By Birol Baskan
The AKP found the 2000s a very convenient decade in which to increase its influence in the Middle East. But this situation changed with the start of the Arab spring process. Turkey must carry out the tough analysis needed and decide on how to allocate its resources and invest accordingly.
When the Justice and Development Party took office in November 2007, it found that circumstances in the Middle East region were particularly suitable for a more active foreign policy.
Firstly Turkey’s problems with PKK terrorism were on the point of ending. Even though they sometimes went beyond the limits of what is acceptable in legal and humanitarian grounds, , the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the policy and security services had struck the PKK hard throughout the 1990s and almost finished off the organisation. Furthermore the capture and rendition to Turkey of Abdullah Öcalan was the most fatal blow delivered to the PKK and after the organisation began to disintegrate. To put it another way, the improval in relations with Israel eliminated the most important reason causing relations to be bad with the Arab World and Iran and a new page was now started in relations with them.
There was an serious vacuum of leadership in the Arab world. States like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya were inward-looking and the leaders of these countries had lost all their credibility.
This overall picture was made even worse by an abhorrent event: the 11th September attacks. The US responded first by attacking Afghanistan and then with the occupation of Iraq. The occupation brought down one of the strongholds among the Sunni regimes of the Middle East. It was possible to discern long beforehand thatthe Shi’ites would be dominant element in the new Iraq. Indeed, King Abdullah of Jordan warned the world against the rise of the Shi’a crescent at the end of 2004.
In Iraq, the USA made things even better for Iran and then shortly afterwards added both Iran and Syria to its list of targets. The religious regime in Iran then launched its programme to develop nuclear weapons, going for dear life. This move altered the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of Iran and the Shi’ites and further alarmed the Sunni Arab regimes of the Gulf who were in any case in a state of alert already.
As they struggled against the international attempt under the leadership of the USA to isolate them, Iran and Syria began to see Turkey as an important ally but the Arab regimes of the Gulf also did the same, regarding Turkey as an ally against the growing Shi’ite Crescent in the Middle East.
Turkey becomes a rising star
These circumstances made Turkey into rising star and its popularity soared in parts of the Middle East, first when the Turkish Grand National Assembly voted by a whisker in March 2003 against the resolution to take part in the invasion of Iraq. This was followed by the popularity of Turkish TV series and then by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s criticisms of Israel. A time came when the prime minister of Turkey was indisputably the most popular leader in the Arab World.
Erdoğan and his ministers worked with almost unbelievable energy to take advantage for Turkey of this highly favourable set of circumstances. The exports of Turkish firms to the Middle East and the number of Arab and Iranian tourist rose sharply during this period. Visa requirements were lifted for a lot of countries or the visa systems eased. For the first time in the history of the Gulf Cooperation Council, an agreement was signed proclaiming Turkey to be a ‘strategic partner. In addition to that diplomatic mechanisms were established making it possible to have a regular exchange of views with different groups of countries in the region.
Leaving aside the support they gave to Iran’s nuclear programme, which may be considered an exception, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu did what was necessary and they did not bind Turkey to any of the sides now appearing with increasing frequency in the region.
While these developments were going on in foreign policy, the PKK began to regroup. By 2005, the organisation had resumed its terrorist attacks, even if in somewhat simple form, with landmines. The AKP governments made mistakes in the fight against terrorism and so this process could not be halted. The PKK re-formed and was now strengthened.
Though Davutoğlu and his disciples initially did not greet the Arab Spring with great enthusiasm, the Middle Eastern scene was now about to change in a way which was very much in favour of Turkey. Until then Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had been able both to win the hearts of the Arab peoples and to go around arm in arm with the authoritarian Arab leaders. Until that time they had not been forced to
The Arab spring now compelled Turkey to make its preference. The manoeuvres of the AKP leaders, Davutoğlu first and foremost, for a year and a half were based on trying to avoid making a final choice. Eyes which followed developments in Egypt and Libya closely, were closed when it came to those in Bahrain and Yemen. Thus Turkey took sides neither with Iran nor the Arab Gulf states. Syria was a much more complex problem. While declaring that it supported neither Iran nor the Gulf Arabs, Turkey was patient for months with al-Assad, advising him to activate reforms. By comparison, in Egypt Erdoğan had told Hosny Mubarek to resign before the first week of protests was over.
Today Turkey has been forced by events to make the choice that it was reluctant to do. In the first it has chosen the people in the countries where the Arab uprisings took place and for the choice between the Sunni Arab world and Iran, it has chosen the former.
The future of Syria will determine the cost to Turkey of the Arab spring. It is not difficult to grasp that if a vacuum of authority is created in Syria, comparable to that in northern Iraq in the 1990s, the PKK will discover near areas for it operations.
Turkey’s power: deterrent but not punitive
If one takes an optimistic view of what has happened, one might say that Turkey has been able to see the limitations on its real power without having been involved in a dangerous adventure. The moral is that while Turkey’s military power is sufficient to be a deterrent, it does not possess punitive military power in the way that the USA or Israel do. Turkey undoubtedly possesses an army which is more disciplined and stronger than those of the Arab countries, but this army is not strong enough to be the instrument of an active foreign policy in Clausewitz’s sense.
Turkey has more than enough accumulated experience for one to feel doubtful about whether enough reliable analysis and information flowed through to Ankara from its Embassies and consulates in the Arab world, let alone high quality intelligence. We can leave Saudi Arabia to one side. Turkey does not even have the material resources of Qatar in influencing foreign policy, even though Qatar is a much smaller country. Turkey does not have even one TV channel, followed not in seven continents but just in the Arab world that can compete with Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera or CNN. The impact of Turkish TV soap operas and firms is felt in the Middle East, but its presence in education and intellectual activity is at a level of virtual non-existence.
Perhaps what is most disappointing is that Turkey is a country which is in a position to request things from the Arab world, and not a political actor from whom things are being demanded. For example it is pursuing an active foreign policy aimed at getting Arab countries to open their markets to Turkey and to make investments in this—as prime minister Erdoğan has stated many times.
From now on, Turkey has to come up with much higher quality analysis of its capacity and make investments to steadily eliminate its deficiencies. At International Strategic Research Center (USAK) Osman Bahadır Dınçer and Mustafa Kutlay have produced an important report on this topic. Unless Turkey can eliminated the structural weaknesses identified in this report and others like it, it would appear to be almost completely impossible for it to have a policy which will influence the outcome in the Middle East.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of Davutoğlu and his team was to adopt a slogan about a stronger Turkey. This mantra of a very strong Turkey created excessive expectations both in the Arab world and in Turkey. In the event, Turkey could not match these expectations.
To conclude, the situation is summarised very neatly by an Arabic cartoon which I came across on the social media. In the cartoon, Erdogan is saying “I will not permit Syria to shoot down a second Turkish aircraft.”
Birol Baskan is Assistant Professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.