İHSAN YILMAZ

Syria and Turkish foreign policy

Despite what the staunch Justice and Development Party (AKP) enemies have been arguing, »»

Despite what the staunch Justice and Development Party (AKP) enemies have been arguing, there was nothing wrong with the zero-problems-with-neighbors approach. This was an idealist aim, worthy of trying to attain. Moreover, it is not mainly Turkey's fault that this approach is now not practical. Saying this does not mean that Turkish policymakers must be immune to criticism and have been working immaculately. Starting with the Syrian issue, let us evaluate what went wrong.

Thanks to its economic success, increasing democratization and ability to accommodate a formerly Islamist group to run the country, Turkey has been a shining star in the Middle East. Turkish foreign policymakers were good at leading Turkey's soft power that not only includes its economic and political success but also its growing civil society, cultural achievements and gradually increasing intellectual advances. Only time will tell if they are also good at leading the country in a difficult time of turmoil, but the first signs suggest they are clumsy and very inexperienced when it comes to hard power and smart power issues.

In the Libyan revolt, Turkey did not know what to do and initially did not side with the opposition to Muammar Gaddafi's rule. Our politicians explained that Turkey had $25 billion in investments and 25,000 Turkish workers in Libya, so it was not easy to side with the opposition.

This strong and very confident rhetoric that sometimes amounted to lecturing peer policymakers has been one of the problematic aspects of our foreign policy. I have heard many international colleagues and politicians joke about it and I cannot blame them.

Even though, initially, we did not support the opposition in Libya and strongly opposed a NATO intervention, after this intervention and after seeing that Gaddafi was going down, we started to support the opposition. This is understandable as long as we honestly face the fact that Turkey, like any other nation-state, places its own interests over other considerations. The impact of the Libyan experience was costly for Turkey vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis. This time, Turkey apparently did not want to repeat the same mistake that it made in Libya in Syria and from almost the beginning sided with the opposition and started putting pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Nevertheless, this time we overdid it at the other extreme -- especially the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who became more aggressive every time he talked about the Syrian issue. We had not made careful calculations of our capabilities, our allies' probable positions and action plans on the Syrian crisis, the possibility of being bogged down by a proxy war in Syria with Iran and Russia, supported by China and India, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)/Kurdish problem. Our prime minister even shockingly said that the Syrian crisis was our internal affair. Turkey was implying that resorting to hard power was on the table, too. Then, to the public's surprise, Turkey's harsh rhetoric -- amounting to threatening the Assad regime -- abruptly stopped. There could be a few explanations for this, but I think the major one was the Russian message to Turkey and its allies. Russia sent a warship to its one and only base on the Mediterranean Sea and gave a very clear message to Turkey. I think this was actually the real test case for Turkey's capability of hard power, not the downed jet.

When it comes to soft power, Turkey is also in an unfortunate position. Even though the Turkish army has been positioning its tanks, etc. alongside the Syrian border, it is very highly probable that it is a ploy for the benefit of domestic observers. Syria will not attack Turkey. Our politicians are quite justifiably trying to save face without clashing with Syria. Syria does not have much to lose. Its economy is already in tatters and it does not have any soft power at all. It is Turkey that needs millions of Western tourists, direct foreign investment, a status of credible peace-broker, people spending confidently and a country that aims for zero problems with its neighbors. It is obvious that Turkey now needs creative solutions. It seems that only a NATO intervention invited by the Arab League could save Turkey's face and help the opposition. But even this does not promise a bright future for Turkey. A NATO intervention could pave the way for Syria's partition, which means there will be another Kurdish at least de facto state along our longest southern border.

All in all, overconfidence and ambitious rhetoric that alarmed our adversaries unnecessarily and caused concern among our friends in the Middle East, the Balkans and Caucasus; not being able to walk our talk, as was the case with Armenia and our Iran and Israel policies vis-à-vis the Malatya missile shield issue; and the lack of calculating our capabilities are some of the reasons why Turkey's foreign policy is now in trouble.

Instead of getting upset with people who constructively criticize them, our politicians, their bureaucrats and advisors should follow God's order to engage in consultation. Free debate in the public sphere is part of this process of consultation in democracies. God will reward humility and consultation.

2012-06-29

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Columnist:: İHSAN YILMAZ