Sleepwalking Towards a Change of Axis

February 10, 2021

In December 2009, the communique[i] issued at the end of the Damascus meeting of the “Turkish-Syrian High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council” referred to a “strategic partnership”, at the time a fashionable label for Turkey’s close external relationships. It mentioned common threats and challenges confronting the two countries.

A year later, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu, in remarks to the press with his Syrian counterpart in Latakia, underlined that the exemplary relations between Syria and Turkey was serving as a model for regional partnerships and that the two countries were aiming at total economic integration with neighbors.

And, two years later, it dawned upon Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) government that Assad was a dictator. Thus, aspiring to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Damascus the government grabbed the leading role in the regime change project in Syria. Ankara joined hands with the US, other Western countries, and Gulf states to oust President Assad from power. Forgotten were the common threats and total economic integration. Mr. Assad metamorphosed from a friend into “the enemy of his own people”. He called this reversal of policy a betrayal.

A decade later, Gulf states with the exception of Qatar are our adversaries. Relations with Western allies with whom we partnered in Syria are at their lowest point in decades. We now have a PYD/YPG problem. Moreover, we have put thousands of Turkish troops in harm’s way in Syria, and Syria responded by sending five million refugees to Turkey. Troops will come back at some point but a vast majority of the refugees will stay.

In the context of JDP’s decade-long erratic foreign policy, none of this comes as a surprise. I used the adjective erratic because in addition to upending our “strategic partnership” with Damascus, we also shot down a Russian military plane, then engaged in bellicose language only to apologize soon after; we ran to Brussels for NATO support against Moscow and then bought Russian S-400s which became an obstacle to improved relations with Washington.

What is more than surprising is that we Turks have almost forgotten about our Syria challenge. Except a few dedicated observers who continue to report on developments there, no one seems to care. The current situation is taken for granted. How we got here is no longer an issue. Most of our former partners in the regime change project have left the area. Some apparently concluded that the alternative to the regime would either be the Islamic State or at best Muslim Brotherhood. However, we share and will continue to share a 910-kilometer border with Syria.

Our obliviousness too is partly due to the pandemic and our economic decline. But it can also be explained by JDP’s success at “agenda games”. Whenever, a topic appears to push the government in a corner, the government changes the national agenda and drags the opposition in a different, mostly futile debate. And in foreign policy, the main opposition almost always remains trapped by government’s nationalist public discourse. It tries hard to be one step ahead of the government in daring our Western allies.

This not to say that those allies are above criticism. The mess they created in Libya and Syria has led only to destruction and loss of innocent lives. Those who were extending great hospitality to Qaddafi in their capitals suddenly became his enemies in a dramatic reversal of policy. But it is wrong to brush aside all criticism as groundless. We need to look at the mirror and make a sober analysis of what is fair and what is not. Our reaction to foreign governments’ criticism, to European Court of Human Rights decisions cannot always be defiance. Even global adversaries address one another in diplomatic language. A case in point are the public statements by Moscow and Washington. Their language is neither a sign of weakness nor lack of determination but reflects a desire to keep channels open.

More importantly, we cannot afford to ignore the relationship between cause and effect.

At present, we are waiting to see how Ankara’s relationship with the Biden White House would evolve. Yet, the government felt no inhibition to use disproportionate force to suppress Boğaziçi University student protests. At present the West is watching the demonstrations in Belarus, Hong Kong, and Myanmar. Turkish government’s reaction to Boğaziçi protests risks our being put in the same category and defies President Biden’s emphasis on democracy. It is self-defeating.

Is disregard for the right of peaceful protest an indication that the list of issues with Washington is far too long and we have given up reviving our partnership? Is the government’s constant emphasis on an emerging world order a harbinger of fundamental change in our foreign and security policy? If so, is anyone aware of what lies ahead? Does anyone care? Is transactional cooperation with the West decidedly becoming the only option?

Turkey’s democratic decline and our ideologically inspired foreign policy have created an overarching problem of chemistry with the West. We may accommodate each other here and there but the ground has shifted and we are more likely to remain adversaries than partners in the foreseeable future.

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[i] http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkiye—suriye-ydsik-1_-toplantisi-ortak-bildirisi_-22-23-aralik_-sam.en.mfa

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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