Turkish Foreign Policy: Goodbye to “Zero Problems”?

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Catherine Ashton with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
Catherine Ashton with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Photo: European External Action Service – EEAS/flickr.

On November 3 2012, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) (Justice and Development Party – JDP) celebrated the 10th anniversary of its landslide victory in the 2002 Turkish general election. Founded a year earlier, the AKP won 363 out of 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly.Ankara’s new administration immediately set about reforming. And arguably one of the domains where reforms have been most noticeable is that of Turkey’s foreign policy. Once described as “one-dimensional”, “reactive”, “passive” and “hesitant”, successive AKP administrations transformed Turkish foreign policy into something far more ambitious, assertive and independent.

When discussing Turkish foreign policy after 2002, it is difficult – if not impossible – not to mention Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his book “Stratejik Derinlik” (Strategic Depth). Turkey’s strategic depth, according to Davutoğlu, “rests on its geographical and historical depth”. The country’s location in the midst of Afro-Eurasia and its Ottoman past “provides Turkey with a unique set of relations with its neighboring countries and at the same time places the country in a position to relate to and influence…developments”. Accordingly,Turkey seeks to use its strategic depth to promote stability and peace in its neighboring regions, an outlook that is often referred to as Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. This essentially involves improving or re-establishing economic and political ties with Turkey’s neighboring countries.

When Relations Turn Bad

Yet “zero problems” is not just confined to Turkey’s Arab or Islamic neighbors. Over the course of the past ten years, Ankara’s relations with the European Union (EU) and Russia have improved. Negotiations over Turkey’s membership of the European Union (EU) also regained momentum in 2005, after Brussels officially opened dialogue for accession.

However, Turkey’s closer ties with Western powers have recently become turbulent. Ankara’s relations with Tel Aviv, for example, deteriorated following Israel’s operations in Gaza (2008-2009 and 2012) and the Mavi Marmara incident (2010). In 2003, the Turkish parliament refused to sanction US-led military operations against Iraq on Turkish soil. And Ankara’s dialogue with Brussels seems to have lost momentum. Frustrated with the findings of the most recent EU Commission progress report, EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağıs complained that Turkey’s membership was being “overshadowed by more subjective, biased, unwarranted and bigoted attitudes”.

There have nevertheless been signs that relations between Israel and Turkey are improving.  In a telephone call to Turkey’s PM, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Binyamin Netanyahu apologized for the killing of nine Turkish citizens during the 2010 Israeli raid. Next to apologizing – one of three conditions to restore relations with Tel Aviv – Israel also agreed to compensate the family of the victims. The fate of the third condition, the ending of the Gaza blockade, however, still remains unclear (Turkey demands the ending of the siege whereas Israel only promised lifting the blockade for civilian goods). And although seen as an important first step, normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations will certainly take much more time.

Zero Friends?

Turkey’s relations with several of its Middle Eastern neighbors have also turned sour, prompting concerns that rather than having “zero problems”, Ankara now has “zero friends” across the region. Where not so long ago Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to Bashar al-Assad as “his brother” – to the dismay of both Washington and Tel Aviv –  the escalation of the civil war in Syria has turned Ankara into one of the strongest opponents of the Damascus regime. In response, Assad is said to be providing support to the Kurdish insurgency inTurkey. In a November 2012 interview with Russian news channel RT, Assad also labelled Erdoğan “the new sultan of the Ottoman” who thinks that he can control the region as if it was still the Ottoman Empire.

The political upheaval inSyria has also contributed to the deterioration of relations between Turkey and Iran, one of the region’s staunchest supporters of the Assad regime. Tehran was quick to label Ankara’s recent request for the stationing of NATO Patriot air-defense missiles along the Syrian border as “a prelude to world war”. The criticism came just over a year after Ankara took the controversial decision to host elements of NATO’s proposed missile-defense system on Turkish soil. Relations between Baghdad and Ankara have also deteriorated over the past two years. Frustrations with each other’s policies towards the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), al-Maliki’s style of governance and Ankara’s decision to give refuge to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi are among the reasons for cooler relations between Iraq and Turkey.

From “Zero Problems” to “Humanitarian Diplomacy”

“Zero problems” is also coming under increasing scrutiny at home. In 2012, Davutoğlu was the subject of two censure motions submitted Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). These labelled his foreign policies as “neo-Ottoman” with a hidden pro-Arab, Islamic agenda in which Davutoğlu was accused of getting his priorities mixed up between Turkey’s national interests and “Islamic solidarity”. The leader of the CHP also accused Davutoğlu of “placing Turkey on the brink of war” and “conducting an adventurous foreign policy” that is leading Ankara away from the West. During a December 2012 parliamentary session, Osman Korutürk, a former diplomat, called Turkey’s “zero problems” policies a “laughable claim”. Yet despite mounting opposition, both censure motions were dismissed by Turkish Parliament.

However, Davutoğlu has responded to widespread domestic criticism of Turkey’s foreign policies (a recent poll by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University showed that 42% of respondents deemed Turkey’s Middle East policies “not successful”) by altering Ankara’s geopolitical outlook. At the 5th Ambassador’s Conference staged in January, he unveiled a new framework for Turkey’s foreign policy, known as “Humanitarian Diplomacy”. This emphasizes that, in spite of deep frustrations with the Security Council, Turkey will continue to work through the United Nations in order to avert humanitarian crises. Turkey also retains the right to respond to crises in its immediate neighborhood. So with Ankara showing no signs that it is prepared to change its tough stance over Syria, Davutoğlu’s “Zero Problems with Neighbours” now more than ever appears to have become a thing of the past.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

A Turkish Perspective on Security Issues in the Mediterranean

Russian Analytical Digest No.125: Russia’s Relations with Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania

Endgame in Sight for the Conflict Between Turkey and the PKK?

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.

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