Turkey’s unfulfilled ambitions

Friday 10/07/2015

Turkey’s political dreams over in recent years have turned into political nightmares.

Under former prime minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has not had a very successful record in applying major foreign policies. Erdogan may have been popular in certain circles at home but in foreign policy he suffered two major disasters. A third — possibly far more devastating for Turkey — may not be far off.

The first disaster came when the European Union rejected Turkey’s application for membership. As prime minister, Erdogan laboured hard to fulfil the wishes of the founder of the modern Turkish re­public, Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk, who believed that Turkey’s place was in Europe. It’s not so much that Erdogan is a Kemalist (far from it) but it suited his political ambitions.

So convinced was he that the European Union would allow Turkey in that he said “there was no Plan B”.

For Erdogan, entry into the European Union meant being in Europe and that alone represented a huge public relations coup. Being in Europe also meant not being too involved in the Levant or the Middle East. However, after more than a decade of chasing his EU dream, Erdogan realised this was not about to happen. Several EU member countries barred Turkey’s admittance on grounds that it was politically immature and needed to implement a number of reforms to be on a par with the rest of Eu­rope before it could be granted full membership status.

That was partially true. But a number of EU countries were more worried that allowing about 70 million Muslims into the European Union would forever change the Judeo-Christian face of Europe.

So, reluctantly at first, Erdogan turned his back on Europe and launched a charm offensive directed at his neighbours and fel­low Muslims, particularly his southern neighbour, Syria. For a while it be­came the great love affair between Erdogan and Syri­an President Bashar Assad. They had joint cabinet sessions and attended each other’s governmental meetings.

But that soured rather quickly when Assad lied to Erdogan and the latter had stood up for him in front of the American presi­dent. Then when the situation started to deteriorate in Syria, Erdogan began to work towards the removal of Assad. The Turkish leader envisaged a Syria governed by a branch of the Muslim Brother­hood that would be subservient to Ankara. He believed that the 1,500-kilometre border between Syria and Turkey would be peace­ful and keep the Kurds in check.

Turkey has long struggled to keep its large Kurdish minority from seeking autonomy or, even worse in Ankara’s eyes, independ­ence.

Erdogan started supporting the Syrian opposition, offering it bases inside Turkey, supplying its mem­bers with safe houses and training. In addition to sending weapons and money to the opposition, Ankara allowed for the transit of fighters from Europe to join jihad in Syria and Iraq.

But the removal of the Syrian president proved much, much harder than anticipated and the Turkish leader found himself in a tight spot: He was too Islamic for Europe and not Islamic enough for the Islamists to the south.

Meanwhile, amid all the plot­ting and planning between the Islamists and Turkish authorities, between the latter and the Syr­ian opposition groups, amid the backstabbing deals reached among the plethora of Syrian opposition groups, only to be outdone and renewed time and again, everyone — particularly the Turks — under­estimated the resolve of the Kurds in northern Syria.

They have shown the world that they can fight — and they have particularly shown the Islamists that they are not a pushover. More importantly, they have shown the West that the Kurds can be reliable allies. That may well be Erdogan’s third major miscalculation, his third foreign policy disaster and Turkey’s worst nightmare.