Turkey: The Death of 'Zero Problems' Foreign Policy

Article Summary
For almost a decade, the government in Ankara has pursued a foreign policy designed to improve relations with neighboring states. But recent events have all but cut ties to the regimes in Iran and Syria, while the friendly rapport between Erdogan and Obama has contributed to excellent relations with Washington, notes Hayfa Zaaiter.

There is no need to re-declare the death of the "zero problems" policy whose collapse was recently announced, after having gained a renewed geo-strategic momentum during the first phase of the Arab Spring. There is also no need to reassert that the “Turkish model” is the "solution". This romantic rhetoric gave Ankara the illusion during a period of the revolutions that it could control the events unfolding in the Arab region through "soft power.”

With the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in Turkey's backyard, Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials realized that engaging in the politics of the region requires more than simply sending trade missions to the Arab world, producing TV series, or even defending the Palestinian cause. In short, the Syrian crisis has crucially and publicly exposed Ankara's position [towards Syria]. As a result, Turkey irrevocably abandoned the moderate policy that was first adopted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002, particularly toward Tehran and Damascus - in a move that seemed to be to the advantage of Washington, and perhaps Israel as well.

Syria: Turkey's Mexico

The raging crisis in neighboring Syria has pushed Ankara into a policy black hole, [escaping from which] will require more than"soft power". A report published in The National Interest magazine  said that the "crisis in Syria should bring Mexico to the mind of an American reader. The strategic stakes for Ankara in the upheaval taking place in its southern neighbor - its longest common border - are as high as those that would force Washington to pay attention and do something if Mexico were convulsing into an open-ended civil war."

In fact, Turkish-Syrian relations have undergone several stages, generally against a background of tension due to Damascus' support of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). [Syria’s support of the PKK] almost brought the two countries to war and was the direct reason for the [establishment of] close military cooperation between Turkey and Israel.

In 2003, these bilateral relations were greatly consolidated when Turkey found itself mired in a series of problems with Washington over its policies in the Middle East. The tensions between the US and Turkey came to a head when Ankara rejected the American invasion of Iraq. With Erdogan's accession to power, however, the economic and military cooperation between the two countries improved greatly, as a result of a change in Turkey's perception of its national interests. Erdogan tried to improve his relations with Syria while maintaining his connections with Israel by facilitating the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians in 2008. This initiative collapsed soon after the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara.

However, at the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has failed to play the role of "the Turkish Kissinger." During the six-hour meeting with Assad, Davutoglu did not succeed in convincing the Syrian president to put an end to the violence. Thus, the Turkish foreign minister gave the green light to support for the Syrian opposition and the Syrian Free Army. He also made strongly-worded statements including orders to halt joint oil exploration and other economic projects between the two countries. He also threatened to cut electricity supplies. 

The Turkish threats became more serious after repeated Western calls for military intervention in Syria led Turkey to be the spearhead of the attack, especially considering that it is a Muslim country with the second largest military in NATO - after the United States - and among the largest armies in the world.

The Christian Science Monitor newspaper has stressed that any military action against Syria must be led by Turkey, especially considering the crucial role it played last year in Libya, noting that [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu can discuss this issue with his counterpart Hillary Clinton in their meeting today [February 13].

In the Lap of the United States... Once Again

It is true that US-Turkish relations were tense following the invasion of Iraq, but the Arab Spring seems to have brought this difficult phase to an end. Just last year, US-Turkish relations were in tumult. There were disagreements between the two countries on a number of issues, such as Turkey's relations with Israel, how to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue, sanctions on Iran, etc. Today, however, it is fair to say that the United States and Turkey are witnessing the best period in their bilateral relations yet. US President Barack Obama and [Tukish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan have developed the best relationship in many decades - and perhaps ever - between a US president and a Turkish prime minister.

In a report published by the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, researcher Soner Cagaptay recalls Turkey’s rejection in June 2010 of a UNSC proposal calling for the imposition of sanctions on Iran, saying that the move [at the time] had indicated that US-Turkish relations would be severed . But Obama’s frank and straightforward discussion with Erdogan on the sidelines of the G20 summit in July [2010] changed everything. The US president expressed to Erdogan the resentment he feels over Turkey’s vote against the UN proposal. “[Obama’s] frankness helped clear the air between the two men. Soon after, Turkey changed its policy, as Ankara stopped defending Tehran and started to work with Washington.”

Since last summer, relations between the two countries have been developing steadily. In fact, the two leaders hold talks on a regular basis - at least a dozen times this year alone - and agree on most policies. This is reflected in their [convergent positions] on issues related to the Arab Spring.
Whereas the personal relations between the two presidents have helped lay the intangible foundations of their bilateral relations, the Arab Spring has unexpectedly consolidated [these relations] through the convergence of US-Turkish interests in the Middle East. The Syrian crisis was the decisive test of the policy initiated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) after [the party’s] election in 2002. [The AKP’s policy] is based on involvement in regional affairs and on integration with neighboring countries.

When Ankara concluded that the fall of dictators like Qaddafi was inevitable, the two countries began to coordinate their regional policies. Cooperation, however, was particularly strong on the Syrian issue. Turkey emerged as the leading country in the region opposed to the Syrian regime’s brutal suppression of protesters. This suited Obama well, given that he is currently focused on internal issues related to the 2012 US elections.

Iran in the Turkish-US-Israeli Balance

When Erdogan assumed power in 2002, Ankara initiated a policy of rapprochement with Tehran. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and out of a sense of being besieged by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, Tehran realized that it must gain the trust of Turkey to break the isolation imposed on it. Thus, the two countries became, in one form or another, friends.

However, the return of Turkey as a major player in the Middle East led to competition with the other regional country that seeks to dominate [the region]: Iran. Consequently, a "soft" competition began between the two countries when each supported opposing factions in the 2010 elections in Iraq. This conflict paved the way for an explicit competition over Syria, where Tehran supports and finances the Assad regime, while Ankara hosts and supports members of the opposition.

Syria is striving to put an end to Turkey’s war on Assad, while Turkey and Iran are engaged in a power struggle over Syria. It is noteworthy that Tehran has one again threatened to take out the PKK’s weapons to protect its most important ally in the region from the threat of the most prominent member of the NATO, [Turkey]. Whatever the outcome of the conflict, Cagaptay believes that the Turkish-Iranian competition will on the long run bring Ankara closer to Washington, and perhaps even to Israel.

The return of normal [bilateral relations between Turkey] and Israel is a result imposed by the failed policy of "zero problems" with neighboring countries, the war on Syria, the clash with Iran, and the Turkish-Iranian competition in Iraq. However, the return of the alliance between the two countries will not be based on their former friendship as much as on mutual interests. This hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that trade between the two countries is still at its height, and there are diplomatic reports indicating that things are heading [exactly] in that direction.

In the end, while tension still exists between Washington and Ankara on a number of issues, including the future of Turkish-Israeli relations, after a decade of disagreement, Turkey has returned to the lap of its Western allies. Although the Obama-Erdogan relationship has laid a new foundation for US-Turkish relations, it seems that the two countries will be linked by common interests in the Middle East even after these two leaders leave power.

Found in: davutoglu, akp

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