siege. Understandably, the AKP became a political model and the subject of endless academic and television debates. Turkey was the brand to beat even culturally and economically.
Internally, Erdogan and his party were credited for overseeing massive economic growth, and successfully reining in and eventually integrating the once insubordinate, coup-prone military leadership into a democratic system managed by elected civilians. Externally, Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu helped rebrand and partly break the isolation of several Arab leaders, including Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. (Turkish leaders must have been fully aware of the grievances of Arab peoples as they signed economic deals worth billions of dollars with the very dictators they helped oust.) Although Ankara’s spat with Tel Aviv didn’t translate into tangible change in Israeli or US policies towards Palestinians, a level of gratification permeated: At last, a country strong enough as Turkey had the courage to stand up to Israel’s intransigent and calculated insults.
Then Tunisia overthrew its president and Turkey’s foreign policy cards were mix-up like never before. If the US, France and other Western powers were inconsistent and self-contradicting in their stances on uprisings, revolutions and civil wars that struck the Middle East and North Africa in the last 18 months, Turkey’s foreign policy was particularly muddled. Initially, Turkey responded to what seemed like distant affairs with good sound bites concerning people’s rights, justice and democracy. In Libya, the stakes were higher as NATO was hell-bent on determining the outcomes of Arab revolts whenever space allowed. Turkey was the last NATO member to sign onto the Libya war. The delay proved costly as Arab media that cheered for war seemed to target Turkey’s prized reputation and credibility.
When Syrians rebelled, Turkey was prepared. Its policy was aimed at taking initiative early by imposing its own sanctions on Damascus. It went even further as it turned a blind eye while its once well-guarded border area became awash with smugglers, foreign fighters, weapons and more. Aside from hosting the Syrian National Council (SNC), it also provided a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army that operated from the Turkish borders at will. While much of that was justified as righteous Turkish action to deter injustice, it was one of the primary reasons which made a political solution unattainable. It turned what eventually became a bloody and brutal conflict into a regional struggle. It allowed for Syrian territories to be used in a proxy conflict involving various countries, ideologies and political camps. Since Turkey is a NATO member, it meant that NATO was involved in the Syrian conflict, although in a more understated way than its war on Libya.
The Kurdish dimension to Turkey’s role in Syria is of course enormous. Less reported is that Turkey is industriously working to control any Kurdish backlash in Syria’s northeast region, thus doubling Turkey’s border conflict, which has been mostly confined to northern Iraq. Writing in Turkish Today’s Zaman, Abdullah Bozkurt spoke of “a high-stakes game plan for Turkey to control the fast-paced developments in northern Syria using the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in neighboring Iraq as a proxy force without getting directly involved in Syria.” Moreover, Ankara has more discreetly worked to compel favorable policies by the SNC regarding the Kurdish question. Bozkurt further reports that “Ankara has silently pushed SNC to elect an independent Kurd, Abdulbaset Sieda, in June as a compromise leader…as a safeguard measure for Turkey to exert influence over some 1.5 million Kurds in Syria.”
Indeed, the so-called Arab Spring has partly confused and eventually helped realign Turkish foreign policy towards Arab countries, and even Iran. Turkey however was barely a passive player before or after the upheaval. The impression that Turkey has stood at the fence as competing agendas south of their border finally pushed Ankara to the brink, is both erroneous and misleading. Regardless of how Turkish politicians wish to formulate their involvement, there is no escaping that they have taken part in the war against Libya, and are now entangled, to some extent by choice, in the brutal mess in Syria.
The sad irony is that hours after Turkey’s retaliation to the Syrian fire, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told reporters in Paris that an attack on Turkey is an attack on NATO, an underhanded gesture of careful solidarity. He added, “If the Assad regime were to fall, it would be a vital strike on Iran.” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman could barely hide his excitement, for what the US neoconservatives failed to achieve, is now being done by proxy. Lieberman, hardly a visionary, predicted a ‘Persian Spring’ on the way that, he urged, must be supported. For Israel and the US, now that Turkey is on board, the possibilities are endless. Ankara must reconsider its role in the deepening calamity, and devise more sensible policies. War should not be on the agenda. Too many people have died that way.