[2011 IN RETROSPECT] Arab Spring sweeps Turkish foreign policy in Mideast
Many Libyans who came out into the streets on Aug. 31 were excited to experience their first Ramadan feast after the end of Gaddafi’s dictatorship. (Photo: Today's Zaman)
The pro-democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa, popularly titled the Arab Spring, dominated Turkey's foreign policy throughout 2011, as the country was concerned with the developments in the region due to humanitarian reasons as well as out of concern that instability in its neighboring region could pose serious risk to the country's security.
Since the first sparks of the spring were ignited in Tunisia in December 2010, Turkey has been involved heavily with the process, fearing the humanitarian cost of the upheavals and remaining in contact with the countries affected by protests in order to support the bid of the people for democracy. Although Turkey officially sided with the “will of the people” and urged Arab Spring leaders to “heed the calls of their people,” the country favored taking differentiated stances towards each country involved in the process.
Although the country stood on solid ground in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, defending the removal of old regimes and the establishment of democratic governments, Libya and Syria proved to be tougher cases for Turkish foreign policy. In the face of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi's refusal to step down, an international platform was formed under the NATO banner to intervene in the country, where thousands lost their lives due to random executions at the hands of Gaddafi forces. Turkey, however, did not participate in the military intervention, led primarily by France, and expressed concern over the circumstances under which Gaddafi was lynched by opposition forces. Turkey further verified its high standing in the region when it led an evacuation which NATO officials called “beyond excellence.” The country evacuated tens of thousands of Turkish nationals as well as foreigners from 63 countries in the matter of a few days time before clashes between opposition and Gaddafi forces reached their deadliest over the summer.
Meanwhile, while Turkey calculated its next moves in the Middle East, conflict emerged in an immediate neighbor, Syria, with which Turkey has deeply rooted ties -- of alliance and of enmity. After the 1990s, when Turkey and Syria came to the brink of war over Syria's sheltering of outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, relations were finally on the mend when thousands of Syrians fled from neighboring towns into southern Turkey in May. The arrival of around 20,000 Syrian refugees alarmed the country, raising media speculation as to whether a buffer zone would be needed between Syria and Turkey to control the refugee flow. However, the flood of people was contained a few months later, with more than half of the refugees going back to Syria. However, ties between Turkish and Syrian leaders were already stretched to the point of tearing when the first wave of chaos finally subsided in the fall.
Following the Syrian regime's refusal to stop its use of arms against protestors, Turkey halted contact with the Assad administration, an old ally of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), on the basis that Bashar al-Assad was not fit to lead the country into democracy as a leader with hands “stained with blood.” The Syrian conflict also brought back a Turkish-Iranian rivalry from the distant history, as both countries speculated the other was interfering in Syria to work the transition in their favor. The fact that Syrian opposition groups frequently gathered and finally united in Turkey in September added to the tensions within the Turkish-Syrian-Iranian triangle, coupled with media reports that Iran was supplying the Syrian regime with arms to support the country's battle against its own people, whom Assad regarded as terrorists and traitors.
On the Iranian front, Syria -- one of the last Shiite allies of Iran in the region -- was not the only reason that drove Turkey to be at odds with the country. Although Turkey refused to act on a UN nuclear watchdog report that suggested Iran may be enriching uranium to build nuclear arms despite its pledge its nuclear program is peaceful, the country still received a stormy reaction from Iranian officials when it agreed to implement a NATO early-warning radar shield in the fall. Despite announcements from Iranian top officials that the upset against Turkey did not reflect the official policy of Iran, some Iranian lawmakers considered the NATO shield an assault specifically targeting Iran and promised to “exact revenge” on Turkey for being a part of an alleged US and Israeli plan to take Iran down.
While Iranian lawmakers kept at their threats against Turkey, Israeli media also started speculating the odds of winning a war against Iran to avert damage in case Iran made the first move. Refraining from taking sides in the nuclear dispute between Israel and Iran, Turkey said it would have no part in any action against Iran, having been already irked by Israel following last year's Mavi Marmara raid. Throughout 2011, the remaining effects of the Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, which ended with the deaths of nine Turkish peace activists on the high seas, haunted Israeli-Turkish relations while also providing leverage for Turkey's popular image with the Arab nations, particularly Palestine.
Turkey dropped diplomatic contact with Tel Aviv to the level of second secretary and froze all military deals with the strong Israeli army in September in response to the Israeli refusal to issue an apology and offer compensation for the loss of life on the Mavi Marmara. Despite the move's piercing effects on Turkish-Israeli ties, it relaxed Turkey's hand at the UN meeting in the fall with regards to supporting a Palestinian bid for official recognition under the UN roof. Turkey's outburst against Israel for its blockade over Gaza, coupled with Turkish initiatives for democracy and the protection of civilians in the Middle East, granted Turkish senior officials, specifically Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, never-before claimed fame in the region and more closely knit the country's ties with countries of the Middle East.