A New Era for Turkey? The Foreign Minister as Prime Minister

Global Centre Stage

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s new government in Turkey will focus on expanding its global and regional power along with an emphasis on a new constitution. The degree to which this ‘new Turkey’ will reinterpret its past remains to be seen, though the question of who would represent it seems to have been resolved. But the erstwhile foreign minister’s neo-Ottomanist dreams of becoming a regional power is confronted by the complex reality of Middle East politics, says Anita Sengupta, in this concluding part on the rise of a new Turkey

The term ‘neo-Ottomanism’ was introduced by a leading Turkish columnist and academic Cengiz Cander. This was an intellectual movement that advocated Turkish pursuit of active and diversified foreign policy in the region based on Ottoman historical heritage. The neo-Ottomans envisaged Turkey as a leader of the Muslim and the Turkic worlds, and a central power in Eurasia. It was first articulated in the early 1990s by liberal secular intellectuals in collaboration with Turgut Ozal, a socially conservative, economically and politically liberal nationalist. Ozal reintroduced the concept of Turkish-Islamic synthesis into Turkey’s political discourse. This emphasised Turkish nationalism and Islam as key contributors to the country’s international standing. It underlined the historical legacy of the Ottoman past and flourishing Islamic culture as a source of ‘soft power’ of the modern Turkish state.

A ‘Neo-Ottomanist’ Foreign Policy Vision

The November 2002 parliamentary elections saw the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) receive almost 35 percent of the votes and become the first party to form the government on its own. Its strong political standing enabled the AKP to be more self-confident in implementing its own foreign policy. The architect of this vision was Ahmet Davutoglu, a well-known professor of International Relations and the chief advisor of foreign affairs for both Prime Minister Abdullah Gul (who later became foreign minister and then president) and the AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who later became prime minister and is now president). With Ahmet Davutoglu as the new prime minister, Turkey’s regional politics based on his ideas of ‘strategic depth’ is likely to continue. The main pillars of his vision include the resolution of all problems with neighbouring countries, strengthening Turkey’s influence in regional and global affairs and therefore, the acceptance of Turkey as a ‘central country’ in world politics. The importance attributed by Davutoglu to Turkey’s geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-cultural influence has urged commentators to claim that he was in fact putting forward a ‘neo-Ottomanist’ foreign policy vision. With its emphasis on a multi-layered identity, the underpinnings of which are furnished by Muslim subjectivity, in tandem with its call for greater activism in the Middle East, Davutoglu’s vision challenged all dimensions of the Kemalist national project and approach to foreign policy.

However, it is also true that Davutoglu’s thesis makes assumptions about foreign relations, particularly positing the existence of a state of harmony where interests and priorities collide and where good intentions alone would be incapable of neutralising conflicting interests. On one account, his ‘zero problems’ with neighbours’ policy have already collided with harsh regional realities. The strategy to normalise relations with Armenia and the offer to open Turkey’s border with the region have provoked a crisis with Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, in the case of Iran, Turkey has supported calls for a dialogue as a means of resolving the crisis posed by the Iranian nuclear programme. Presently, it is in line with the stand taken by the US administration. It remains to be seen what would happen if the Turkish approach is revealed to be ineffective and the US is forced to change its stance. However, the ‘zero problems’ approach itself carries far reaching logical implications. It fails to take into account the possibility that Turkey’s neighbours may pursue policies that are to Turkey’s detriment. In that case, a ‘zero problem’ policy would be problematic. The fact that presently Turkey does not have an ambassador in Syria, Egypt or Israel, its relations with the Gulf States are strained owing to Turkey’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that diplomatic ties with Iraq are nearly non-existent due to Turkey’s support of the Kurdistan Regional Government and export of Kurdish oil are symptomatic of this.

Turkey and Israel: Contentious Issues

Another issue that must be mentioned is the status of Turkey’s relations with Israel. Military, strategic and diplomatic cooperation between the two states was accorded high priority in both countries, which shared similar concerns about regional instability in their Middle Eastern neighbourhood. Relations deteriorated after the 2008-2009 Gaza War and the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship off the Gaza coast and nine Turkish activists were killed. While Turkey has demanded and received an apology from Israel as a precondition for re-establishing full diplomatic relations, Erdogan and the AKP government were fiercely critical of previous Turkish governments for their close military and diplomatic relations with Israel while harbouring stereotypical ideas about the Arab world. In fact, Turkey’s standing in the Arab world received a boost after the Mavi Marmara incident. Erdogan also used the Palestinian issue as a vehicle for entering the complex world of Arab politics. In November 2012, Davutoglu recognised Palestine as a non-member observer state in the UN General Assembly. This, however, brought with it the first public split between Hamas and the Erdogan government. Hamas was against going to the United Nations, as they repeatedly point out that they do not recognise the existence of Israel within even the 1967 borders. Israel’s six days of air strikes into Gaza in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel overshadowed the difference between Hamas and Ankara. Davutoglu paid a visit to Gaza in November 2012 with the secretary general of the Arab League and 12 foreign ministers of Arab states to show solidarity with the Palestinians. More recently, Erdogan strongly criticised Israel for its air strikes in Gaza.

Syrian Crisis: Litmus Test for Turkish Foreign Policy

The Syrian crisis and the possibility of the presence of chemical weapons in Syria have also created a difference of opinion between Turkey and Israel about intervention in Syria. The Turkish leadership, however, has been clear that the normalisation of relations with Israel would not have an impact on Ankara’s relations with other countries in the region. The Syrian crisis is being seen as a test case for Turkey’s new foreign policy. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Turkey not only served ‘as a source of inspiration’ in the Syrian crisis, but wanted to play a more active role in the process, revising its policies in response to emerging risks. Between March 2011 and May 2012, Turkey’s policy towards Syria changed from pressure on the Bashar al-Assad government for constitutional reform, to attempts at unifying dissident groups under a single roof and promoting international sanctions to a return towards efforts for a UN based solution (the Annan Plan). In terms of rhetoric, the change has been from ‘Syria is not a foreign affair but a domestic affair for us’ to ‘the Annan Plan is an opportunity for Syria’. Turkey gained significant leverage in the Middle East following the Arab Spring and needed to review its relations with regional actors. Turkey’s policy based on the rhetoric of being a ‘playmaker country in the Middle East’, however, encountered strong resistance in Syria. Turkey’s objective of establishing an EU like Union in the Middle East, which began with its ‘zero problem’ discourse and its claim of being a ‘model’ for the countries of the region suffered because of the Syrian crisis. Since the beginning of the crisis, the countries of the region were divided into two groups, the Sunni-Salafist and pro-western. The latter which included Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan actively worked to change the Baath regime, while the Shite and anti-western axis which included Iran, Russia, Iraq and Lebanon actively worked for its continuity.

Determined to balance its global expectations and regional objectives, Turkey, in turn, aimed towards the downfall of the Assad regime relying on its strength in the Arab streets to ensure a rapid outcome.

Developments in the Syrian civil war also had an impact on the on-going peace process with the Kurdish rebel group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. When the Syrian crisis started in March 2011, Syria’s Kurds adopted an ambivalent position. However, in July 2012, they took control of several cities in the north where Kurds are in a majority. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which governs this region, bordering Turkey, is affiliated to the PKK and has clearly expressed an interest to form an autonomous zone in Syria comparable to Iraqi Kurdistan, a move that Ankara opposes. Turkey’s Syria policy in which Erdogan had previously sought President Bashar’s overthrow by military means became counterproductive when it contributed to bringing Syrian Kurds into the fray. Turkey’s stance on Syria had already begun to shift before the Gezi Park incident when Erdogan visited the US. After his discussions with President Obama, Erdogan moderated his tone and reduced support to Syrian opposition groups.

There has also been discontent over Turkey’s large Syrian refugee population in border towns and Istanbul, and apprehension about the advancement of the IS (the Islamic State of Iraq and as Sham) into Iraq’s Mosul region. In fact within hours of capturing Mosul, the ISIS troops seized the Turkish Consulate along with all the diplomats and staff. It is alleged that the rise of the ISIS has partly been due to access to resources that Turkey’s less than vigilant control over the Syrian border has allowed. The ISIS also controls the area around the tomb of Suleman Shah in northern Syria, which Ankara regards as sovereign Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when Syria was under French rule.

Regional Competition with Iran

The Syrian crisis has also impacted relations between Turkey and Iran considering their different interpretations of the results of a potential regime change in Syria. It has also brought into focus the regional competition between Turkey and Iran. The reason why the rhetoric became harsher is that the future of Syria has become a show of force for both parties. This spread to another area of intense rivalry, Iraq. Iran changed its stance towards the Baghdad administration, which, in turn, accused Turkey of acting as a hostile country. It was against this attitude of Baghdad and Tehran that Ankara prioritised the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), with which it has had a fluctuating relationship due to the presence of the PKK in Iraq. Comments made to the Financial Times on June 28 by the AKP Deputy Chairman Huseyin Celik seemed to offer tacit support for a future KRG declaration of independence. With the commencement of hostilities between Hamas and Israel in the beginning of July, little attention was paid to the seizure of Kirkuk by the Peshmerga forces of KRG.

This, along with the failure of the support given to opposition groups in the Syrian crisis, undermined the perception of Turkey in Arab streets. Turkey’s criticism of the ouster of the former President Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian army and refusal to recognise the current regime has also weakened its position. Turkey saw the fall of Morsi’s regime and the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood as the loss of a major ally in the Arab world. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood failed, both in its democratic experiment and in its economic management, sent a bad signal to moderate Islamic forces in the Middle East. Turkey had invested significantly in financial terms in Egypt to build a multi-dimensional alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and had signed a strategic cooperation agreement in mid-September 2011. This was followed by about 40 agreements on diverse subjects. Turkey’s reaction to the dismissal of Morsi was conditioned by the memory of recent history in Turkey where the army has carried out four coups since 1960. Developments in Egypt also happened at a time when the AKP government was faced with internal dissensions. It led to further reduction of the role of the military in civilian politics through legislation in Turkey.

Turkey’s neo-Ottomanist dreams of becoming a regional power has been confronted by the complex reality of Middle East politics. Turkey’s challenge of the ‘clash of civilisations’ and appearance as a ‘model’ for the Middle East have also raised questions about whether the Arab countries themselves view Turkey and the Turkish experience in positive terms. At one level, stereotypes have dominated the debate. The popular image is one of deep rooted ill-will between Turkey and the Arab world. There is a certain amount of truth in such stereotypical ideas, but it is also a historical fact that Turks, Kurds and Arabs lived harmoniously for centuries in a stable, multi-ethnic empire until the last decades of Ottoman rule. As Ahmet Davutoglu forms a new government in Turkey, the focus on expanding Turkey’s global and regional power will be at the forefront along with emphasis on a new constitution. The degree to which this “new Turkey” will reinterpret its past remains to be seen, though the question of who would represent the new Turkey seems to have been resolved.

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Anita Sengupta

Anita Sengupta is Fellow at Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies. She may be reached at anitasengupta@hotmail.com.

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