As the world anxiously observes the developing story in Syria, the complexity of this very case has become a litmus test of Turkey’s limitations as a regional power, rather than of its abilities. This was the main theme in what is now the trademark annual meeting of many heavyweight foreign policy experts from around the globe, the İstanbul Forum, organized by the Center for Strategic Communications (STRATIM). Well-attended from academia and the media, the two-day meeting focused on Turkey in the midst of Arab unrest, Kurdish emergence and complications with Iraq, Israel and Europe -- all overshadowed by the civil war in Turkey’s southern neighborhood.
“We need to reassess our foreign policy and reprioritize its main elements,” said Suat Kınıklıoğlu, the executive director of STRATIM, in a way summarizing the mood of this year’s forum in contrast with last year’s, which was dominated by more certainties than the present one. But already at that time, as one speaker from Lebanon pointed out, a Turkish diplomat had predicted that “Syria could turn out to be our Vietnam.”
What is right and what is not in the “zero problems with neighbors policy,” the so-called Ahmet Davutoğlu Doctrine, developed and promoted so intensely by Turkey’s current foreign minister?
Well, in essence, it was a timely set of values, rather than a well-designed roadmap or a master key which would open all the doors to diplomatic success. There is nothing wrong in the set of values, its intent or its harmony with the needs of the new, developing Turkey. But, as elaborated in this column before, the idealism which guided it did not help deliver tangible results with three predominantly non-Muslim neighbors, and led to a deadlock with the Jewish state, which, due to its proximity and overlapping interests, should count as an additional neighbor. All in all, these cases are now more or less frozen -- even if we disregard the Halki Seminary issue standing between Greece and Turkey -- and show how fragile this policy is in reality, if it is not coordinated resolutely between the Presidency, the Prime Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Turkey’s diplomatic journey with its Muslim neighborhood down south, which started well, has also proven to be full of difficulties. In this regard, what seems to have led Kınıklıoğlu, and many others at the forum, to plead for a revisit of foreign policy is, of course, the Syrian quagmire. But from a bird’s-eye view, the main issue has become one of capacity, because the paradigms have become so many, making “diplomatic juggling” a task almost impossible to manage.
The Arab unrest has taught the government about the reality out there, so the romanticism and idealism behind the notion that “Turkey was embraced by the Arab countries like a ‘long lost brother’” is over. Syria has also poured in new elements that have further added to the sobering realization that “something is not right” in what Ankara does, or in how it does it.
Reassessing foreign policy and revisiting its priorities, argues Kınıklıoğlu, has become an urgent requirement, and I agree with him. In the past decade, Turkey has been drawing a vast foreign policy curve, with emphasis on European integration, towards full engagement through soft power in its Middle Eastern backyard.
The pendulum has swung too widely, because these two things have almost obliterated one another. The swing meant that Turkey was left with an unfinished “to do” list in its domestic field, and a deeper engagement with Syria, leading to anxieties among its population. Expectations for further democratization here have been overshadowed by the harsh language of aggression and even warfare.
No matter how much good will was behind the initial and mid-phases of Turkey’s Syrian policy, conducted by Ankara to avoid a bloodbath, this has also now had a sobering effect on the fine line between Turkey as an applier of “soft power” and as a downright “regime changer.” The latter role was not meant by Davutoğlu to be in the vocabulary of his doctrine, but a line had to be crossed, and it showed Turkey’s limitations immediately. It is, perhaps, a red line. Certainly this does not mean that Turkey will have to turn back the clock and return to its insensitive, anachronistic, passive foreign policy. On the contrary, Turkey as a predictable economic power should remain synched with an assertive foreign policy, but it should find the right place somewhere in the middle of the vast range of its pendulum. It has to revive its EU vocation, go on with reforms at home, disengage from any form of “regime changer” role and avoid sectarianism, even if its neighbors continue to apply it. It should prioritize being part of the solution, and thus return to its doctrine with a fresh set of priorities. It is time the lessons of romanticism were drawn, both good and bad.