Turkey loses out in the Middle East
Two years before the revolts spread across Arab lands in 2011, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, launched his doctrine of “Zero Problems with Our Neighbours.” He had been appointed two years earlier and his country was often viewed as a role model on how to reconcile political Islam with respect for the rule of law and strong economic growth.
However, a series of miscalculations on Libya, Egypt and Syria after the eruption of the revolts in 2011 turned Turkey into a problem-maker in the region. The impulsiveness of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shows no sign of abating. As he rallies behind Qatar in its showdown with Saudi Arabia, Turkey risks being on the losing side whatever the outcome.
Were there to be a palace coup in Doha, Turkey would find its relations with Saudi Arabia, a major investor in Turkey, very fraught indeed and would lose Qatar. If the crisis pushes Qatar closer to Iran, Turkey would find itself estranged in the Arab world. This is what happened in 2013 when its strong support for President Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt led to a stand-off with the new Egyptian head of state, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The stand-off continues to this day.
Erdogan backed a horse with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya and, as a result, lost Turkey many of the business contracts it had enjoyed under Muammar Qaddafi’s rule. Nor did his enthusiastic backing of the Islamists when they were in power in Tunisia in 2011-13 endear him to the country’s leadership.
Arguably, the truly geopolitical miscalculation of Turkish foreign policy occurred in Syria when the then prime minister broke relations with Damascus in August 2011. Syrian President Bashar Assad proved a much better chess player than his counterpart in Ankara.
The Syrian crisis quickly became a proxy war with many actors, from Iran to the United States and Saudi Arabia, all driven by their own agendas. As a true disciple of Machiavelli, Assad released hundreds of diehard Salafi jihadists from prison, turning them into key actors in the killing fields and creating the perfect enemy. It quickly pushed aside the moderate rebels in the Free Syrian Army. Turkey and Saudi Arabia provided Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS) with weapons and free passage into northern Syria.
Observers noted that Turkey was taking a huge risk in playing a role like that of Pakistan, which had enabled the Taliban to grow inside Afghanistan only to discover that the group soon became a cancer within Pakistan. Supping with the devil comes at a cost.
Turkey turned into an arms funnel and rest centre for Syria’s mujahideen. Meanwhile, Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister turned all-powerful president, silenced the media, notably the opposition Cumhuriyet, which alleged that Turkey’s intelligence agency was transporting weapons into Syria, and put many journalists behind bars. Such harsh measures cannot disguise the fact that Erdogan has miscalculated at every turn of the Syrian crisis.
Assad then played another master card as he withdrew his army from northern Syria, allowing Syrian Kurds to create problems for Turkey. Instead of trying to cooperate with the Syrian Kurds, Erdogan chose to demonise them. When the Kurds fought against ISIS in Kobane, a few kilometres from the Turkish frontier, in 2014, the Turkish Army did nothing to support them.
This outraged many Kurds and helped the charismatic People’s Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas, a Kurd whose message appealed to many Turks in 2015 and whose party entered parliament that July. He positioned himself as the leader of all people in Turkey and said he was not willing to give Erdogan the presidential powers he craved.
Having reached well above the 10% threshold in the parliament, Demirtas was quickly viewed as a potential challenger by Erdogan, who broke the peace process the government had signed a few years before with the Kurdish insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
As the Turkish state went to war against its Kurdish people and jihadist attacks struck vital interests in Turkey, the consequences of Erdogan’s repeated miscalculations haunted Turkey. That the United States should arm the Kurds of northern Syria only added insult to injury and opened new fissures between Turkey and its major NATO ally.
The failed coup in July 2016 and the referendum in April, which handed full powers to Erdogan traumatised Turkey, which is firmly set on the road to authoritarianism. More than 100,000 people have lost their jobs and income since the failed coup, the media have been silenced and highly thought of universities are seeing their reputations destroyed. Thousands of well-educated Turks, including army officers, have fled into exile.
It can be of little consolation to Erdogan that he has shared with the United States, France and Britain strategic miscalculation on Syria. For foreign military intervention and regime change to succeed, two conditions are required: A strong and preferably united opposition and a minimum of consensus among the international parties to the game. Neither was forthcoming.
The policy promoted in 2009 by Davutoglu was somewhat arrogant, no doubt the result of the fact that few Turkish diplomats speak Arabic and understand the Middle East. Arguably many dislike the Arabs, giving the lie to the then foreign minister’s remark that Turkey could speak like the Europeans in Brussels and the Arabs in Baghdad.
Ignorance of regional history, the arrogance of neo-Ottomanism and the impulsive behaviour of its president have conspired to seriously damage Turkey’s standing in the Middle East.