This commentary originally appeared on Al Jazeera English on 07 October 2011.
Turkish foreign policy has come under close scrutiny in the wake of the Arab Spring. Prior to this, discussion of Turkish foreign policy – especially in the US – revolved around specific themes such as “axis shift”, “drifting away from the West”, and “authoritarianism”. In the midst of the Arab revolutions, we see a continuation and a rehashing of the same themes. While criticism of Turkish foreign policy is based partly on a certain degree of scepticism towards Turkey’s actual capabilities, a lot of the criticism seems to be based on a misreading of Turkish foreign policy initiatives in a given context.
Most recently, some analysts argued that Turkey’s Syria policy was a failed one, given Assad’s unwillingness to take Turkey’s advice on reforms. These analysts argued that, if Turkey chose not to project its hard power (such as creating a buffer zone, or possibly launching a limited military intervention) on Syria, this meant that Turkey had no leverage on Syria. Thus, they argued, we would have to consider Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy a hollow one with no real substance or practical applicability. This perspective takes for granted the fact that Turkey’s neighbourhood policy proposes a general framework rather than offering specific strategies.
In other words, we need to consider Turkey’s neighbourhood policy to be a guiding principle out of which specific, concrete policies are devised. In order to estimate whether or not this policy has failed, let us analyse the local application of this strategy vis-a-vis Syria. So, what is Turkey’s strategy towards Syria?
Let’s start from scratch: Turkey’s main strategic goal is to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity, prevent civil war and sectarian conflict, and lead the country to structural democratic change in a gradual manner. Turkey learned lessons from the consequences of instability and sectarian conflict in Iraq. The infamous de-Baathification process in Iraq led Turkey to conclude that every single political, religious and ethnic demand need to be satisfied to some extent in the transition process. Accordingly, Turkey’s plan in Syria is to achieve a transition that would include all parties in the country, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Baath Party.
That is why Turkey needed to engage both the Assad regime (with which it had good relations until recently) and the opposition, because both of these groups could bring the country to the brink of disintegration or civil war. If Turkey were to side with only one part of the opposition, as many analysts demand, this would ultimately lead to a military intervention from outside that would create decades of instability, similar to that caused by the Iraq war.
In such a scenario, Syria’s clock would be set back a few decades at the very least. Under these conditions, there are few options for any country to take, except to engage all sides in order to find as peaceful a resolution as possible. Accordingly, portraying Turkey’s position as siding with or supporting the Assad regime against the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people is misguided.
Turkey wants to avoid sparking permanent instability and sectarian conflict in the region, which is a serious potential risk in Syria. A Sunni-Shia conflict, which has become one of the major fault lines in the region as a result of the invasion of Iraq, is being provoked directly by Saudi Arabia and Iran, and indirectly by Iraq and Israel. This is the least desired scenario for Turkey, because it does not pursue sectarian policies in the Middle East – despite having an overwhelmingly Sunni majority.
While the Saudis are trying to bring Sunnis into the Salafi fold, thereby creating an anti-Shia front, Iran is countering with an attempt to forge an anti-Sunni front by bringing Syria’s Alawite population closer to Shiism. This kind of sectarian politics is all too familiar from Iraq, and benefits certain countries that stoke these tensions, but it is against Turkey’s interests. Identifying the problem through the prism of sectarianism can only work for countries that base their regional strategies on religious and sectarian conflict to aid their regional ambitions (Iran) or to remedy their own fears (Saudi Arabia). Turkey continues to resist and work against the ploy of sectarian politics, as it has in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Syria. Turkey recognises that this can only lead to decades of sectarian conflicts and hostilities. In order to prevent such a prospect, Syria is key, and Turkey will not be ready to lose that battle.
Turkey’s solution in Syria can be summarised as “gradual democratisation against civil war and sectarian conflict”. But how is it that this policy is presented as a “failed” one? The argument that Turkish foreign policy has collapsed in the wake of the Arab Spring remains an assertion rather than a full-fledged argument with actual evidence. We are not told, for instance, which principles of Turkish foreign policy have been abandoned after the onset of the Arab Spring. We are only told that Turkey had a “zero problems with neighbours” policy, which has not worked towards Syria because Assad did not implement meaningful reforms.
Turkey’s neighbourhood policy was based on the vision of a “peaceful and stable” region, and Turkey has used its influence to push for substantial reforms responding to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people. In line with its long-standing preference for non-intervention and gradual, indigenous, true reform processes, Turkey has consciously resisted the idea of using its hard power to bring about change in Syria. Turkey has already declared that it “ran out of patience” with the Assad regime after trying virtually every avenue short of sanctions and military intervention. Military choice is not really a choice in Syria, and Turkey recognises this.
Turkey’s Syria policy is a continuation of its long-standing goal of trying to prevent civil war and sectarian conflicts, while preserving its neutral but constructive position. This is not wishful thinking, but actual policy that worked in Lebanon. Both Sunnis and Shia in that country now trust Turkey. The real “position of strength” for Turkey is based on its non-sectarian stance in a country that has long suffered from sectarian and ethnic conflicts. That is where Turkey’s true “leverage” lies.
Then, what justifies the assessment that Turkish “zero problems with neighbours” policy has failed? In fact, closer examination reveals that when this policy was introduced, Turkey was taking a leap forward by engaging neighbours it once considered enemies. Turkey’s neighborhood at the time was stable and filled with authoritarian regimes, while democracy at home was fragile. In the past decade, Turkey moved towards more domestic democracy – while its neighbourhood changed in fundamental ways.
Accordingly, Turkey’s foreign policy strategies could not remain static while still working towards its overarching goal. In other words, changes in Turkey’s approach to countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and others derive from the need to provide nuanced responses to new developments in the region. This does not mean the end of Turkey’s desire to work towards no problems with neighbours, but rather the introduction of different strategies to achieve the main strategic goal: sustainable peace and long-term stability in the region.
Nuh Yilmaz is a graduate student of Cultural Studies at George Mason University.
Kadir Üstün is the Assistant Editor of Insight Turkey, an academic journal published by the SETA Foundation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.