Interview with Dr. Guner Ozkan on Turkey’s Role in a New Middle East and Axis Shift in Turkish Foreign Policy
By Valeriia Amitina
Q: Which motives do you see behind the initial Turkish opposition to a no-fly zone in Libya?
First, there was one practical reason: Turkish citizens and investments in Libya. Second, it was because of the new understanding of foreign policy in Turkey under the AKP government. In the Libyan situation, nobody knew what was going to happen and who was going to win in the country. Under such circumstances, you cannot take a harsh step and stand up for people holding guns. It put the Turkish government in a difficult position in public opinion, as it is a well-known fact that Ahmet Davutoglu and Moammar Gadhafi were on good terms. Another broader reason was that the intervention was initiated by France in the first stage, not by the U.S. In the security issues, Turkish relations with the West have been mainly shaped by Ankara-Washington relations, not Ankara-Brussels. Turkey needed to be sure that the U.S. stood behind the operation. The Turkish government was also suspicious about the actual reason behind the operation.
Q: Don’t you think that the opposition to a no-fly zone might be an indicator of its ambitions to obtain regional power?
In international relations, you cannot take just one reason in decision-making and go for it. There is always a mixture of interrelated reasons. Even before the recent developments in the Middle East, Turkey already stepped into a more independent path. It started a long time before the Arab Spring. Iranian affairs, the Palestinian issue, Turkey’s policies toward Iran, the Caucasus, and Russia had already stated its independent behavior. Having said this, we also see that Turkish foreign policy-making lacks some projection to analyze the long-term prospective. But if you ask me what if Turkey didn’t have Turkish citizens in Libya, would it act in a different way? I would say yes. Especially since the beginning of 2000, Turkey has emphasized its interest in the democratization of the region. The Turkish Republic stands out as a model of democracy for MENA countries. So, Turkey would join to support the fight against authoritarian regimes.
Q: How much influence do you think Turkey has in Libya at the moment?
Initially, Turkey had good relations with the regime, not necessarily with Gadhafi as he was an unpredictable guy. At the later stage of his regime he shared oil with West, so Gadhafi was on good terms with Italy, the UK, and the U.S. in spite of his initial anti-Western image. His oil development projects and compensation for the Lockerbie incident made him a more or less pro-Western player. It was a good chance for Turkey to revitalize its construction projects with Gadhafi’s Libya. Today, the price in Libya is having a share in the oil sector. The relations have been recently improved between Turkey and Libya, if we look at the Tripoli-Ankara diplomatic dialogue over the last ten years; though nobody knows what is in store for Turkey in Libya in the future, because the country still faces a lot of problems. There are tribal tensions and a lack of clarity in the administration. The country is not stable yet, therefore it is hard to predict.
Q: Do you think there might be a clash of interests between the West and Turkey in Libya?
I don’t think so. The post-Gadhafi government is trying to establish democracy and the rule of law. In this case, cooperation, diplomacy and your ability to offer better things should be considered as a positive phenomenon. I think, at the end of the day, the current political structure seems strong enough to defend its interests. For example, Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, was captured in Africa and Libyan authorities refused to give him to the International Court of Justice. It was a sort of standing against the American will to judge him and expressing ambitions to act independently in domestic affairs. It is a signal that they stand strong. In the same way, it is their free choice to choose economic partners.
Turkey has good chances for economic opportunities and political solidarity in Libya. Europe has a colonial history in Africa, which reminds us about its misdeeds in the past. As we remember, Turkey was also there during the Ottoman times, but it didn’t leave that many scars on the society, because it didn’t have those harsh imperial ambitions in the region. Diplomatically, for Turkey it will be beneficial to cooperate with Europe, not to compete
Q: What are the future risks and prospects for Turkey in the Middle East?
Prospects are good. Democracy is the best option. Turkey is getting stronger, more productive and cooperative with the democratization of the Middle East. MENA countries and Turkey have cultural, historical and economic ties. Emerging democracies in Libya and Syria would positively influence relations with Turkey and enhance business and political cooperation. It would help to stabilize the Kurdish issue in the region. Obviously, dictatorship puts security concerns in first place in the foreign policy-making for the region. Dictatorship results in problems with ethnic and religious groups, as we see it in the Middle East. Eventually, the transformation will bring cohesion, balance to the region and the society will benefit in all terms. Right now, we are in the beginning of the transformation. It had started abruptly in Tunisia, then the winds of change came to Egypt. It has not finished yet. It still has a way to go. If we look at Tunisia now, we will see a democracy-building state. Libya is in a less stable condition and it is still undergoing transformation.
We see rivalry in the international arena in the Syrian case. Geopolitical issues, rather than human rights concerns play the key role in recent developments. We observe a clear geopolitical competition. Friends of Syria (France, Germany, the U.S., the UK, Turkey, Gulf states) oppose Iran, Russia and China. They have different visions how to solve Syrian problem. Behind the democratic and human rights’ rhetoric they have their own geopolitical interests. Russia claimed that they are supplying Syria only with defensive weapons for the regime to protect itself. Friends of Syria, on the contrary, claim that they send the arms to make Syria stronger. But where do we draw that subtle line between the destructive weapons and defensive weapons? Obviously, there is a power game and purely economic interests behind this competition.
When MENA countries become more democratic, it will automatically improve Turkey’s relations with new governments. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Turkey has served as a model not only of economic success, but also of democracy. Turkey as a large Muslim country can be a good example for other countries in the Middle East.
Q: Recently, many columnists have been claiming that the Eastern dimension in Turkish foreign policy-making is strengthening. Do you think Turkey tends to make allies in the East more than in the West in the light of recent developments?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think Turkey will ever give up its EU accession ambitions. Demographically and economically, Turkey can be a rival for some EU states. Maybe it will have more power than France for example. It is unlikely for Turkey to lose its European aspirations. When it comes to Turkey being torn between the Middle East and Europe, I always draw parallels between Turkey’s position in the EU and Middle East and the British position in the Commonwealth countries and the EU.
A feeling of belonging to Commonwealth countries does not prevent the United Kingdom from extensive cooperation with Europe at the same time. The UK has special relations both with the Commonwealth countries and the EU members. It works well for them. It can work perfectly for Turkey as well. Turkey’s EU membership will increase the democratic, influential image of Turkey in the Middle East. Middle Eastern and Northern African countries are not as developed as the EU today, that’s why the Middle East is not the first choice for Turkey to “identify” itself with.
Generally speaking, integration dynamics in the Middle East region are weak, contrary to the EU. The Middle East doesn’t tend to unite. There is no single Middle Eastern bloc. The Middle East is diverse and conflicting on all levels. It cannot replace the EU for Turkey. Nonetheless, Turkey should develop diplomatic relations with the MENA countries on a friendly neighbor basis.
In my opinion, any Turkish government will not turn its face away from the EU, because being a member of the EU is beneficial for Turkey in political terms. It is a strong engine of further development. There is no need for Turkey to be a part of the Middle East more than it already is. In the post-Cold War world, countries are freer to make alliances without a bipolar basis. It is a different world now.