Turkey’s role in the region is changing. While just a few years ago Turkey appeared as a mediator on the Middle East scene, it now needs mediators for its own problems. NATO is deploying Patriot missiles to protect against a possible Syrian attack. The Turkish government is not allowed to fly over Iraq.
Why has there been such a radical change? Why can’t Turkey sustain its former influence in the region? What are the mistakes of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government? Is it a coincidence that we have problems with Shiite countries like Syria, Iraq and Iran but are friends with Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar? How did Turkey become a party to conflicts in Iraq and Syria? Will the deployment of Patriots complicate relations with Iran?
We asked all these questions and more to retired ambassador Temel Iskit and got enlightening replies. The fourth, expanded edition of Temel Iskit’s book A History of Diplomacy, Its Theory, Institutions and Applications was recently published by Bilgi University Press.
Duzel: Does Turkey still have the influence it used to have in the region?
Iskit: Turkey is steadily losing its influence in the region. In the first uncertain days of the Arab Spring, Turkey was seen as an island of stability because of its NATO membership and its relations with the West. Eventually, new balances of power developed. Sectarian Shiite and Sunni fronts emerged. Then it became evident that Turkey was not in the end a part of the Middle East and that Turkey was trying to assume the role of an important and effective actor. Turkey’s position in the Middle East was superficial. We didn’t belong there.
Duzel: Isn’t Turkey a Middle Eastern country?
Iskit: Geographically, it may be, but not according to its background. Didn’t Turkey think it had a major role in the Palestine issue? Turkey mediated for a while but that wasn’t because of its Middle East roots but instead because it is a Western country friendly with both Arabs and Israelis.
Duzel: Does Turkey still see itself as influential and important in the Middle East?
Iskit: It is trying to portray itself as such, but is slowly facing the facts of life. For example, despite all our talk, we couldn’t be the lead actor in the Hamas-Israel ceasefire. Egypt assumed that role. We tried get involved in relations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but that didn’t work at all.
Duzel: Can Turkey be influential in the Middle East when it is in crisis with Israel?
Iskit: No, it can’t be. The prime minister and the minister of Foreign Affairs decided that Turkey doesn’t at all need Israel to be a player and that Arab/Sunni support would be enough to allow Turkey to dominate the region. Our prime minister was misled by cheers from the Arab street and some Sunni leaders. Our government pursued an unrealistic foreign policy way beyond its capabilities and exaggerated its leadership role. Moreover, we took sides and always took steps to support the Sunni front.
Duzel: What were Turkey’s worst mistakes?
Iskit: Syria and Iraq. We meddled in Iraq’s internal politics, took a stand against Maliki and supported his Sunni rivals. In Syria, we were too hasty and adopted a militant stand to get rid of Assad; Erdogan regarded Assad as his kid brother who would do what he is told. In fact, Turkey’s analysis of Syria was wrong. We thought everything in Syria was in Assad’s hands and we overlooked the structure of the regime. We ignored the strong roots and networks of the Baath regime, and kept on challenging Syria. It was inevitable that it backfired. Turkey is not a Middle Eastern country and doesn’t know the rules of the Middle East game. That is why we repeatedly make mistakes.
Duzel: Turkey has a Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Don’t they know the Middle East?
Iskit: Our Foreign Ministry doesn’t know that region. I am now talking as a former ambassador. We always looked at the Middle East from a distance. Until recently, we had turned our backs to the region. That is why we did not accumulate knowledge about the Middle East. Only the AKP tried to understand the region, but they got it wrong. The AKP looked at the region through the narrow perspective of Sunnis. They just don’t have the accumulation of knowledge to understand the region.
Could Davutoglu’s intellectual background be the basis of foreign policy? Davutoglu looks at the region as a Sunni. If you read his book, “Strategic Depth,” he says, "The lands dominated by Ottoman culture are our strategic depth.” That is his way of saying these are the areas we are concerned with. Wasn’t Iraq an Ottoman territory? Why are we on such bad terms with it now? Syria?
Duzel: Did Turkey see itself as the “big brother” of the Middle East?
Iskit: The prime minister and the foreign minister dream of a rebirth of Turk-Islam via Ottoman heritage. In their minds, we are equal to the West, even ahead of them because of our Turk-Islam Ottoman heritage. Erdogan is constantly trying to prove the superiority of sacred Islamic values. This may be the view of a political party and a prime minister, but it doesn’t have a place in foreign policy,
Duzel: What are the consequences of an ideologically-oriented foreign policy?
Iskit: Ideological approaches to foreign policy mean making mistakes. A foreign policy based on religion and ethnicity will fail because you will sacrifice your flexibility and paint yourself into a corner. By acting ideologically, Turkey has squeezed itself between Ottomanism, Sunnism and Turkism. Erdogan is now lecturing the UN on what to do. Of course the UN must be reformed, but that can’t be based on religious values. There can’t be a UN based on beliefs.
Duzel: How would you describe Turkey’s position in the Middle East today?
Iskit: Turkey is not a player in the region. It can’t be a mediator because it is a party to conflicts. It cannot guide developments but follow them. We have linked our Iraq and Syria policies to the PKK issue. The reality is that unless Turkey solves the PKK and Kurdish issues, it can’t have an effective foreign policy in the Middle East. That is why we are constantly reminded that while we advocate democracy to other countries, we can’t do it ourselves.
Duzel: Is it a coincidence or a preference to be friends with the Sunni countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar while being rivals of Shiite countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran?
Iskit: This is our tendency. Don’t forget, the prime minister gets support not only from the Arab street but also from the Turkish one. The majority of Turks are Sunnis. Erdogan counts on the majority, which means 50% of the country backs his policies. This is where he goes wrong. Popular support in foreign policy means nothing. You cannot conduct foreign policy by asking the people. If you craft your foreign policy on popular trends, that would be a populist foreign policy and you will be making gross mistakes.
Societies are emotional. In democracies, you don’t consult the people but you are accountable to them. All our foreign-policy openings stalled because we asked the people for approval. If you ask “Azeris or Armenians,” of course our people will say “Azeris.” I am sure that openings to Armenians, Alawites and Kurds were scrapped because of poll results.
Duzel: Why did Turkey become such a committed party in Syria?
Iskit: Turkey became a party to conflicts not only in Syria, but all over. For example, we became excessively pro-Hamas in Palestine. Now we are trying to amend that but as we have no power, nobody listens to Turkey. Also, the prime minister is an emotional man who feels that with the support of the people, he can come out with emotionally-charged policies. He can’t accept that Assad did not obey him.
In fact, the prime minister directs foreign policy into impasses by always demanding the impossible. For example, regarding the Armenian issue, he injected the dispute of Karabakh at the last moment and all the protocols painstakingly signed evaporated. With Israel, while there was no mention of it, he suddenly announced that he won’t reconcile with that country unless it lifts the Gaza blockade, thereby burning all bridges. Initially, our conditions to reconcile with Israel were an apology and payment of compensation.
Duzel: What do you think of Turkey’s Iraq policy?
Iskit: We have reached the right point in our Northern Iraq policy, but our Baghdad policy is wrong. While we vehemently support Iraq’s territorial integrity, we are dealing with Erbil, thus bypassing Baghdad. We visit Kirkuk without asking Baghdad. Imagine them doing the same with our Diyarbakir. We would go nuts.
Duzel: Can Turkey be a mediator by following a Sunni policy?
Iskit: No, it can’t be. Turkey could have mediated between Northern Iraq and the Baghdad government and would have scored a major foreign-policy achievement. But we lost that at the outset. Now our minister can’t even fly over Iraq.
Duzel: The Baghdad government and the Kurds are at the verge of clashing. What will Turkey do if that occurs?
Iskit: Turkey will support Northern Iraq. There can’t be any greater contradiction. We suppress the Kurds in Turkey, don’t see them as equals and don’t give them equal citizenship rights but we enter into alliances with Kurds outside.
Duzel: How about our relations with Iran?
Iskit: I served three years in Iran. We don’t like each other. There is animosity between us but we smile at each other and manage to get along. There is always a good equilibrium of sorts between Turkey and Iran. We are foes, rivals, but this balance is always preserved. Iran-Turkey relations is an example of diplomacy.
Duzel: Will the deployment of Patriots complicate relations with Iran?
Iskit: Patriots have nothing to do with Iran. Turkey wouldn’t take such a step against Iran.
Duzel: Why not? Wasn’t the Kurecik radar base set up against Iran?
Iskit: Israel is trying to market the impression that Kurecik is against Iran, but in reality, Kurecik radar is against the East, including Russia and China, for the general defense of NATO. That is why Russia is not altogether wrong in being upset with Kurecik. Patriots are coming only because we wanted them, Turkey pressed NATO by saying Syria might have chemical weapons. They agreed to send the Patriots to make us happy, and also thought this is one way of preventing the Turkish army from marching into Syria. The Patriots are a symbolic gesture. You can’t build your defense on three, four Patriots. Moreover, their ranges are limited. By this decision, NATO is telling Turkey,”You are one of us. We will defend you in case of an attack.”
Duzel: Will Syria launch a chemical attack?
Iskit: It would be very difficult. We don’t even know if they have chemical weapons. Israel, entirely on its own, is trying to manipulate world public opinion with its phenomenal propaganda mechanism. Remember, under Israeli influence there were also claims of WMDs in Iraq but none were found. Iran’s nuclear issue is also of Israeli origin.
Duzel: It is said that our relations with Russia have soured because of Syria. How are our relations with Russia now?
Iskit: Russia and Iran objected to the Patriots because they wanted to be seen doing so. They too know that three, four Patriots can’t hurt them. There is robust, interested-based foreign politics between Turkey and Russia. Everybody’s shouting that we are dependent on Russia for natural gas, but isn’t Russia dependent on us for such high income?
Duzel: Will there be a military intervention in Syria?
Iskit: The US did not want to intervene in Syria yesterday, and it doesn’t want to do it today. As for the EU, it doesn’t have the desire or the strength. I don’t see any intervention in Syria in the near future.