Turkey’s story is a model, not the party that rules it

According to İbrahim Uslu, a key advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and »»

According to İbrahim Uslu, a key advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a reliable pollster (ANAR), a new element has entered Turkish politics. The government's foreign policy performance, he says in an interview, is among the primary reasons for voting for the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Until lately, say, three or so years ago, foreign policy issues would be unthinkable for coloring the votes. This is very interesting, and explains why Prime Minister Erdoğan takes the issue, for example, of Syria and deals with Bashar al-Assad as a punching bag, to wild applause.

If this is so, we can draw some conclusions. Despite Turkey having had a serious row with Israel and later cut off ties with the Assad regime, the trust built between US President Barack Obama and Erdoğan has shown that Turkey has not turned its back on the West, but instead maneuvered smartly to remain devoted to its traditional alliances, and also received a lot of praise from the White House as well as many parts of Europe for its performance.

The voters' approval also means a continuous AKP rule, further political stability and therefore demands more careful attention for analysis. No underestimation or overestimation of Turkey's foreign policy is therefore needed. It may be fine-tuned, but does not seem like it will be abandoned in the foreseeable future.

Though many wrongly argue that Turkey has never been a model for the Arab Awakening, it stands by its persistency and sends inspirations perhaps more discreetly and indirectly for all those in the midst of the Arab unrest. Polls in Turkey and elsewhere about Arab perceptions suggest that this is so.

Another wrong conclusion is the one based on the wrong assumption: The Arab domain does not see the AKP as a model per se but Turkey's political and economic story as a whole as the source of inspiration. There, Erdoğan's popularity in the Arab mindset is an additional element.

So, it would definitely be unfair -- or misleading -- to sweep off Turkey as a non-player in the region because we are all in the midst of a process that promises to be a very long one and that therefore should defy hasty conclusions.

Nevertheless, there are future obstacles and negative factors that can later lead to a diminishing of Turkey's aspirations as a defining regional player. Turkey's zero problem policy was tested to its limits in three loosely linked compartments and showed flaws and some success.

The case with Israel, now in deadlock, showed that the “zero problems with neighbors” policy could only be successful with mutual trust and with how the AKP was perceived by the other. Israel failed the test of Syrian talks under Turkish mediation, misled by the perception that the AKP was not to be trusted. Israel still fails to read into Turkey's success story and its long-term necessity as a democratic partner.

The case with Syria showed another important dimension in Turkish foreign policy, which can be attributed to Ankara more than Damascus. Yes, the Turks did all they could, last year, to persuade Assad to remain in power by giving up some of it, but it was doomed to failure.

This case showed a flaw with Ahmet Davutoğlu's “zero problems” policy. As it was beginning to be implemented, no one in Ankara could clearly foresee Arab unrest forthcoming, not with such magnitude and in such a vast region. It failed to include various scenarios, various “exits,” as the difficulties in political navigation in the cases of Libya and Syria later showed.

But where the policy notes success, a partial but an important one is Iraq. The relations between Ankara and Arbil, plus with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, are fine, productive, and enough trust seems to be there to turn into a regional partnership. Kurdistan is now the second biggest partner in trade and investment, and the economic interdependence part of the policy is working.

The conclusion of the third side of the story, the Kurdistan case, is this: The appliance of “soft power” (as the negative cases of Turkey-Syria or France-Libya showed) does not work well at all on the state level, while it produces results in the sub-state level. Iraqi Kurdistan can therefore be a guiding example, but only to be pursued and completed.

There is now a growing sense that Turkey can be influential in its foreign policy if it can address the Arabs in the region through the Kurds of Iraq and Syria. For this, it should resolve its own deadlock with Kurdish reform and find a proper way to make the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) lay down its arms.

If Ankara is to have an impact on normalization in the turbulent Arab domain or its politics is to be an inspiration, it must give priority to human rights and show that it is possible to reach consensus on a democratic, civilian constitution.

Political and economic stability are key factors. The greatest mistake any government can make under those positive conditions is to slow down or show hesitation. The more Erdoğan practices proactive policies at home and in the region, the more the external criticism of his government's foreign policy is revealed as an expression of envy.