1 March 2015
Turkey‘s security challenges have always been diverse and tough.
During the Cold War Turkey was NATO’s southern flank and shouldered heavy defense responsibilities. When the Cold War was over, Turkey found itself in the middle of three major conflict areas, namely the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
The disintegration of Yugoslavia was a burden on Turkey because the Balkans are Turkey’s gateway to Europe. Our trade, transport and communication links were adversely affected. Thousands of Bosnian refugees came over. Following the signing of the Dayton Agreement, Turkey participated in stabilization forces (IFOR and SFOR) deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Instability in the Caucasus, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and Georgia’s war with Russia also created problems for us. These remain.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had severe consequences for Turkey’s security, trade and economic relations with Iraq and the Gulf region. Border security became a serious problem. The pipeline carrying Iraqi oil to Turkey remained closed for years. Turkey was second to Iraq in paying a high price for the UN sanctions.
Turkey played no part in the creation of these problems but suffered the consequences. It responded by supporting peace initiatives, encouraging dialogue between parties, participating in peace-keeping operations and providing humanitarian assistance.
9/11 had a dramatic impact on the global agenda and important repercussions for Turkey. In October 2001 joint US-UK operations were launched against Al Qaida in Afghanistan. Then NATO took over. Turkey made a substantial contribution to ISAF.
19 March 2003 marked the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq. Turkey once again started feeling the tremors.
US troops left Iraq at the end of 2011. We knew that Iraq was far from stability but worse was to come with the Arab spring turmoil.
In the face of these developments, Turkey would have been well-advised to maintain its traditional policy of non-involvement in inter-Arab affairs, put emphasis on crisis management, diplomatic solutions or least damage control and make use of its soft power. Unfortunately, the Government dismissed caution which it sees as a sign of weakness. It miscalculated Assad’s capacity to survive and became a party to the conflict, taking part in shifting Arab alliances. Today our 1300 kilometer border with Iraq and Syria (400 and 900 kilometers respectively) is a war zone between ISIS, the anti-ISIL coalition, Al Nusra, the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition with a multitude of negative consequences for Turkey.
Our trade and economic cooperation with the region have suffered. ISIL is no longer just an external threat but also an internal one with our porous borders. We have two million Syrian refugees, most of them living in sad conditions. This is not a good investment for the future. Surely there has been very little international support. But in the light of past experience with different waves of Iraqi refugees we should have been the first ones to know that such assistance never comes.
All of this shows that our security challenges remain as diverse and as tough as ever, the only difference being that now we are also to blame.
The picture would be incomplete if I were not to mention the Ukraine conflict and Iran’s nuclear program. Ukraine and Russia are our neighbors across the Black Sea and the confrontation between the West and Russia is no comfort to us. With Iran we share a 560 kilometer border.
In a nutshell Turkey lives in a tough neighborhood. Therefore it needs to remain strong as a nation as opposed to polarized. It needs to act with caution and avoid adventures which may boomerang. And finally, it needs to exercise whatever, if any, remains of its soft power.