On Turkey and the Middle East

June 24, 2017

In the fall of 1966, I took a series of exams to join the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Among other things, we were asked to comment on a widely used metaphor, “Turkey is a bridge between East and West”. I wrote that throughout history Anatolia had been a meeting point of cultures and that Turkey’s future lied in creating a successful synthesis. During my later years in diplomatic service I continuously objected to the use of this metaphor arguing that a bridge belongs to neither of its banks and that Turkey had already made her choice. With the launching of EU accession negotiations in October 2005 I came to believe that we had finally crossed the Bosporus Bridge and were travelling towards the West. This by no means meant a rupture with the East for obvious reasons. Moreover, our good relations with the region were seen as an asset by the EU.  

I proved to be wrong. In the first place, those sitting in driver’s seat were looking more at the rear-view mirror than the road. Secondly, there were just too many “no entry” signs, too many deviations. Distance signs were showing more and more kilometers not less, discouraging those who had expected a smoother journey. Thus, in 2009 we were back on the Bosporus Bridge again, moving this time in the opposite direction. As our journey towards the East continued we didn’t even bother to look at the exit signs because this time we were determined to go all the way. Finally, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) became so blinded by its obsession with President Assad that we missed the “last exit” sign before the Middle East labyrinth.

The Trump administration may be in disarray. But independently of that, our relations with Washington are at their lowest point in decades. In the past, it was usually a group of Congressmen who lead anti-Turkey initiatives and the administration tried to balance them. Today, they all share a negative perception of Turkey.

Turkey and Russia launched a reconciliation effort following the downing, on November 24, 2015, of a Russian warplane for having violated our airspace for 17 seconds but despite make-believe public statements, there is still much ground to cover. Rebuilding mutual confidence is never an easy task.  Russia is fully aware of the problems in our relations with the West and looking for opportunities to weaken our traditional alliances, a totally understandable policy from Moscow’s perspective.

The JDP government is often referring to its desire to make a “new beginning” with the EU. This is pure fantasy. Unless Turkey miraculously returns to the democratic path, the relationship will never go beyond “transactional cooperation of the unwilling”.

Turkey’s biggest problem now is the situation across our borders in Iraq and Syria with which we share land borders of 380 and 900 kilometers respectively. The question is: “Will these two countries be able to maintain their territorial unity?”

The only regional country that the JDP government can call a “friend” is Qatar. It seems that Ankara’s attempts to cajole the Saudi leadership to resolve the Gulf crisis have fallen on deaf ears. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the strongman of Riyadh and the architect of the failed war in Yemen is apparently in no mood to listen to these murmurs; he wants from Qatar what he has been unable to get from Yemen: capitulation. The thirteen item ultimatum delivered to Qatar includes the closure of the “Turkish base” there, creating yet another Middle East problem for Ankara. Interestingly, however, one of the principal targets of this ultimatum, Al Jazeera, hosted in its “Upfront” program last Friday, people who were referring to Ankara’s “tolerance”, “support” of jihadist groups in Syria as if to prove the channel’s independence from outside interference. By Ankara’s current standards this in itself could be a reason for to close down the “base” in Qatar…

Our relations with Iran are hardly any better. In the past, Iran and Turkey used to say that their borders have remained unchanged since the Treaty of Kasr-i Sirin of 1639. Their present policies, however, defying their long-term interests do not contribute to maintaining the borders of Iraq and Syria where they remain adversaries. At least Tehran is careful about publicly criticizing Ankara whereas we see no harm in accusing them of “Persian expansionism”.

In a nutshell, JDP’s “precious loneliness” has turned into “self-isolation”. A well-known Turkish saying goes, “there is no virtue like admitting one’s mistakes”. Today, this seems to be a political impossibility. The explanation: “We have always stood by our lofty principles. We are a rising global power and our enemies are desperate to stop us.” This means, more or less, that we are against the world, at war with some countries through proxies and adversaries with the rest. This policy is not sustainable. Is a course correction possible? In theory yes, in practice no, because for the JDP leadership a course correction is tantamount to blasphemy, particularly when it is too obvious.

The Middle East countries are at war with one another in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, not to mention Libya.

Millions of people have become refugees never to go back.

Millions of people who have stayed in conflict areas do not have much of a future.

Epidemics are taking their toll on the dispossessed, particularly children.

Turkey remains polarized and entangled in Middle East’s proxy wars.

Yet tomorrow, Muslims around the world, including Turkey, will start “celebrating” the three-day Eid al-Fitr, “festival of breaking the fast” which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Maybe, someday, in a world of wonders where wolves and sheep are friends, the Middle East would also break its fast of abstinence from democracy.

Eid Mubarak…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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