From “zero problems to zero friends”: Turkey’s regional dilemmas

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Rabi' al-Thani 08, 1433 2012-03-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 1, Rabi' al-Thani, 1433)

Merely a year ago Turkey enjoyed much respect among neighbors and established warm and cordial relations with them, helping to catapult Ankara’s political, economic and cultural objectives. Frequent visits to neighboring countries by Turkish delegations, usually accompanied by senior government officials including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, signing memorandums of understanding and agreements, increasing trade and political as well as military cooperation, heralded a new era for the conflict-torn region.

It was the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) leaders who had envisaged such a future for the region and formulated it under the motto of “zero problems” with neighbors and implemented it with great enthusiasm. It was to last for a decade. However, it did not take long for the architects of this very policy to trash all the good work and retreat to Turkey’s traditionally pro-Western policies that are rooted in hostility. Beginning with the small demonstration in Der‘a about 10 months ago, Turkey’s position has gradually changed from trying to diffuse the problem, into a very aggressive position that borders on the verge of military intervention in Syria.

The events unfolding in Syria are not limited to the Bashar al-Asad regime and the myriad opposition groups; regional and world powers are also involved that takes the ongoing conflict to a whole different level. The US, House of Saud, Qatar and Israel-led alliance considers the ongoing rebellion as a historic opportunity to bring down the pro-Iranian Ba‘ath regime and replace it with a pro-Western one through which to further isolate Iran in the region. This would also cut off Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s supply line from Iran thereby weakening the resistance. In addition, removal of al-Asad’s regime would undermine Russia’s influence in the Muslim East as Syria is the only remaining ally of Moscow. Syria’s outlet to the Mediterranean Sea makes it a strategic asset; and Damascus offers the use of its ports to Russian warships.

These reasons have turned Syria into a battleground for a proxy war waged by the US and its allies against Iran and Russia. The US alliance, after some legerdemain managed to bring an important regional power, Turkey, on board. Turkey’s intelligence service, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has traditionally confined its activities to deal with “internal enemies” (Islamists, leftists and Kurds) and has virtually no operational capacity outside the country’s borders. Hence Turkey has mainly relied on foreign intelligence services for information on regional countries that has made Turkey vulnerable to manipulation by Western countries. The AKP has recently taken steps to overcome this weakness and launched a program to transform the MIT into a more efficient organization that could also gather intelligence abroad through its own agents. This, however, will take time before Turkey can pick up the fruits of its effort.

In the meantime the US and its allies (especially Israel and Saudi Arabia), aware of the situation as well as the AKP leadership’s ambition to gain more influence in the region as part of their neo-Ottoman vision, managed to manipulate Turkey into believing that al-Asad cannot stand against the current uprising and will be toppled in a few weeks’ time. And if al-Asad’s regime goes, the new government will be under Turkey’s supervision. It was too tempting an opportunity for the AKP leadership to pass up as it did not want to make the same mistake it had made in Libya by initially rejecting NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime and insisting on an internal solution. Consequently, Turkey fell into the trap and became part of the US plan to topple the Bashar al-Asad-led regime.

Numan Kurtulmus, leader of pro-Islamic Voice of People’s Party pointed out exactly this in a TV interview in February: “Unfortunately, Turkey due to some wrong tendencies has taken sides in the Syrian policy. This is Turkey’s biggest dilemma… Of course the ongoing bloodbath and massacre in Syria must stop; Turkey may only achieve this through mediation. But the Turkish government made a grave mistake thinking that the US has the power to topple al-Asad’s regime within two to three weeks, and Turkey could play a crucial role in such a scenario. In contrast, the world knows that without Russia and the other factors in the Middle East taken into account, this problem cannot be solved…”

But after a 10-month turmoil, it appears the regime will continue to hold on to the power, thanks to the support of the majority of the population in Syria and the army. According to a mid-December poll funded by the Qatar Foundation, 55% of the Syrian population still supports Bashar al-Asad. Turkey’s policy makers have realized that they have miscalculated the situation in Syria and underestimated the power of the Ba‘ath regime but still have not corrected their position regarding al-Asad. Turkey continues to support the Free Syrian Army by sheltering its leaders and engaging in covert operations in Syria. The Israeli newspaper Ha‘aretz reported that 40 Turkish intelligence officers involved in subversive activities were captured by the Syrian Army last month. Turkish officials have been negotiating with Damascus for the release of the captured operatives but no agreement has been reached at the time this story was submitted.

Further, they still continue to pursue a policy of regime change although not through NATO intervention. Instead, it is envisioned that this will come about through the intervention of regional countries although with active Western support. This is precisely why Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar set up a new initiative called “Friends of Syria” (FOS) that held its first meeting in Tunis on February 24, 2012.

Ambitious policies however have cost Turkey valuable friends in the neighbourhood and isolated it regionally. Turkey has been at odds with the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) since its decision to allow installation of a NATO missile defence system that is aimed at the so-called Iranian missile “threat”. Turkey had been pretending that it was NATO that insisted on the missile system installation in Turkey. However, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary General of NATO, in an interview given to Turkish TV channel NTV, stated that it was Turkey that requested the missile defence system to be installed in Malatya. This new revelation perhaps raised more doubts in Tehran about Turkey’s intentions.

The ongoing conflict in Syria further fuelled tension between Iran and Turkey that ended in Iran’s dispatching of a flotilla to the Syrian port of Tartus to send a message to Turkey and other Arabian countries that their actions with regard to developments in Syria will have consequences. Turkey, which relies heavily on Iranian oil and natural gas, had enjoyed a discounted price since the AKP’s coming to power in late 2002. However, due to rising tensions, Tehran appears unwilling to offer more concessions to Turkey as was evident when it refused Ankara’s request to bring down natural gas prices in January.

It is not only Iran that is upset with Turkey’s changing trends in foreign policy. Turkey’s borders with Armenia are still closed due to its inflexible approach and the relations came to an abyss after the French Senate’s approval of the Armenian genocide.

Relations with Iraq have also hit an all-time low after Erdogan’s comments against the Maliki government that would be considered interference to Iraq’s internal affairs over the issue of Tariq al-Hashimi. Ankara is also bitter about the Maliki government’s support of Syria. And Turkey has problems with Greece about ongoing dispute over Cyprus.

The AKP government has taken great risks by putting all of its weight behind a regime change in Syria. In this, the AKP government cooperates closely with Western powers. In this regard, the Financial Times of London stated that after the Syrian uprising Turkey’s foreign policy had been completely synchronized with US regional policies. The two countries have begun to work closely at the cost of upsetting Turkey’s close neighbours. Since Turkey is so desperate to achieve a regime change in Syria, the question is how far it can go?

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