Soon after the so-called Arab Spring began to blossom, Turkey’s popularity has been on the rise in the Arab world. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was first elected in 2002, Turkey with its flourishing democracy, and rapidly growing economic and military might has become an emerging regional power.
Additionally, Turkey has succeeded in staging a soft revolution against the once powerful autocracy at home. All these achievements made Turkey a good candidate as a “role model” to replace the despotic Arabian regimes. At the time, members of strong opposition groups such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Tunisian Islamic movement Hizb al-Nahdah, as well as the masses, did not hide their sympathy for the Turkish model. Indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan captured the moment by extending his strong support to Egyptian and Tunisian revolutionaries, warning Arabian leaders they should swiftly implement reforms and meet the democratic demands of their people.
When the unrest spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and finally Syria, things became more complicated and Turkey’s “zero problem” foreign policy was put to a severe test. Turkish policy makers were surprised by the rapidity of the revolts in the Arab world and failed to develop a consistent policy. The first sign of confusion was witnessed in the Libyan uprising on which Turkey adopted a cautious stance. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Turkey did not extend full support to the Libyan opposition until early August and did not acknowledge the opposition as legitimate representatives.
Further, Erdogan harshly rebuked NATO intervention and any other foreign intervention to “save” the Libyan opposition and considered the matter as an internal issue that foreign powers must steer clear of.
There are various reasons for Turkey’s initial position on Libya; Turkey’s good business relations with Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s regime before the revolts could be cited as one reason for Turkey’s cautious approach to the revolt. Turkish construction companies had securd lucrative contracts in Libya worth $23 billion and more contracts were to be signed. But it would be unfair to assume that Turkey’s sole purpose was to gain financial benefit. Similar to many fair-minded people worldwide, Turkey realized the great danger in the Western agenda that wanted to hijack a popular uprising and use it as a pretext to plunder the vast oil resources of Libya. Otherwise Turkey could easily join the feast and claim its share of the booty; instead, Erdogan strongly opposed any outside interference.
In the case of Bahrain, Turkey’s initial position was quite positive. When Saudi tanks rolled into Manama for a de-facto occupation and the security forces slaughtered many innocent protesters, Erdogan seemed to think outside of the sectarian boundaries and sharply criticized Riyadh. Erdogan characterized Saudi intervention in Bahrain as “a new Karbala” and urged them to stop the invasion.
However, according to former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar writing in the Asia Times online, an “unscheduled” visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz to Ankara on March 17 to meet President Adullah Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, brought about a dramatic change in Turkish foreign policy.
Having first rejected foreign intervention in Libya, Turkey reversed its position and sent a naval force to protect the on-going NATO assault. Similarly Turkey’s discourse on Bahrain changed and Ankara decided to turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed there by Saudi and Bahraini forces. It is not known what precisely the Saudi foreign minister said to Turkish leaders but it is clear that the message was well understood in Ankara.
Turkey is not a major player in Muslim East affairs as far as the US-led bloc is concerned and if it became too critical that would greatly endanger its national interests. Currently there are two main power centres in the Muslim East: the first consists of the US, Europe, Israel and the Saudis that also include some other auxiliary states, and the second consists of Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. Turkey has been trying to refrain from openly taking sides in these blocs. Rather, its policy has been to maintain a flexible position and increase its influence and economic gains. This has been formulated in the famous “zero problem” policy.
However, the “Arab Spring” disrupted this policy and forced Turkey to take sides with the US-led bloc. The message of the Saudi foreign minister appears to have to been to ask Turkey to make a decision about its position. Turkey did and quickly abandoned its idealistic foreign policy approach, opting instead for its own national interest and convenience.
This became clearer when the so-called Arab Spring reached Syria. The Syrian regime always had murky relations with Turkey until Bashar al-Asad’s assumption of power following his father’s death in 2000 and the 2002 Turkish elections that brought the AKP to power. Since then a rapid rapprochement has taken place between the two old foes.
From 2002 to 2009, Syria and Turkey signed nearly 50 cooperation agreements and conducted their first-ever joint military exercises. In 2010 Syria and Turkey signed a counter-terrorism agreement for a more effective campaign against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and Turkey became Syria’s largest trading partner. In 2011 the two countries along with Iran and Iraq signed the ShamGen agreement for a joint visa that enabled citizens of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq to travel to any of these countries.
When the demonstrations broke out in Dera’a, which soon turned into an armed struggle against the Ba’th regime, Turkey was initially cautious. Ankara’s criticism of Syria was measured and continued to support Asad. Turkey was under pressure from the US, which wanted Bashar al-Asad to go but Ankara stood its ground. On April 27, Erdogan had a phone conversation with US President Barack Obama. Erdogan’s office announced that they both agreed that the Syrian government should immediately stop the violence and introduce reforms. However, Turkey kept its official policy and Erdogan told Obama that “stability can only be maintained by Asad” thus any possible future scenario must include him.
Turkey had several reasons for supporting Asad. First, Syria has taken steps to improve people’s freedoms after Bashar al-Asad inherited the Ba’th party leadership. He eased political restrictions and introduced a number of economic reforms to improve the country’s economy which in return secured him the support of the wealthy Sunni class despite his ‘Alawi background, and he slowly but positively responded to the reform calls. Although protesters regularly come out in the streets of some cities to express dissatisfaction with the ruling Ba’th regime which has instituted repressive policies and restricted democracy and freedom of the people, a friendly Turkey would be better placed to negotiate between the opposition and the regime to find alternative solutions.
Second, Turkey has huge trade interests in Syria as Ankara has become the largest trading partner of Syria. Third is their cooperation against the PKK. Syria hosts a significant proportion of the Kurdish population, some of whom have joined the PKK. Turkish policy makers realize that if Syria is destabilized and turns into another Iraq, it might also become a breeding ground for PKK recruitment. And of course if the violence escalates, a larger refugee influx will hit the Turkish economy.
Fourth, the nature of the Syrian revolt is different from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. Unlike the others, Syrian protests have not attracted huge numbers and turned into a mass rebellion. Instead they are limited to small towns and cities. In other Arabian countries, millions protested against the regimes in the capitals and major cities, but both Damascus and Aleppo have remained largely trouble free. In fact, in Damascus, there have been huge pro-government rallies.
As a neighbour, Turkey tried to contain the situation in Syria through dialogue. Soon after protests broke out, Turkey sent Hakan Fidan, Head of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to Damascus twice to propose “the Turkish model” to the Syrian regime and on April 7, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu visited Damascus to pressure al-Asad for reforms. The latter did introduce some reforms but Ankara was not satisfied and expressed anger at the violent crackdown against the opposition. Turkish policy makers realized that the situation was getting worse and they had to make a decision in the face of increasing pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia.
During this time, US officials worked hard to convince Turkey that it did not have much to lose if the Ba’th regime were toppled and perhaps they assured Turkey that the Kurds will be restrained in a post-Ba’th scenario. Further, there was the issue of Iran. Although Turkey had enjoyed much better relations in Syria, these relations could not reach the level of intimacy between the strategic partners Iran and Syria. Turkey has been in a power struggle with Iran, especially in its neighbourhood of Iraq and Syria. Thus, Turkey was told that it be would in its interest if the current regime in Damascus were replaced by a friendlier regime that could easily fit into Turkey’s orbit. At the end of March, Leon Panetta, Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (now US Defence Secretary), paid a secret visit to Turkey to discuss these issues in detail.
The first signal about Turkey’s changing policy came from Foreign Minister Davutoglu. He conveyed a message to Asad’s special envoy in Turkey that Ankara’s support “hinges on the willingness of the Syrian government to adopt sweeping reforms in the country.”
In the meantime, despite the Syrian government’s strong displeasure, Turkey hosted a conference in Antalya of Syrian opposition groups between May 31 and June 3 with the tacit approval of the Turkish foreign ministry. The delegates who participated in the conference made it clear they were not interested in negotiations; their aim was to topple the regime. And finally, in an interview on Turkish television on June 10, Erdogan openly distanced himself from Bashar al-Asad: “I tell you clearly that his brother, Mahir al-Asad, the Head of the Republican Guard, reacts in an inhumane way that can only end in massacre. This concerns the UN Security Council which is already coming to the same conclusion. After all this, Turkey cannot defend Syria.”
Independent policies that Turkey had implemented on Iran’s nuclear and Palestinian issue had earlier upset Washington; however, Turkish cooperation on Syria seems to have delighted the Americans. A June 17 editorial in the New York Times clearly reflected this in its praise of Erdogan: “One promising development is the Turkish government’s recent turn against Mr. Asad. Turkey had been one of Syria’s closest allies (along with Iran) and main trading partners. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with President Obama’s encouragement, is now condemning the crackdown and has given Syrian refugees safe haven and allowed Syrian opposition forces to meet in Turkey.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed solidarity with Turks when Syria deployed troops on the border to stop the refugee influx into Turkey. Clinton warned Syria to withdraw its troops immediately, saying their presence was worsening an already bad situation for refugees and risked sparking border clashes with the Turks.
On June 16, another conference was organized by the Syrian opposition in Istanbul, entitled the National Independence Conference. There were some 350 delegates from various opposition groups that formed a shadow cabinet in preparation to take over from the Ba’th regime run by the Asad family.
Turkey seems to be going in the wrong direction by putting all its weight on the side of the Western powers. Ankara is tarnishing its image as a “role model” or “leader country” in the eyes of the Muslim world, for which it had worked so hard. If Turkey had managed the “Arab spring” properly by not yielding to the US-led alliance, it could have placed Turkey in a unique position but it seems Erdogan and his team still have some lessons to learn.