Patrick Seale: The Collapse of Turkey’s Middle East Policy
Like most major political upheavals, the ‘Arab Spring’ has had a number of unfortunate and largely unforeseen consequences.
The economies of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have suffered serious damage; Syria’s on-going crisis has resulted in heavy -- and mounting -- civilian casualties and material destruction; in the Sahel, violence and chaos have followed the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi, especially in Mali where Touareg rebels backed by Islamist groups have seized a great chunk of the country; sectarian tensions have sharpened across the region causing all minorities to feel less secure; the Palestine cause has been consigned to the margins of international attention, while Israel, fully backed by the United States, proceeds undisturbed with its land grab.
Turkey is yet another victim of the unforeseen consequence of the Arab Spring: Its ambitious Middle East policy has collapsed. Two years ago, Turkey could claim to be the most successful country in the region. Its economy was booming. Its charismatic Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2002, enjoyed popularity at home and respect abroad. The Turkish combination of democracy and Islam was hailed as a model for the region. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an academic turned statesman, was credited with devising a peaceful regional order, based on the principle of “zero problems with neighbours.”
A key pivot of Davutoglu’s new regional order was a Turkish-Syrian partnership, both commercial and political, which soon expanded into a free-trade zone embracing Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Visas with these countries were abolished. Meanwhile, Turkish construction companies were active in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, as well as in Qaddafi's Libya (where contracts were estimated at some $18bn for roads, bridges, pipelines, ports, airports and much else besides.)
Buoyed by these successes, Turkey set about seeking to solve some of the region’s most obdurate conflicts. It tried hard to bring Syria and Israel to the negotiating table. Together with Brazil, it made what seemed a promising advance towards solving the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme. In Afghanistan, Turkish troops were the only foreign forces welcome, which seemed to presage a role for Ankara in negotiating a settlement with the Taleban. In addition, Prime Minister Erdogan had hopes of reaching an entente with Turkey’s old rival, Greece, and of making peace at last with Armenia (a country still smarting from the harsh treatment of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.) Above all, the Turkish Prime Minister seemed ready to make major political concessions to the Kurds of eastern Anatolia in a bid to end, once and for all, the long and violent struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Then the whole thing fell apart.
The deal which Turkey and Brazil negotiated with Iran over its nuclear facilities was rejected by Washington. Turkey’s overtures to Armenia got nowhere: The border remains closed. Turkey quarrelled violently with Israel when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, in international waters, and killed nine activists, most of them Turks, who were trying to break Israel’s cruel siege of Gaza. Israel has refused to apologise for its brutal behaviour. Turkey’s hopes of better relations with Greece were dashed by Greece’s economic collapse.
On the commercial front, Qadhafi’s overthrow put an end to several big Turkish contracts in Libya, while Turkey’s expanding business with Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states was dealt a harsh blow by the disruption of road traffic across Syria due to the protests there. Turkey’s once friendly relations with Iran suffered because they now found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, while Turkish relations with Iraq suffered because of Turkey’s close ties with the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq (including providing the KRG with facilities to export oil direct to Turkey, to the fury of Baghdad.)
Instead of “no problems with neighbours,” Turkey is now beset with grave problems on almost every front. Inevitably, Ahmet Davutoglu’s star has waned. No longer the master strategist, he is seen as an amateur politician struggling to survive.
The real turning point was Turkey’s impetuous decision to back the Syrian rebels against President Bashar al-Asad’s regime. At a stroke, Turkey’s partnership with Syria collapsed, bringing down the whole of Turkey’s Arab policy. Instead of attempting to resolve the Syrian conflict by mediation -- which it was well placed to do -- Turkey took sides. It provided house room in Istanbul for the civilian Syrian opposition and camps for the "Free Syrian Army" and other fighting groups. Under Turkish protection, the Syrian rebels now control a narrow strip of territory of some 70 kilometres along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Turkey and Syria are virtually at war. In retaliation for Turkey’s role in channelling funds, weapons and intelligence to the rebels, Syria seems to be encouraging the PKK -- and its Syrian affiliate, the PYD -- to turn up the heat on Turkey. The PYD has occupied five largely Kurdish towns in northern Syria, from which Syrian government forces were deliberately withdrawn. If Syria’s Kurds gain anything like the autonomy already enjoyed by Iraq’s Kurds, then Turkey’s own Kurds are bound to press their claims for political rights and freedoms. In eastern Turkey, the PKK’s 28-year insurgency seems to be springing back to life with deadly ambushes against military targets, such as last Sunday’s attack which killed a dozen Turkish soldiers. The struggle to put a lid on Kurdish militancy could once again become Turkey’s most painful and disruptive domestic problem.
A real headache for Turkey is the massive influx of Syrian refugees. To stem the flood, Turkey has closed its frontier with Syria for the time being. Syrian refugees in Turkey are said to number over 80,000, lodged in nine tented camps. Five more camps are under construction, which could house another 30,000 refugees. Turkey says it cannot realistically take in more than about 100,000, without help from other countries and international organisations. Hosting the refugees has already cost Turkey an estimated 135 million euros -- and no doubt will cost a great deal more.
Should Turkey revise its Syria policy? Instead of joining in Washington’s (and Israel’s) war against Tehran and Damascus, Ankara might be well advised to revert back, step by step, to a more neutral stance. Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN peace envoy, needs Turkey’s help in his difficult task of mediating a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. That would be the way to restore Turkey’s Middle East policy to its former glory. Turkey needs urgently to rethink its relations with all its neighbours -- Syria first among them.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).