By E. Fuat Keyman
In an earlier article for Analyst, I suggested that in 2012 Turkey would be hard pressed by brewing international and domestic challenges. The Arab Spring and global economic crisis constitute two of the most immediate international issues that Turkey ought to respond decisively. On the home front, problems are likely to arise from the Kurdish issue and shortcomings in democracy. In addition, the two international challenges I especially singled out as most important were Syria and Iraq. 2012 will be a year in which Turkey will reestablish its vision for an active foreign policy. In this context, Syria and Iraq are two important test areas.
Turkey’s active foreign policy and its location as one of the key countries in a globalizing world continue to grow in importance in 2012, but this year will also test its capacity for influence and its power in transformation. The basic indicators for us will not so much be problems like Iran and Israel, but more Syria and Iraq.
Syria and Iraq: The Litmus Test of Turkish Foreign Policy
Let us look at the data we have. The Assad regime is resisting. The authoritarian Syrian government may survive 2012 while maintaining the status quo, deflecting attempts for a regime change. The government may achieve all of this despite the skyrocketing civilian killings in Syrian cities. Moreover, if the regime in Syria holds out, this is not only going to generate economic problems for Turkey, but, more important, it will be perceived as if the proactive Turkish foreign policy had lost its power to influence and transform its neighborhood. If Turkey were to gradually lose its role of being a trading state in the midst of the global economic crisis, this would have a negative impact on its capacity to exercise influence.
Both because this is a presidential election year in the United States, and because of the economic crisis and stagnation, the chances of American intervention in Syria are dim at best and will continue remain as such in the foreseeable future. Similarly, the fact that America is undergoing a major crisis leads Washington to be introverted, and therefore, it loses some of its influence over world problems. Furthermore, the influence of regional and great powers like Russia, China, and Iran over Syria is growing. This camp puts up a staunch resistance to regime change in Damascus and supports the existing structure with minor reforms. Another factor in the equation which strengthens the possibility of the present regime in Syria not changing, but continuing, is that the Syrian middle class has lent its support to the status quo and is working for the continuance of the Assad regime.
Turkey has taken up its position alongside the Syrian people and in support of change for justifiable reasons, but in the context of the above-mentioned equation it would appear to be weak vis-a-vis its capacity to influence and transform events, even though it is morally strong. Syria was in the recent past a model country for Turkey’s active and constructive foreign policy, but today it is one of the most significant obstacles in the way of this policy.
Turkey would like to focus on Syria, but with the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 it is also confronted with the issue of Iraq and the instability which could lead to rapid fragmentation or even chaos. The Iraqi problem is steadily turning into a major risk. The peril of a breakup of Iraq is now unmistakable, and it must be said that this is now the second most problematic topic facing Turkish foreign policy in 2012 after Syria. Iraq’s president is a Kurd; the prime minister a Shi’a Arab; and the president of the National Assembly a Sunni Arab.
This picture indicates that following the U.S. military withdrawal there is no chance of unity in Iraq in the short or medium term future, and that on the contrary it has a system of administration which steadily increases the possibility that it will break up. The Shi’a Prime Minister Maliki waited less than a day after the American Army withdrew before issuing an order for the arrest of Vice President Hashimi, thus effectively triggering the beginning of the breakup process. Turkey’s initiatives and requests for stability have met with no response. Furthermore, like Syria, we observe that Iraq is creating economic and diplomatic difficulties for Turkey. Turkish anxieties about the possible division of Iraq are steadily increasing.
What Should Turkey Do?
In its first edition of 2012, Analyst did a valuable and very useful service to its readers by publishing an interview with Turkish Foreign Minister Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, which provided a thorough assessment of 2011 and his vision for 2012. In his interview, Mr. Davutoğlu emphasized that the goal for his foreign policy vision is not 2012 but 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, and then summarized the main outlines of his vision for the years ahead. For Turkish foreign policy to be consistent and effective during this period, it must be on the side of change, democracy, and the people, and its style must continue to be problem-solving and constructive. There is no doubt that Turkey’s internal stability, the progress toward democratization, and its economic development are the necessary conditions for its foreign policy to be effective. During the interview, we learned from Mr. Davutoğlu that Turkey will approach these issues through bilateral and multilateral relations and regional cooperation. But it was not openly discussed what Turkey will do about the Syrian and Iraqi problems in 2012.
It is not easy to engage in the right discussion about practicalities and to arrive at the proper solutions on problems such as these. We live in a world and in a country in which risks and uncertainties are immense and we do not know what will happen tomorrow. At such a historical juncture, it is potentially perilous to make a proposal which is too explicit. We can easily fall into an erroneous position, but the prime minister and foreign minister have no such luxury.
In a world which is living through a severe global economic crisis, Turkey faces a serious crisis in its relations with the EU in July due to the Cyprus conflict, and the Kurdish issue will drag on. So what should it do to be effective over the Syrian and Iraqi problems? If Turkey is not able to breathe life back into EU-Turkish relations, does it have any chance of achieving this? If there is no normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations, can Turkey be effective in dealing with the other Middle Eastern problems? Instead of clashes and military intervention, could Turkey get productive negotiations started with Iran and the international community? Could Turkey, through these means, also deal with the problems of Syria and Iraq via multilateral relations?
It is very difficult to answer these questions at the start of 2012. This year is a year which fits Plato’s remark that “it is not rhetoric which is necessary but knowledge.” Let us focus our attention not on exaggerated speculation but on work and discussions which are based on knowledge and vision.
This article was previously published in USAK Analyst Journal.