Mosul Kidnappings Underline Failure of Erdoğan’s Middle East Policy

The Turkish prime minister tries to shift blame to the opposition but it is his own foreign policy that has failed.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses parliament in Ankara, June 10
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses parliament in Ankara, June 10 (AKP)

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Friday tried to blame opposition parties for “exploiting” the kidnapping of Turkish citizens in the Iraqi city of Mosul. But if anything, the incident shows the failure of his own Middle East policy.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a militant group that professes allegiance to the international terrorist network Al Qaeda, stormed into Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, earlier this week and took eighty Turkish consulate workers and truck drivers hostage there.

Erdoğan said on Friday efforts to secure the hostages’ release were ongoing. “We are doing everything necessary for this,” he promised, before slamming opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for suggesting that Erdoğan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, should resign.

“The opposition has lost all their balance,” said the prime minister. “We are struggling to bring the personnel back home safe and sound from Mosul while they are thinking about how they can exploit this situation.”

He even accused opposition parties of trying to “provoke” the Islamists. “They say, ‘We reject your policy in the Middle East.’ But we cannot expect you to approve it. You are arm in arm with Bashar al-Assad while we are opposed to him,” said Erdoğan.

The Turkish opposition has been critical of Erdoğan’s support for the Syrian uprising of which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is part. Rather than raising the country’s profile in the region, the policy appears to have only exacerbated Turkey’s security problems and alienated traditional allies, notably Saudi Arabia.

Turkey was anxious to position itself as the champion of the revolutionary cause in the Middle East after the “Arab Spring” uprisings repudiated its previous policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Ruled by an Islamist party but steeped in a tradition of secularism, Turkey saw itself as a role model for the political movements that came to power in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011.

However, “Ankara overvalued its soft power, overestimated its cultural affinities with the Arab world and miscalculated the legacy of the Ottoman Empire in the region,” argue Alexander J. Brock, Steven A. Cook and Jacob Stokes in a report (PDF) for the Center for a New American Security think tank. “After the Arab uprisings,” they note, “Ankara’s regional diplomacy did not produce any substantial results.” Egypt’s Islamists attempted Turkey’s majoritarianism and were overthrown by the army. Tunisia took a different path and still seeks to reconcile Islamists and seculars.

In Syria, write Brock, Cook and Stokes, “Turkish leaders were unable to convert their financial, political and diplomatic investment into influence or leverage with the regime.” Bashar al-Assad failed to heed Erdoğan’s early calls for reform. Support for the opposition largely failed to materialize.

Turkey urged its NATO allies to intervene in Syria’s civil war on behalf of the rebels but the United States and others were reluctant to, given the presence of radical Islamists in the opposition.

When autonomy for Syria’s Kurds, whose rebellion against the regime Assad seemed to deliberately ignore, rekindled Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgency, the country muted its demands for intervention. An offensive against the Kurds would not only have jeopardized Turkish relations with the Free Syrian Army rebels it had supported; it would also likely have angered the Kurds in neighboring Iraq with whom Turkey has traded oil to put pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s predominantly Shia government in Baghdad.

Ironically, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a Sunni outfit, also opposes Maliki who is seen by most Sunni powers in the region as an Iranian stooge.

Yet Turkish support for Islamists in Egypt and Syria rankled Sunni Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, countries Brock, Cook and Stokes describe as “defenders of the status quo, pursuing a more defensive approach amid fears that change in major countries, notably Egypt, will necessarily compromise their influence and threaten their security.”

Erdoğan, in office for eleven years, has also been battered by graft accusations he claims have been fabricated by supporters of a former ally, the religious leader Fethullah Gülen who lives in the United States. Numerous tapes of telephone conversations posted online suggest Erdoğan himself was involved in corruption. The premier calls them “montages” and claims foreigners are attempting to undermine his government. He has purged thousands of police officers as well as hundreds of judges and prosecutors who were involved in corruption investigations against members of his cabinet.

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party nevertheless won the local elections in March when it got almost 43 percent support nationwide. However, the elections were overshadowed by a government ban on social media and voting irregularities, including power outages in provinces where the party was struggling to hold on to seats and claims from opposition newspapers that they had come under cyber attack during election night.

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