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July 27, 2013, Saturday

The rise and fall of Turkey’s neighborhood policy

These days it has become increasingly popular to assert that Turkey is surrounded by enemies, that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's “zero problems with neighbors” policy bombed.

Turkey is located in a volatile and difficult region, its neighbors are not Switzerland or Finland, but unpredictable states with significant democratic and socio-economic deficits. Of its eight direct neighbors, only two (Greece and Bulgaria) are democracies. While there are still some problems, one can say that Turkey's north, western and eastern neighbors are fairly predictable. The biggest risk is renewed war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The real headache is down south: Iran, Iraq and Syria, and their explosive neighborhoods where leaderships seem to offer zero, apart from problems and have a zero-sum approach to solving them.

Over the past few years, Turkey's neighborhood policy has been on a roller-coaster ride. In 2009, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that “we are not a country surrounded by enemies anymore.” After years of hostile relations with most neighbors, Ankara took steps to open a new chapter and become a peace-maker rather than an antagonist. Closed doors were opened: first to business, which ultimately led to closer political ties. Turkey's Euro-Atlantic partners welcomed this change. US President Barak Obama was hardly off the telephone to Erdoğan, with Turkey becoming a key component in Obama's “leading from behind” foreign policy. Ditto for the EU, with Davutoğlu becoming a frequent visitor to the office of EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton. While there were problems, the most serious being the rupture of relations with Israel, Turkey was promoted as a regional “model.” Having values that are much more closely aligned to those of the West than the Arab world, Turkey is seen as unique.

Buoyed by its dynamic economy, more than a decade of political stability and its popularity among ordinary Arabs, Turkey tried to take on the role of regional gladiator. As Vali Nasr cites in his book “Indispensable Nation,” Turkey tended to view its self as the “elder democratic brother who wished to guide the Arab world to greater stability and prosperity.” Rather like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, Ankara seemed to dream of leading the masses. Today this bubble has burst. As the Arab Awakening kicked off and regional dynamics began to shift, Turkey struggled to keep up with the new realities. On Syria, Turkey's policy was interpreted as Ankara supporting sectarian policies, contributing to the increasing Shiite-Sunni battle for power and bringing increased security threats to the country. Syria remains a significant threat to Turkey. Ankara's growing conflict with Syrian Kurds, with Turkey declaring that it will not tolerate an autonomous Kurdish entity emerging on its borders making the situation worse. By taking such a hostile approach, Turkey is shooting itself in the foot being left with another group it cannot deal with.

With Turkey continuing to have antagonistic relations with Iraq and unhappy about talking to the coup-induced government in Egypt, rather paradoxically Turkey closest friend in this region today is its old foe the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Iran, of course, remains neither friend nor foe, although the new president has declared an interest to strengthen ties.

While Turkey seems to have become increasingly more of a bystander than a significant actor, at the same time Ankara's economic and political trajectory continues to have importance for its region and the transatlantic alliance and will, I believe, bounce back. Both economically and politically, Turkey simply cannot afford to be on bad terms with a country like Egypt, which is the regional lynchpin. Perhaps President Abdullah Gül's message to interim President Adly Mansour congratulating Egypt's national day was a sign of toning down its strong stance against the new administration in Cairo.

No doubt a foreign policy shake-up could be useful. Yet while there has been chatter about Davutoğlu leaving, it seems unlikely. It would have an adverse effect on Erdoğan, but given that Erdoğan would remain a key element in foreign policy-making, I am not sure it would make such a difference anyway.

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