July 4, 2016
The mother of all Turkey’s current foreign policy problems in the Middle East is our misguided involvement in the Syrian conflict. Yes, President Assad may have been a dictator; yes, he may have missed opportunities to start democratizing his country; and yes, he may have brutally repressed the opposition. Nonetheless, Syria is our neighbor and we cannot change geography. Many countries oppose the Assad regime but none of them shares a 900 kilometer border. And, being a neighbor Turkey should have known better than anyone else that regime change in Syria was not to come about as easily as it did in Tunisia or Egypt, not to speak of Libya, that being Arab Spring Act III, with President Sarkozy in the leading role. Our government should also have foreseen that the Syrian fire would eventually engulf the wider region including Turkey. And, on this very day, Turkey should still have been trying to mediate between Damascus and the moderate opposition. The Turkish government, however, got carried away under the illusion that by leading regime change in Damascus it could become the region’s leader. This has proved to be a huge miscalculation. The price we have been paying for this fantasy in terms of our external and internal security, economy and foreign trade has been extremely high, a case in point being the string of terrorist attacks which have rocked the country.
For some time, the government looked determined not to change course. They said that Turkey would stand by her principles no matter what. They called this “precious loneliness”. However, it must gradually have become obvious to everybody in the Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership, that being at odds with everybody was no longer sustainable. And, it seems that PM Davutoglu’s ouster was largely designed to create a window of opportunity for foreign policy corrections with his successor Mr. Yıldırım stressing from day one that Turkey needs more friends and fewer enemies.
The talks to make peace with Israel had already reached and advanced stage. So, with a final push the deal was closed.
A parallel initiative was taken to mend relations with Russia. The downing of the Russian Su-24 has proved to be much costlier than the rupture with Israel in terms of foreign policy, trade and tourism. Thus, following President Erdogan’s message of apology to President Putin, the two had a telephone conversation at Russia’s initiative. Later, President Putin, at a meeting with Government members said that he and President Erdogan had decided to start work to normalize Turkish-Russian relations. He asked Prime Minister Medvedev to draft proposals for amendments to the legislative base in this area.
What made this possible was Turkish side’s meeting the three conditions Russia had set: apology, compensation and punishment of those responsible. Apology was extended. PM Yıldırım said compensation could be paid. And, the Turkish citizen accused of killing the pilot of the downed Su-24 is under criminal proceedings. According to the Kremlin statement on the telephone call (*), the two presidents decided that their countries’ foreign ministers would soon meet to discuss both the regional situation, particularly efforts to settle the Syrian conflict, and current matters of further developing Russian-Turkish relations.
The emphasis on Syria was noteworthy in view of the diametrically opposite views the two countries hold on the conflict; the conclusion being that substantial adjustment in Turkish position on Syria and greater cooperation in combatting “Daesh, el-Nusra and other terrorist organizations”, to use UN language, may have constituted a fourth, perhaps the primary condition for the full restoration of Turkish-Russian cooperation though this was not spelled out openly like the first three. There is no other explanation for the speed with which Moscow has positively reacted to Ankara’s initiative.
As decided, foreign ministers Lavrov and Çavuşoğlu met on July 1, 2016 on the margins of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization’s Foreign Ministers Meeting in Sochi. What they said afterwards supports this impression and coming days may provide the evidence.
A third country mentioned in the context of Ankara’s restoration of relations offensive is Egypt. This may prove to be more difficult. Because, in the case of Israel and Russia we were dealing with the consequences of “incidents” and conveniently avoiding the background to all the trouble. Whereas, in the case of Egypt, the Turkish government was openly supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and former president Mursi and extremely critical of the el-Sisi regime. Egyptian President no doubt continues to see this as an intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs and a personal affront. Again, it would have been much better had Ankara avoided a direct confrontation with el-Sisi and offered some experience-based democratic advice through diplomatic channels. If ambassadors can be exchanged soon this would already be an accomplishment.
“Repairing relations” with Israel, Russia and hopefully with Egypt would not mean a swift return to status quo ante. Full recovery will take much longer. And, although these are positive steps they cannot be the end of the story. We have to give strong support to Syria’s political transition. Regardless of what happens in there, we have to extract ourselves from the region’s medieval sectarian conflict. We also need to improve relations with the US and Europe. And, those will be more than foreign policy adjustments. Broadly speaking, restoring Turkey’s credibility as an ally, neighbor and partner will depend, more than anything else, on our giving full proof of the irreversibility of Turkey’s democratic trajectory. Unfortunately, what Turkey has missed through her backsliding is not Middle East’s leadership which was never in the cards, but the opportunity to become region’s Northern Star with her secular democracy.
Despite a multitude of internal and external challenges Turkey remains extremely polarized. In a democratic country, this would be the moment for political leaders across to spectrum to put their differences aside, perhaps even form a grand coalition and try to respond to challenges through cooperation in the parliament. In today’s Turkey this is unthinkable. Turkey can make peace with Israel and Russia but not with herself. What we need beyond the restoration of relations with other countries is also the restoration of our national unity, democracy and the rule of law.