Turkey takes sides in Syria
Turkey is moving away from the principle of non-interference in neighboring countries and taking sides in Syria now, claims Eduard Soler.
Concepts such as strategic depth, rhythmic diplomacy and multidimensional foreign policy have been popularized by Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and are broadly used when analyzing Turkish foreign policy. But what happens to these words when reality changes suddenly?
Since 2011, Turkish foreign policy has been challenged by the political changes and growing instability in the Middle East – in particular the conflict in Syria. One of Ankara’s flagship initiatives, the zero-problem approach with its neighbors, no longer corresponds to the current situation on the ground.
Soft Power Limits
Syria is a litmus test for Turkey’s capacity to adapt to a rapidly-changing regional environment. Syria also presents a case whereby the conceptual architecture of Turkish foreign policy can acquire new meanings. Non-interference with Syria was one of the visible facets of the AKP zero-problem approach and an example of its multidimensional foreign policy.
Leaving behind the times when the two countries came to the brink of war in 1998, Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad had succeeded in overcoming long-standing conflicts. The two countries resolved territorial disputes over Hatay, started cooperation on the fight against terrorism and the use of water resources, introduced a visa-free regime, and promoted an exponential increase in trade relations which mainly benefited border areas as well as the industrial and tourist sectors in cities such as Gaziantep and Aleppo.
Soft power was then considered the key to increasing Turkey’s influence in neighboring regions. These were the days in which Erdoğan treated Bashar al-Assad as a good friend and made multiple high-level visits to the country. Turkey also appeared to be a country pushing hard for the normalisation of relations between Syria and the international community.
When the first protests started in March 2011 in Daraa, Idlib and the suburbs of Damascus, the Turkish authorities did not react with the same harshness as they had with Egypt. Some accused Ankara of double standards and said that their approach reflected the importance of economic interests in Turkish-Syrian relations, as they also did in Libya.
Until the summer of 2011, Turkey sent messages urging al-Assad to pursue meaningful reforms, while also hosting meetings with the Syrian opposition in Antalya and Istanbul. Davutoğlu travelled several times to Damascus, and last August he declared that Turkey was running out of patience.
The situation deteriorated: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül stated that Turkey had lost all trust and confidence in the Syrian leadership. Turkey applied those sanctions that the EU had imposed beforehand and closed the land border with Syria. Non-violent opposition movements and the Free Syrian Army found a safe-haven in Turkey. In 2012, Syrian forces downed a military aircraft over the Mediterranean creating the potential for Turkish intervention in Syria if the situation further deteriorates.
This policy shift implied a necessary change of discourse. As Turkish leaders were unable to persuade a presumably friendly government to pursue political reforms, the limits of soft power were evident.
The zero-problem approach was reformulated as the absence of problems with societies and, therefore, as the need to confront those governments that were massacring their own people.
Thirdly, Turkish authorities realized that the country could not influence Syrian affairs with autonomous actions, but had to increase consultations with the U.S., the EU and the Arab League. By a similar token, Turkish diplomacy underlined the importance of multilateral solutions (even if they were to be found outside the framework of the UN).
Fourth: the situation in Syria began to be presented as an internal affair for Turkey, due to geographical proximity and the evident repercussions on the Kurdish issue, and because the two countries have deep cultural and historical ties, thus reviving the debate on Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions.
Fifth: considered an internal affair and in light of an ongoing politicization of foreign policy debates, Syria became a fertile ground for partisan confrontation between the AKP and the main opposition party, the CHP, which went so far as to send a high-level delegation to Damascus when the government had started to harden its positions against the regime.
The evolution of the Syrian crisis is likely to remain the greatest challenge for Turkish foreign policy in the following months and will determine whether the current adaptation of priorities and discourses will suffice or whether a deeper policy review is needed.
Turkish foreign policy is still the result of the end of the Cold War, and as long as the Middle East remains in a period, compared by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague to a new Cold War, the priorities and discourse of Turkish foreign policy are likely to require much more than fine-tuning.
Eduard Soler i Lecha is Research Fellow for the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). For more information, read the CIDOB Documento #18: The conceptual architecture of Turkish foreign policy: An update in light of regional turbulence, July 2012.