Up until two years ago, Turkey’s status and influence were the envy of its neighbors. It was enjoying a thriving democracy at home and a booming economy. Its leaders put it on a path to world leadership status. Two ideas fueled the engines of Turkey’s rise to prominence: strong democratic institutions to build trust for investors, and zero-conflict foreign policy.
Turkey’s conflict-free diplomacy has had huge economic and military benefits. First, it brought in foreign investments. Turkish businesses were also able to invest in the economy of Turkey’s neighboring countries especially in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, North African, and Asia. As a result, since 2000 and excluding the 2008–09 global economic downturn, Turkey enjoyed an average GDP-real growth rate of 6.65%, reaching 8.2% on two occasions (2004 and 2010). Politically, the Justice and Development Party was able to improve its gains during recent elections and continued to govern without needing to enter into a coalition with other political parties.
Since a developing economy depends on energy, Turkey’s conflict-free diplomacy secured cheap oil and gas from Iran and Iraq. Economic deals with these two neighbors unified the three governments to moot the Kurdish struggle for autonomy and offered them an opportunity to solve their common problem with this ethnic group.
The democratic successes at home and the rapid falling of Arab authoritarians dragged the Turkish leaders to the edge of hubris. They started to dictate the path of change instead of being a facilitator for change. Turkey’s new diplomatic approach is riddled with contradictions and suffers from a lack of principled vision.
First, Ottoman ambitions held by some Turkish leaders are incompatible with pluralistic democracy in a region built on autonomous aspirations. Second, Turkish sectarian tendencies limited Turkey’s ability to speak on behalf of all Muslim Arab peoples suffering under tyranny. For instance, Turkish leaders’ criticism of the Syrian regime and silence about the barbarity of the Bahraini and Saudi dictatorship has stripped them of the moral authority to advocate for change in the Arab world. When they offered sanctuary to the fugitive Iraqi vice president, Tareq Hashemi, they chose to become party to the sectarian strife in that country as well.
Turkish leaders’ initial overconfidence about changing the Syrian regime in weeks, not months, did not materialize and the country is now suffering the consequences. More Turkish soldiers have died in the Kurdish areas of Turkey in the last several months than in the last several years. Turkey has accepted more Syrian refugees than it can handle, and Turkey’s allies and the UNSC are unable to create a safe haven zone inside Syria for those refugees. Although Turkey claims that it supports Arab peoples’ rights to freedom and dignity, it is finding itself allied with Saudi Arabia where women cannot drive and where hatred to followers of Shiism and Sufism is part of the Salafi creed. Consequently, Iranian and Iraqi leaders are downgrading their relations with Turkey.
While Turkey is training and supplying Syrian rebels, whom the Syrian regime calls terrorists, Syria is providing military support to the Kurdish rebels, whom the Turkish regime calls terrorists. Turkish political opposition leaders and commentators are capitalizing on these difficulties, accusing the government of failure to protect Syria’s interests and security. They argue that Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party failed to anticipate these problems when they decided to call for Assad’s removal and to harbor Saudi-funded and supported rebels.
Economically, the once booming economy is showing signs of weakness. The GDP-real growth rate dropped to 3.2% in 2012 and that must be attributed, in part, to the Syrian crisis and its ramifications. Politically, these changes are also eating away from the popularity of the ruling party as recent polls have shown. Internationally, the status of Turkey is also diminished as its leaders are increasingly seen as sectarian zealots with Ottoman revivalist ambitions. Some Turkish leaders brush off criticism by arguing that the problems stemming from Turkey’s policies on Syria are acceptable risks for helping the Syrian people gain freedom.
What Turkish leaders ignore is the fact that many among the Syrian people do not want their country destroyed. It is true that most Syrians want change, but it is also true that most Syrians want change to come through non-violent means. Turkey should appreciate non-violent struggle since it has been fighting the Kurdish people for more than 28 years. After all, the Kurds have a more legitimate claim for self-determination than many Syrian fighters who are fighting a regime not to establish democracy, but because of their hatred to Shiites and Alawites. The thousands of videos released by many Syrian rebels calling the Syrian army and regime rafidi, nusayri, kafir, and heretic are evidence of the sectarian tendencies of these rebels. The names of many of the rebels’ brigades, too, are evidence of their links to al-Qaeda and to the supremacist Saudi brand of Islam.
Turkey can still be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis, but it must change its strategy. Instead of training and arming opposition forces whose loyalty and goals are obscure, Turkey must pressure all opposition figures on its soil to embrace non-violent means to achieve the goals of the Syrian people. Turkey must realize that the military solution will be a costly one, not just for Syria but also for Turkey.