Turkey’s Arab Spring Problem

Turkey’s failure to anticipate the Arab Spring could mark the end of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey's foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18
Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18 (NATO)

When Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu issued Turkey’s final warning to Syria on August 15 it marked the end of an era in Turkish relations with the Middle East. Davutoğlu had visited the authoritarian Middle Eastern country sixty times in his post as chief Turkish diplomat and many of them were in crisis talks over the protests that had swept the country in the past six months.

Davutoğlu had expected his words to carry some weight and that Turkey, a regional superpower and a prospective candidate for European Union membership, could influence its neighbor to the south and encourage it to open up and halt the ongoing crackdown. When those words fell on deaf ears, it marked an end to an experiment known as the “zero problems” foreign policy.

Previous Turkish governments had taken a hard line toward the Middle East and a policy of cooperation with Israel. This changed from 2003 when Davutoğlu and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, representing the moderate Islamic AK Party, came to power and gradually started to assert civilian authority in the face of a suspicious secular military.

The idea was simple — engage with Turkey’s authoritarian neighbors such as Iran and Syria and, using a combination of trade and diplomacy ensure three goals: the securing of Turkey’s long border with the Middle East, a joint response to Kurdish extremism and (it hoped) the gradual cooling of a restive and volatile region prone to boiling over into conflict which would threaten Turkish stability.

In recent years and after elections in 2007 secured an even bigger AK Party majority in Turkey’s parliament, the zero problems policy was rolled out into other areas outside of Turkey’s usual sphere of influence. More authoritarian countries in North Africa such as Algeria, Libya and Tunisia all benefited from a gentler diplomatic approach and greater trade with Turkey.

The biggest event came when Turkey started to foster greater diplomatic and economic ties with its traditional enemy Greece. In 2010, at a time of great economic and political crisis in Greece, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu visited with an army of Turkish ministers and businessmen. Joint cabinet meetings were held and contracts signed and while key issues of borders and a final solution to the Cyprus question were not settled, they were never meant to be. The aim of Turkey’s visit was one of solidarity with its stricken neighbor and to foster an atmosphere where the two countries could set aside their differences and focus on areas of mutual benefit.

The American government and some European nations such as Britain have called for Turkey’s entry into the EU to be accelerated. Turkey’s zero problems policy has also been praised in parts of the world as promoting a more stable and prosperous Middle East.

But zero problems in fact created problems — and awkward ones at that. Some politicians in America and the EU have wondered aloud that if Turkey is actively engaging with regimes such as Iran and Syria, whose side exactly is it on? France and Germany grumble loudly that Turkey turning a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses in Iran and Syria harms its prospects of EU membership.

Worse still, Israeli-Turkish relations have collapsed after several diplomatic incidents, including one case bordering on the bizarre when Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon summoned Turkey’s ambassador and dressed him down on national television.

Then came the ill-fated Mavi Marmara fiasco in 2010. A botched raid by Israeli special forces on a ship heading for the Gaza strip ended in nine activists killed and several injured Israeli commandos briefly taken captive, and effectively froze relations between the two nations for a period. Currently, Israel and Turkey are at loggerheads over who is to blame and if an apology by Israel is required. A thaw in relations may only happen if there is a change in government in one or both countries.

Also, these issues were manageable so long as there was no major geopolitical event that could disrupt the delicate balance between East and West that Turkey had so carefully set over the previous decade. Turkey felt that it could continue to develop links to nations once considered beyond the pale and gradually reform itself to become more attractive to the West.

Which is why it could be argued that no country in the region was caught more unawares by the Arab Spring than Turkey. When it broke out in Tunisia, Turkey like France found itself wrongfooted by mass popular protests that started to either remove existing regimes friendly to Ankara or force them into making extensive concessions.

Most damaging were the fall of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya’s descent into chaos. Turkish business had invested heavily in both countries and now face serious losses as uncertainty looms as to the post-Arab Spring political landscape.

Most worryingly of all, as the protests inch closer and closer to home, Turkey faces an unprecedented foreign policy challenge as a tense Lebanon combines with a mass protest movement in Israel, a surge in violence in Iraq and a Syria in meltdown.

This has seen Turkey in some ways revert to type as its unilateral tendencies start to reappear. Already Turkey has darkly hinted that what is happening in Syria is an “internal Turkish matter” as it frets about the possibility of a long porous border becoming a backdoor for Kurdish terrorism. Nobody is predicting a Turkish intervention in Syria but then again few had predicted the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

The options for Turkey now are limited. It can either wait and see or follow its zero problems strategy and simply shift its stance to accommodate the new order falling across the Middle East. The approach in recent months has been markedly different to how Turkey dealt with Libya and Tunisia initially, as Ankara tries to stay one step ahead in the diplomatic game. Turkish ferries have helped injured civilians out of rebel held Libya for treatment in Turkey or elsewhere, while aid has been promised to Egypt and Tunisia in an effort to woo the new governments. A new Kadima led government in Israel may lead to a thaw in relations between the two countries.

Where this will end nobody quite knows but it will be dictated by the ebb and flow of the Arab Spring.

This story first appeared on War is Boring, August 18, 2011.