The Turkish Re-Set: A Cause for Concern in the West?

Is the Western Image of Turkey Increasingly Out of Date? (Credit Image: Bigstock)

10/22/2011 – By Franck Znaty The current US administration sees Turkey as a model to be replicated for Arab and Muslim countries.  It is viewed as a Muslim majority country within secular institutions, western ally and NATO member, with a strong economy and pro-market policies, a newly-found tight control of the military, friendly relations with the Muslim world, as well as a country which once had a strong collaboration with another key US ally in the region- Israel.

The desire to see Turkey act as template for other countries in the region has often been demonstrated by the Obama administration.

Is the Western Image of Turkey Increasingly Out of Date? (Credit Image: Bigstock)
Is the Western Image of Turkey Increasingly Out of Date? (Credit Image: Bigstock)

As the recent meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan in the margins of the UN General Assembly showed, in which the former lauded the latter with praises of displaying “great leadership” in the pursuit of democracy in the Middle East.

Furthermore, this American desire to see Turkey take on an important role in the region was manifested by the recent establishment of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). This new institution is meant, according to the US State Department, to “address the evolving terrorist threat in a way that would bring enduring benefits by helping frontline countries and affected regions acquire the means to deal with threats they face.”

This forum was officially launched during a meeting between the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, where Turkey was offered by the US to co-direct this new venue.

But this Administration view of Turkey may be increasingly out of date in light of Turkish domestic and foreign policy developments.

In order to understand Turkish Foreign Policy actions and changes since the ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP, in its Turkish acronym) came to power in 2002, one needs to look at the writings of current Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who outlines his vision for the future of his country’s foreign policy prior to his entry into politics.[1] In his book entitled The Strategic Depth: The Turkish International Location[2], the author argues that Turkey’s strategic depth is based on the country’s geographical and historical depths. Turkey, he explains, is located at the center of “several geo-cultural basins”, and as such, this geographical location “places Turkey right at the center of many geographical areas of influence”.

Turkey must be actively engaged, he argues, on several fronts of the world order: the West (Europe and the United States), the Middle East, Africa and the Caucasus. This policy of active engagement in several different regions resonates even further when one considers the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire, which places Turkey “at the epicenter of  [historical] events” [3].

Furthermore, Davutoglu, in previous writings[4], takes a shot at the Kemalist establishment, which ruled on Turkey’s foreign policy almost uninterrupted since the Republic’s creation in 1923. He argues that the Kemalist put too much efforts in locking Turkey with the West and Europe, and thus failed to recognize Turkey’s great opportunities in the Muslim world, and with most of its immediate neighbors.

According to his vision, the Muslim world should be a main focus of the Turkish re-set in the conduct of foreign policy.  This world he claims, “becomes the focal point in international relations”[5].

The theoretical concepts gave rise to the much debated “zero problems ” policy whereby Turkey would seek to entertain good relations with all of its neighbors, assert its presence in several international systems and regions (NATO, EU, Middle East, Caucasus) and engage with actors with whom it had stormy relations in the past under Kemalist rule: Iran, Syria, Russia, Armenia.

When the AKP first came to power in 2002, their electoral victory was met by a good reaction from the then-US administration.  The AKP party did not initially deviate from the pillars of the Kemalist foreign policy as it maintained a close relationship with the West as well as made an entry into the European Union a priority. Furthermore, fears that its Islamist-roots would dictate a reversal in Turkey’s positive inclinations towards Israel were not met, as Ankara and Jerusalem maintained, despite ups and downs due mostly to the meanders of the Intifada, a close defense and strategic collaboration.

In the last few years however, Turkey’s “zero problems” has turned into a more aggressive and controversial conduct of foreign affairs, which some have dubbed Neo-Ottomanism, whereby Turkey sees itself as the leader and engine of the Muslim world.

While it is very hard to predict where this new role in the region will lead Turkey, I propose to look at the following recent developments, which should be the cause of concern for Western policy planners in the region:

Turkey’s NATO commitment:

Turkey’s commitment to the North Atlantic Alliance has been put under question in recent years in the face of several developments. Let us consider the case of the war in Georgia in 2008, in which out of concern not to anger Moscow, the Turkish Prime Minister ceded until the very last moment to the NATO request to support Georgia’s case in its war against Russia.  This foot dragging was showed by the reluctance of Turkey to let European and American warships go through the Black Sea in assistance to Tbilisi, on the pretext that these warships were too big.

Turkey’s hesitancy with the NATO’s request has been repeated very recently on two occasions.

First, NATO has been pressing with the installment of an early warning radar system within Turkish territory meant to detect possible missiles coming from Iran. In order not to harm its fragile relationship with Teheran, Turkey showed great hesitation in complying with NATO’s request but in the end receded.

Second, Turkey has showed initial reticence at the idea of NATO’s intervention in Libya, in order that its $15 billion investment in Libya would remain unharmed.

Turkey’s growing strategic collaboration with China has also been seen as a worrying development. This growing relationship became apparent in the wake of Turkey’s Air Force’s exercise, “Anatolian Eagle”. Turkey has been hosting this event, where many NATO members plus Israel were invited to participate since 2001.

However, following the Cast Lead war in Gaza and in light of Turkey’s growing dissatisfaction with Israel, Jerusalem was excluded from the participation in the exercise in 2009. As a result, the US and some NATO members withdrew their participation in protest.

Ankara then decided to replace the Israeli Air Force with that of China. Chinese’s Sukhoi SU-27 were subsequently sent to train with the Western-equipped Turkish Air Force. This strategic relationship was cemented later that year with a number of strategic agreements signed during the visit of the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, to Ankara.

This relationship also took the form of the joint development of a surface-to-surface rocket-launching system, as well as an increased collaboration in the fight against terrorism and extremism.

Tensions in the Mediterranean :

In June 2010, an important discovery of gas field in Israeli waters was revealed along the fact that these gas fields may well extend to Cyprus waters.  Estimates put these fields at 300 trillion cubic feet which could be worth a tally of US$4 trillion.

Cyprus’s intentions to start drilling for oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean have been met by a fierce Turkish reaction.  Turkish “Frigates, gunboats and [its] air force will constantly monitor developments in the area”, was Erdogan’s response to the Cypriot move.

According to media reports, these threats have been followed by acts, as Turkey has already sent a fleet of warships, submarines and fighter jets to the area. Moreover, in response to the Cypriot exploration, Turkey signed its own agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, to have a Turkish seismic vessel explore the area. Erdogan said that this agreement was meant to show Turkey’s determination in the face of Cyprus’ actions and that sending its own vessel was a signal “to show our presence there”.

While the EU and the US have criticized Turkish moves and have called Turkey to resume the island’s reunification talks, the threat of confrontation over Cyprus needs to be taken seriously, especially in the face of continued Turkish inflammatory rhetoric on the issue.  Speaking to Turkish media the Turkish minister for the European Union, Egemen Bagis, said : “It is for this (reason) that countries have warships. It is for this (reason) that we have equipment and we train our navies.” Furthermore, following on this development, Turkey has announced that it would freeze relations with the European Union if rotating presidency would indeed be given to Cyprus in July 2012 as planned.

Moreover, Turkish’s intentions in the Mediterranean do not end over the Cyprus issue as Israel has also been on the receiving end of Turkey’s  “activism” in the region.

First, it argues that Cyprus does not have the authority to sign deals with Israel on the issue of oil and gas exploration.  As a response to the Cyrpus-Israeli accords, Turkey has announced a bigger presence of its Navy in the Mediterranean for surveillance purposes. Speaking about the Israeli naval presence in the Sea, Erdogan said that “until now, they were running wild in (the eastern Mediterranean). From now on, we will see Turkish ships more often especially in our exclusive economic zones”.

Second, in light of Israel’s refusal to apologize over the deaths of 9 Turkish citizens who were aboard the Mavi Marmara that attempted to break the Gaza blockade, Turkey has threatened to send its own Navy to escort Turkish ships that would again attempt to reach the Gaza shores thus pitting these vessels against that of the Israeli Navy. Turkey claims that it acted with “great patience” following the Israeli takeover of the ship, and they viewed the Israeli action against the boat as “grounds of war”.

As it stands today, Turkey has dramatically downgraded its bilateral relationship with Israel, and has announced a suspension of the defense trade as well as an end to the military-to-military relations.

Turkey’s Relationship with Muslim States:

The ‘zero problem’ policy has been leading Turkey to take on the role of leader in the Middle East. This policy meant that Turkey had to mend ties with previous enemies in the region.

However, these attempts were only partially successful, and today we see that they did not pass the test of time.

Turkey’s growing activism in the region has not been well received by Teheran as the two countries have a history of rivalry. Turkey’s acceptance of the installation of the NATO radar that we evoked earlier aroused anger among the Iranian government.

Iranian Defense Minister, Ahmad Vahidi, was quoted as saying that “The West claims the radar system (in Turkey) is to confront Iranian missiles, but they should be aware that we will not tolerate any aggression against our national interests”.

Moreover, NATO’s radar ordeal comes in a context of growing tension between Ankara and Teheran, as the latter accuses the former of backing away from its support of Assad in the face of the Syrian people’s revolt against the Alawi rule.

In addition, the Turkish decision to host the NATO radar could prompt the Iranian leadership to renew the connections it once had with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party),  and use this as a leverage to influence the course of its relationship against Turkey.

Turning to Syria, while it is true that Turkey did respond to Assad’s violent crackdown out of fear that a collapsed Syria would threaten Turkey, Ankara has joined the West in its critique of the Syrian regime actions thus ending the growing relationship it enjoyed with Damascus throughout the first decade of the century. This break in the relation has been manifested by the Turkish’s decision to enforce an arm embargo on Syria, following two Iranian attempts to smuggle arms to Damascus, which were intercepted by Turkish authorities earlier this year.

Turkish relations with the post-Mubarak Egypt is also a cause for concern for Turkish ambitions of friendly relations with the Muslim world. Turkish involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the coziness it has displayed with Hamas does not sit well with Egypt’s military authority.

Indeed, the current ruler of Egypt, the military council, is wary of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood in its country, and its offshoot in the Gaza Strip. As an example, in anticipation of his last visit to Egypt last September, Erdogan announced its intention to visit the Gaza Strip, but was later forced to backtrack in the face of Cairo’s refusal. To be sure, Egypt does not favorably view a Turkish meddling with affairs close to Egyptians borders, as well as acts that could embolden Hamas.

A Coming Economic Crisis?

Erdogan’s AKP reelection earlier this year was mostly explained thanks to his government solid performance on the economy and the implementation of market-friendly policies, which managed to leave the country for the most part unscathed from the consequences of the world economic crisis.

Leaving aside foreign policy, Omer Taspinar, an expert on Turkey at the Brookings Institution, explains that ” this is a very impressive victory for AKP, but perhaps because I’m more of an economic determinist, I really think the big story in Turkey is the economy and that people essentially do not vote when they go to the ballot box thinking about foreign policy.”

However, Turkey’s economic success may come to an end. As recent news have reported: “Turkey’s current account deficit is out of control. It exceeds 10% of gross domestic product (GDP), about the same as crisis-ridden Greece and Portugal. Turkey’s central bank has let the currency slide in a belated effort to correct the imbalance, but the lira’s depreciation has backfired”, writes David Goldman.

Other news report agree with the analysis put forward by Goldman, and explain that Turkey under the AKP has been very generous in handing out loans and mortgages with low interest rate.  This generosity was financed by loans made by the country’s Central Bank.

These loans are now deepening the country’s deficit, which has doubled in the past year and half.  Goldman compares Turkey’s coming economic situation to that of “Argentina in 2000 or Mexico in 1994”.

Time will tell if these prophecies of coming economic collapse will materialize, and how they might affect Turkey’s activism on the regional stage.


[1] See most notably: Stratejik Derinlik/ Türkiye’nin uluslararası konumu (Istanbul: Küre Yayinlari: 2000) & A. Davutoglu, ‘The Clash of Interests: An Explanation of the World (Dis)Order’, Perceptions Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 2 N°4 (Dec. 1997-Feb. 1998).

[2] Original title Stratejik Derinlik/ Türkiye’nin uluslararası konumu (Istanbul: Küre Yayinlari: 2000).

[3] A. Murinson, ‘The Strategic Depth Doctrine of Turkish Foreign Policy’, Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 42, N°6, (Nov. 2006), 945-964, p.951.

[4] A. Davutoglu, ‘The Clash of Interests: An Explanation of the World (Dis)Order’, Perceptions Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 2 N°4 (Dec. 1997-Feb. 1998).

[5] A. Murinson, ‘The Strategic Depth Doctrine of Turkish Foreign Policy’, Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 42, N°6, (Nov. 2006), 945-964, p.948-49.