Change and continuity in Turkish foreign policy as the Arab Spring transforms
by Şaban Kardaş
Mar 28, 2014 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Şaban Kardaş
Mar 28, 2014 12:00 am
The wave of transformation in the Middle East has presented both opportunities and challenges for Turkish foreign policy.
Interpreting the Arab uprisings as pro-democratic demands, Ankara has adopted a proactive policy of engagement and decided to support popular movements. While calling for democracy in countries witnessing protests, Turkey preferred to engage with the new administrations in transition countries, hoping that it could ease the pains of transition and help precipitate the emergence of a stable regional order. As a result, the new position it acquired in the region and the positive ties forged with the new administrations in transition countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were taken as harbingers of the windows of opportunity being opened before Turkey.
However, Syria's descent into a protracted conflict, the coup in Egypt and the return of elements of the old regime have underscored the challenges encountered by Ankara, also giving way to a new wave of criticism toward Turkish foreign policy.
In the new and challenging phase of the Arab Spring, it has been speculated that Turkey is searching for alternatives to its current Middle East policies. The tensions Turkey experienced in its relations with Iran and Iraq over a range of other issues in the same period had also intensified the debate on Turkish foreign policy. In this process, the emergence of a perception of crisis and stalemate has given way to arguments for a drastic overhaul of Middle East policy. Under the impact of the structural transformation the region is undergoing, the reshuffling of the preexisting regional balance of power and shifts in international actors' positions, Turkey has indeed redefined some of its relations and priorities in the region. Nonetheless, Turkish foreign policy is still being conducted on the conceptual foundations of the same policy of engagement as in the past, and changes in policy have materialized within a broader continuity, rather than representing a total break with the past.
Challenges of transformation There has been consensus among experts that, taken together with its ramifications for neighboring countries, the conflict in Syria has opened a more unstable era in the region. The failure of the talks at Geneva and the inability of external actors to initiate alternative solutions show that the current stalemate will continue for some time. The Syrian crisis has dealt a serious blow to the regional order and new sources of threats have emerged. Most remarkably, while the Sykes-Picot and Camp David orders are being questioned, the borders are losing their relevance, as was the case in the Iraq-Syria or Lebanon-Syria borders. Similarly, Syrians forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries, are posing not only an economic burden but also have turned into a societal and national security problem for the host countries. To the extent that it triggers the ethnic and sectarian cleavages in Iraq and Lebanon, the conflict in Syria possesses the risk of regional spillover. Beyond that, the growing visibility of radical elements within the Syrian opposition and the focus of regional and international actors' attention on the risks presented by that development have further complicated the solution of the crisis.
Faced with the risk of deepening instability and ethnic and sectarian fault lines, many actors have entertained a security-centric approach and thus have prioritized the status quo over stability through a policy of containment. The support extended to the coup administration in Egypt or the half-hearted involvement in the Syrian crisis are reflections of an effort to defuse the risks of an unmanageable crisis through containment and isolation. Similarly, many of the criticisms directed against Ankara's Middle East policy are based on similar thinking. There have been expectations that Turkey will prioritize containment against the rising tide of risks and instability in the region, especially through pursuing a downplayed profile in the Syrian crisis.
Notwithstanding the steps it has taken to consolidate security, Turkey has continued its engagement policy and as such still its Middle East policy demonstrates a high degree of continuity. In its policies in Syria and Egypt, Turkey prefers to work with the actors of change. The element of continuity in the essence of foreign policy, nonetheless, does not signal that no changes are taking place. Turkey has indeed initiated occasional policy changes to adjust the changes on the ground.
Turkey possesses some assets that might facilitate its regional policy centered on a continuity-change axis. First, Turkey, despite several criticisms, still has the capacity to conduct ad hoc and flexible alliances. Despite some of the seemingly rigid positions, such as regime change in Syria, Turkey can redefine its relations with regional and global actors and revise its policy, as necessary. Similarly, as a reflection of flexibility, Turkey has also managed to compartmentalize its bilateral relations. For instance, Turkey has continued its cooperation with Iran and Russia in other fields and not blown its ties altogether, despite diverging with them in Syria.
Moreover, although stepping back from some of its gains, Turkey, when compared to the regional context, has managed to protect its vital interests. In the broader region, faced with the major challenges, all actors have been forced to adjust to the new reality, losing significant ground.
While some actors have been affected directly by the wave of instability, others have paid a dear price to maintain their position. Turkey still stands as an indispensable element in regional calculations and can affect the balance on the ground through its action or inaction. Though it may not shape regional developments on its own, it can forestall outcomes against its interests.
Still believing that the wave of regional transformation will in the long run facilitate the emergence of a stable regional order based on democratic principles, Turkey continues its policy of engagement. The assets it possesses aside, there are also some obstacles before Turkey's engagement policy. First, as was the case in the Syrian example, the time horizon is important. The delays in transformation will not only increase costs but also test the determination of Turkey and other actors, pressuring them to revise their policies. Indeed, the difficulties Turkey has encountered in convincing its partners of its engagement policy attests to the importance of the time horizon. At the same time, the continuation of the proactive approach in the region necessitates societal support and consensus at the elite level. The dominance of the domestic political agenda might complicate the continuation of the engagement strategy in the Middle East.
* Şaban Kardaş: President, Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)