Turkey’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries remained minimal and security oriented up until 1980s. Only with Özal, Turkey started to discover potential economic benefits of trade relations. Some years back, Turkey dramatically changed its policy toward the region. Turkish leaders believe that the country has gathered enough economic and political power to play for a leadership role in the region. With the liberating effect of the end of the Cold War, the Middle East is perceived to be full of economic and political opportunities. Turkey must seek for new markets and attract foreign investment; especially oil rich regional countries are becoming important partners.
Ankara’s response to the turmoil in the Middle East However, lends itself to several conclusions. First, it shook the policy of “zero problems with neighbors” to its core. The refugees pouring across the Turkish border, fleeing Assad’s crackdown, triggered an inevitable test of the Davutoğlu doctrine. Ankara proved unable to use its clout with the Assad regime to affect any significant change. Moreover, its growing criticism of Assad led to deterioration in Turkish-Iranian ties: Official Iranian media outlets have openly criticized Ankara’s stance on Syria since June 2011, hinting that it was doing the West’s bidding in the region. The Turkish government’s decision in the fall of 2011 to accept the stationing of U.S. missile defense systems was very much linked to these new tensions with Tehran while also in all likelihood an attempt to ingratiate itself with Washington and reduce the impact of its increasingly harsh anti-Israeli policies.
Similarly, Davutoğlu’s “zero problem with neighbors” policy was always predicated on the unrealistic assumption that none of Turkey’s neighbors had any interests or intentions that ran counter to those of Ankara while neglecting the difference between the regimes and peoples of Turkey’s neighbors. Likewise, the alienation of Israel was based on the equally unrealistic assumption that Turkey would never need the friendship of either Israel or its allies in Washington. But mostly, perhaps, these policies have been based on the notion that the United States and the West need Turkey more than Turkey needs the West. This might make sense if Ankara is growing economically while the West is in the throes of crisis, but it might well prove a dangerous assumption given the risk that Turkey’s economy could enter a crisis of its own in the not too distant future.
Moreover, the AKP government had grossly overestimated its influence in the Middle East. Erdoğan’s hard line on Israel and Turkish government support for oppositions in the Arab spring has indeed made him a darling of the Arab street, and the AKP government spent significant efforts building trade relations across the region. While Ankara peddled its clout in the Middle East as a key reason for the West to be supportive of its decisions, the events of 2011 suggest that at least for now its rhetoric has not been matched by actual influence. Erdoğan’s visit to Egypt in September 2011, when the Muslim Brotherhood appeared unwilling to adopt his suggestion that they emulate Turkey’s political system, is a case in point. This is not to say that Turkey is not a rising power, rather that the country’s leadership has been unable to realistically gauge its true level of influence. Indeed, building regional influence of the type to which Turkey aspires is a process that takes place gradually and incrementally over decades and not as an immediate result of the hyperactivity of Davutoğlu’s diplomacy
According to Davutoğlu’s intellectual framework, Turkey’s new foreign policy approach should be based on the following five principles: 1) There should be ‘a balance between security and democracy’ in Turkey. Its political regime must be legitimate; otherwise it will not have an influence in its region. 2) Turkey should have a ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy. Its relations with its neighbors should be and is on the right track (in comparison to policies of the previous governments). 3) Turkey should ‘develop relations with the neighboring regions and beyond’. 4) It should pursue ‘a multi-dimensional foreign policy’. Its relations with global actors (such as the U.S., NATO, the EU, Russia, China) should be complementary, not competitive. 5) Turkey should conduct a rhythmic diplomacy (serious, sustained and always active). This new policy influenced by factors at every unit of analysis: cognitive map of the individuals, domestic political factors, orientations of other regional countries, extra-regional powers and the factors at the systemic level.
Therefore, the recent ‘transformation’ of TFP has more to do with the changes in the foreign policy decision making processes, diversification of area of interests and issues, normalization of foreign policy perspectives, and democratization in Turkey than an ideological re-configuration, de-Westernization, or ‘Middle Easternization’ of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey has been trying to establish mutually beneficial relations with Brazil, Russia and Iran, too, which were not part of the Ottoman geography. Therefore, AKP members openly argue that, contrary to recent changes, Turkey’s foreign policymakers are not seeking to revive the Ottoman Empire. Instead, ‘we seek Turkey’s historic reintegration into its immediate neighbourhoods, thereby correcting an anomaly of the Cold War years’… ‘we aim to deepen our political dialogue, increase our trade, and multiply our people-to-people contacts with our neighbours in the form of sports, tourism, and cultural activities’. Such a re-integration would also benefit the European Union and our other Western, NATO allies. None of them, therefore, should express discomfort with Turkey’s new policies. The AKP elite frequently argue that historical and geographical imperatives force Turkey to adopt proactive policies and assume a leadership role.
Therefore, the Middle East is currently the most suitable area for Turkey to implement a successful foreign policy based upon its new parameters. According to Davutoğlu, Turkey’s position in the Middle East must rest on four main principles: security for everyone; priority for dialogue as a means of solving crises; economic interdependence as ‘order in the Middle East cannot be achieved in an atmosphere of isolated economies’ and cultural coexistence and plurality.
According to Erdoğan, the destinies in the region are intertwined. Turkey claimed to pursue positive neutrality in the region as Davutoğlu argued, ‘Turkey is neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Syrian: it seeks an Israeli-Syrian accommodation in order to add another building block to regional stability’. However, in practice, Turkey shifted toward the weaker Muslim actors in the region so far. A more liberal border regime with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan has been set up by lifting visas, facilitating easier trade. Turkey actively seeks to cooperate with regional countries in multiple areas including banking and telecommunications. The Turkish government became more active in regional and other multilateral institutions. A Turkish scholar, E. İhsanoğlu, has become the general secretary of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 2004 and Turkey gained the observer status in the Arab League.
The AKP argues that Turkey is a central not a frontier or bridge country. The new foreign policy towards the Middle East emphasized upon economy and civilizational ties rather than security concerns. This makes sense of, as Turkey does not have adequate military power to shape the region. Turkey, having learned from the European experience, tries actively to fashion a region where the actors tied to others with a web of relations.
The success and influence of Turkey’s foreign policy towards the region depend upon many internal and external factors. Further democratization will require Turkish governments to pursue an effective regional policy. It might be an interesting twist of history that it currently burdens a conservative party in Turkey to provide reconciliation among the different sections (Turks-Kurds, Alevis-Sunnis), further democratization and sustainable economic growth. Turkey must be successful in its internal transformation, be it with AKP or another party in power. Otherwise, it cannot continue its current pragmatic and constructive foreign policy in the Middle East.
Opportunities and challenges of Arab Spring on TFP
The Arab Spring brought both opportunities and challenges to Turkish foreign policy. Arab Spring compelled Turkey to abandon the Zero problem with neighbors approach and support democratic changes even in the countries where it had previously enjoyed good relations with the regimes in line with her Foreign Policy view point of ‘promoting democracy at home and democracy in the world’. However, some are of the view that Arab Spring did not change the AKP’s Multi-dimensional and active regional policy based on the strategic depth doctrine and usage of Turkey’s soft powers stemming from its geopolitical locations, but how this policy is implemented in the region has changed.
At the other hand, if Turkey/ISIS and the coalition forces (NATO) eventually succeeded in overthrowing Assad regime, Iran will lose her key ally in the region and this will relatively isolate her while in turn, the new government that will be form in Syria will become Turkey’s ally even due to the role Turkey played. This will more or less, add to Turkish regional hegemony.