THE WORLD THROUGH TURKEY’S EYES
is presently difficult to decipher Turkey’s contradictory,
disorderly and domestically-dictated foreign policy. The attempts
to influence conflicts in the region on the basis of the Ottoman
past has basically isolated Recep Tayyip Erdogan and tarnished his
ambitions to revamp the long-gone glory days.
The Kurdish issue
In order to prevail during November 2015’s parliamentary elections, Erdogan decided to open the internal Kurdish front with the PKK. Negotiations were abandoned, a two-year-old cease-fire was scrapped and war was declared to the Kurdish minority, putting the south-east of Turkey into a state of permanent civil war. The main victims were both the pro-Kurdish MPs from the HDP, that sought a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and the Turkish civilians and soldiers that perished in the PKK attacks.
The recent Turkish advance in the north west of Syria aims instead at targeting the Syrian Kurds from the YPG, whom Ankara claims to be affiliated with the PKK. It is of little or no importance for Turkey that the YPG spearheads international efforts against Daesh. In Erdogan’s view there are “good Kurds”, like the Iraqi ones with whom Ankara has strong political and economic ties, and “bad Kurds”, basically all the others, who should be eliminated.
However, the credit gained on the battlefield by the Syrian Kurds will be spent at the appropriate time. The Turkish president should be aware of the fact that the Kurdish community, although for centuries scattered among several different countries, has maintained a strong cohesion and will continue to fight until history rewards them.
The relationship with Russia and the war in Syria
The downing of a Russian fighter jet whose flight path had crossed into Turkish airspace for something like 7 seconds on November 24, 2015 was a predetermined intervention, or a “predetermined provocation” as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it. This reckless act only brought a series of negative consequences for Turkey, both economic (a block to exports to Russia, a block to Russian tourists to Turkey, the freezing of the South Stream gas pipeline project etc.), and political as far as Turkish stances in Syria are concerned. Eventually Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to swallow his pride and beg Putin pardon in Moscow last August.
A year on it is still hard to grasp what pushed Turkey to go head-on collision with Russia. It is difficult to believe the reason was Russian bombing of Turkmen rebels in Syria. Erdogan wanted the spotlight and he got it for the wrong reasons. He wanted Bashar al Assad to be toppled, although the relationship between the two countries was good. He decided to support and arm the rebels to fight against Damascus. In doing so he allowed Daesh to use Turkey as its logistical base, with its inflow of foreign fighters and loose frontiers.
Today Recep Tayyip Erdogan thinks Bashar al Assad could even stay in power. What is sure is that his battle in Syria was lost.
The Incirlik air base
The US, Europe and NATO
The relationship with Barack Obama’s administration and NATO have been other sources of conflict. From the initial denial to use the Incirlik aerial base to bomb ISIS, to the harsh critics for the human rights violations against alleged coup plotters or terrorists (be they Kurds or Gulenists) until the government-spread rumors of a CIA involvement in the failed July 15 coup, it is hard to grasp on which side Turkey wants to be on.
The same can be said with Europe. The billions promised to lock the frontiers to refugees moving towards Europe have not been compensated by free Visas, nor by the success in the negotiations to access the European Union. And now, after the European Parliament expressed its unfavorable vote, that option has finally faded. Erdogan, who is about to modify the Constitution to grant the president more powers (ridding the country of a de facto situation in which the head of government is not the elected PM, but the president himself), has gone as far as accusing Europe of sponsoring terrorism.
Under the rule of the AKP, the islamization of Turkey continues and pushes the country to look east. Ankara has announced it wants to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a body led by Russians and Chinese. This shows, once more, how incongruous Erdogan’s foreign policy is.
The African venture
Turkey’s African expansion is also extremely contradictory. Since 2008, Turkey asked the African Union to grant them the status of strategic partners. Ankara has built privileged and strong ties with Somalia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Gabon and Ghana. Mogadishu is a favorite of Turkey, where it has built the biggest embassy in Africa – inaugurated by Erdogan himself – and continues to support the local government, including frequent presidential tours to Istanbul.
It is unclear what the ultimate scope of this proliferation of diplomatic and business initiatives across the continent is. Geo-strategic targets? Highlighting the Turkish role in a continent where anyone with a big enough purse can basically play the big man? Megalomania of an autocratic president? Islamic proselytism?
An Islamist foreign policy
Overall, Turkey’s foreign policy is influenced by the AKP’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. It supported Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and broke ties with Cairo once he was ousted. The same happened in Tunisia once Rachid Ghannouchi left government. Or in Libya with the support – alongside Qatar – of the Islamic government in Tripoli and so forth. In all of these circumstances, Turkey never showed the flexibility required by diplomacy, especially in a region in constant turmoil as the Middle East.
More isolated than ever, what Turkey did was look to Saudi Arabia, although they were never too friendly with the Brotherhood. Erdogan joined the so-called “Islamic NATO” led by the Saudis and which is none other than the Sunni front against the Shia and Iran. Once again this puts Turkey in the uncomfortable position of taking sides in an inter-Islamic conflict when 30% of its citizens are either Shia or Alevi. But, after all, the government funded Directorate for Religious Affairs treats the Shia and Alevis as infidels and sons of a lesser god.
The relationship with Islamic terrorism
Ambiguity is dangerous, especially when dealing with Daesh or ISIS. This is the main lesson for Turkish authorities, as proven by the string of terrorist attacks that have hit the country. Turkey has played with fire, offering the militias from the Caliphate a free pass on its soil and arming the groups willing to support its anti-Damascus agenda. They allowed them to sell Iraqi and Syrian oil pumping cash into the coffers of ISIS on what is now known as the “jihadi highway” of hundreds of trucks loaded with oil. And finally, Turkey did nothing to prevent ISIS attacks against pro-Kurdish groups in Suruc and Ankara in 2015, in what is still the worst terrorist attack on Turkish soil.
Maybe Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought that all the support would have granted him immunity at home. That this indirect collusion with the terrorists would have prevented future attacks. Foul play just hit back. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s terrorists don’t distinguish between friends and foes, and especially friends that have turned their back on you. And Turkey had to pay the price of international pressure when it was forced to end its undercover support to ISIS and the other al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria.
The domestic involution
It is pretty evident that Turkey’s foreign policy is being affected by what happens at home. We’re not witnessing the planned out policy of a democratic government, but the convulsion of an authoritarian regime. The boss’s mood dictates policies and initiatives. The end result is a reckless foreign policy approach, which hardly takes into account the consequences of one’s actions. It is like as if every move was improvised and dictated by the latest twist of events.
Turkey has always had problems when dealing with the Middle East and North Africa. They just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that the Ottoman Empire was over, that these people were not their subjugates anymore. Once that psychological hurdle was overcome, one would have hoped for a foreign policy that would have tried to solve the complexity of the Middle East and not end up meddling with each and every crisis. But this never happened.