It can no longer be considered a coincidence. Twice in just over six months we have picked up very strong signals from Ankara about a possible reversion in Turkish foreign policy back towards its previous “zero problems with neighbours” strategy and away from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive pro-Sunni Arab stance. Twice, within days of these signals emerging from powerful quarters in Ankara, Erdogan’s government has moved decisively to refute any such re-orientation. Yesterday it did this by intercepting a Syrian airliner en route from Moscow to Damascus on the grounds that it could be carrying arms for the Assad regime. The interesting thing this time is that it was not just we who were picking up the signals from Ankara; Moscow, too, felt a change was in the air. Moscow has been disappointed, and President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ankara planned for next week will not now take place.
On the face of it, a Turkey that is firmly opposed to the Shia crescent of Assad’s Syria, Iraq under al-Maliki, and Iran, is aligned with Western interests. But that fact does not invalidate the opposite view that there are dangers in Erdogan’s Sunni Islamist leanings, and that Turkey’s previous “zero problems with neighbours” policy had the merit of dampening down sectarian tensions, not exacerbating them.
Subscribers may recall that in the 21 March Courcy’s Intelligence Brief we reported that powerful voices in Ankara were calling for a policy of trying to reach a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran. These powerful voices were arguing that the fall of Assad could produce at least as much instability within Syria as did the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but with even more regional knock-on effects. In Iraq, the fall of the dictator produced civil war between the ousted Sunnis and majority Shias. In Syria, the same will happen between the ruling Alawites and the majority Sunnis. However, what was really exercising those in Ankara opposed to Erdogan’s policy was the potential response of Iran. In Iraq, Iran was on the winning side and therefore its response to the fall of Saddam Hussein went little further than ensuring the eventual ascendancy of the pro-Iranian Shia majority. With Syria, by contrast, if Assad falls Iran will be on the losing side – and that (they argued) could produce a very different level of response. Iran has the capability to exercise destabilizing influence not just in Syria itself, but (at least) in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and the Caucasus (notably in Azerbaijan). Hence the argument for a ‘grand bargain’ brokered by Ankara to bring Iran in from the cold.
As we know, this didn’t happen. Within a week of our report, we were hearing that Erdogan was reiterating his belief in a Turkish policy based on an alliance with the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Arabs and the Iraqi Kurds.
This time around, as we reported in our 10 October issue, Moscow had been picking up signals, ahead of Putin’s scheduled 15 October visit, that Ankara was beginning to have doubts about its Syria policy, not least because of its unpopularity at home and Arab concerns (including Sunni Arab concerns) about ‘neo-Ottoman’ ambitions. The 7 October suggestion by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu that Syria’s Vice-President Faruq al-Shara could make an acceptable alternative to President Bashar al-Assad was seen in Moscow as a message to Iran and Russia that their influence in Syria need not necessarily end with the exit of Assad. The hope was that Turkey was beginning to regret its move away from its formerly successful “zero problems with neighbours” policy.
As recently as May 2010, shortly after brokering a nuclear-swap deal with Iran, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu explained Turkey’s foreign policy in the following terms:
“The principle of zero problems towards neighbours has been successfully implemented for the past seven years. Turkey's relations with its neighbours now follow a more cooperative track. There is a developing economic interdependence between Turkey and its neighbouring countries. In 2009, for example, we achieved considerable diplomatic progress with Armenia, which nevertheless remains the most problematic relationship in Turkey's neighbourhood policy. Turkey's considerable achievements in its regional relationships have led policymakers to take this principle a step further and aim for maximum cooperation with our neighbours. Since the second half of 2009, Turkey established high-level strategic council meetings with Iraq, Syria, Greece, and Russia. These are joint cabinet meetings where bilateral political, economic, and security issues are discussed in detail. There are also preparations to establish similar mechanisms with Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine as well as other neighbouring countries. Turkey abolished visa requirements with, among others, Syria, Tajikistan, Albania, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, and Russia. Turkey's trade with its neighbours and nearby regions has substantially increased in recent years...”
Yet far from moving its foreign policy from one of “zero problems with neighbours” to one of “maximum cooperation with neighbours”, in the past year Turkey’s relations with all its neighbours except Azerbaijan have deteriorated.
This is a high-risk policy, and the fact that it has generated such high-level opposition at home is no surprise. Opponents of Erdogan’s strategy wonder how Middle East stability (and Turkey’s strategic position) is improved by an aggressively pro-Sunni Turkey at odds with Iraq, Iran, Russia, and Armenia at a time when one-time ally (but now alienated) Israel is busy getting close to Turkey’s traditional enemies Greece and Cyprus. Even Georgia, after its recent election of a pro-Moscow president, can no longer be considered in Turkey’s camp.
There is also opposition on more prosaic grounds from Turkey’s business leaders. Parliament gave the government the authority to use military force against Syria if necessary on 4 October, following Syria’s killing of five Turkish citizens in Akcakale. However, thousands of people staged an anti-war protest in Taksim Square last week to demonstrate against any war with Syria, and business leaders have used this to push their own preference for moderation. On 9 October, for instance, Turkish industry and Business Association (TuSiAD) Chairwoman Umit Boyner said: "The economic conjuncture is in a jam and Turkey has to deal with low growth. In addition to those problems if the world does go into such a political problem, things will get harder for all." Boyner said it was obvious that Turkey was in a difficult position and that it has to find a compromise solution to the crisis in Syria. She said: "Being calm and deterrent is the best formula and Turkey has to accomplish this.” The Turkish economy is now forecast by the government to grow 3.2% in 2012, down from the earlier growth target of 4%.
What makes Erdogan’s policy doubly dangerous is that Turkey’s enemies have a readymade weapon to deploy against Turkey in the form of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas. There are signs that Iran is already activating this weapon. And, as we noted in our 10 October Courcy’s Intelligence Brief, “since the Cold War era, Kurds have had an important place in Russia’s Middle East policy”.
Many powerful figures in Ankara clearly recognize the dangers, arguing that Erdogan has put Turkey, and the Middle East, on a dangerous trajectory. But Erdogan, it would seem, is not for turning.