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Turkey failing in quest to be ‘order setter’

Ankara has been forced to recalibrate its approach to regional politics, analyst says

Omar Shariff, Deputy GCC/Middle East Editor
13:41 December 12, 2017
Sinan Ulgen

Dubai: On November 8, Nicholas Danforth, a Washington-based Turkey specialist, wrote this about Turkish foreign policy: “After ‘zero problems’ and ‘precious loneliness’, I’d propose ‘angry pragmatism’ as Turkey’s emerging foreign policy doctrine in the Mideast.”

Once feted for former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, Turkey seems to have gradually lost its ability to decisively influence events in the region. This has especially been the case since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011.

The setbacks have been many: Turkey provided full backing to then Egyptian president Mohammad Mursi, who was ousted a year after taking power; in Syria, Turkey was seen as the biggest backer of the rebels fighting to topple the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad. But it was hoodwinked by Russia, and had to settle for a much smaller role in the country than it had hoped for.

In the diplomatic impasse in the Gulf involving Qatar, Turkey has taken Doha’s side as the Arab Quartet — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain — have severed ties with the Gulf state for its support for extremism in the region.

While all this has happened in the region, relations with its allies in Nato — of which Turkey is an important member — are also strained. An important case in point is the ongoing spat over the trial of a Turkish-Iranian gold trader in the US. Zarrab pleaded guilty to charges that he was involved in helping Iran evade US sanctions, and is testifying against an executive from a Turkish state-owned bank.

Ankara says US prosecutors have based their case on fabricated evidence provided by followers of the controversial cleric Fetullah Gulen, who Turkey blames for orchestrating last year’s failed coup.

Analysts believe as laudable as it may be to have ‘zero problems with neighbours’, the approach was doomed for failure from the start.

In an email interview with Gulf News, Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank, said, “When regional countries have competing interests in the region [in general] and with Turkey, foreign policy could not have been based on this slogan. Also [not] when the nature of political governance is another impediment, as illustrated most clearly in Syria. When the national leadership in some of these polities starts to have problems with its own citizens, how can Ankara be expected to persist in its zero problems approach? But, in addition to these exogenous factors, Turkey’s aggressively ambitious policy of wanting to be a regional ‘order setter’ without a genuine understanding of its own capabilities and sphere of influence was also a recipe for failure.”

With the eight rounds of UN-sponsored Geneva ‘peace process’, Turkey has all but acquiesced to Al Assad staying in power. The majority of Turks sympathise with the plight of Syrians who rose up against their brutal regime, and so does the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But with the security situation in his own country deteriorating, and with tensions with Russia causing unacceptable losses to the Turkish economy, Erdogan had to bite the bullet and accept that his country will have to live with the Syrian regime for the foreseeable future.

“Turkey has begrudgingly accepted the resilience of the Al Assad regime after a long held but ultimately unsuccessful policy of regime change,” said Ulgen. “This era was accompanied by a heavy domestic rhetoric bedevilling Al Assad. Now the challenge is to establish a working relationship with the Syrian regime in spite of a domestic public opinion that sees the Syrian regime as an enemy. This is where the leadership skills of President Erdogan will be needed. He has been able to carry public opinion in other cases where sharp policy reversals have had to happen.”

Turkey finds itself playing second fiddle to Russia in Syria. Ulgen believes that Ankara’s first objective is to ensure a return to normalcy in Syria. “Given the lack of ambition and willingness of Turkey’s traditional partners and primarily the US to invest sufficient resources to accelerate this process in Syria, Turkey had to partner with Russia and Iran to achieve this aim. Moscow and Tehran are not Nato member Turkey’s natural partners. But realpolitik forced Ankara to accept this compromise.”

Under Erdogan and his conservative AKP, the Turkey has become a powerhouse economy and his free market policies have made the country a very desirable destination for foreign direct investment. At the social level, Turks from the religiously conservative Anatolian heartland, who had been cut off from Kemalist Turkey, found their voice. They remain diehard supporters of the AKP. But, as Ankara sought to expand its regional political role, it inevitably, “leveraged its Muslim and Sunni identity”.

Turkey appears to be losing its place in a regional discourse currently dominated by the two other big Muslim powers — Saudi Arabia and Iran. As Ulgen noted, “For long, Turkish foreign policy was based on secular principles and therefore categorically shied away from being pulled in the direction of sectarian conflict. With AK Party, this principle has been sidelined, and especially after 2011, Ankara vied to expand its regional influence leveraging its Muslim and Sunni identity.

Its approach to regional disputes have also been coloured by this identity. Yet failure has forced Turkish authorities to recalibrate their approach to regional politics.

Today, Turkish foreign policy is based on a more realistic understanding. As a result, Turkey is less intent on taking clear sides in the [Saudi-Iran] relationship. Instead, Ankara wants to regain its former position of being able to act as an interlocutor for both Tehran and Riyadh.”

Ulgen believes there was a time, after the advent of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, with Davutoglu at the helm of Turkish foreign policy, when Ankara strived to expand its regional influence on the basis of its Muslim and Sunni identity. The close relationship between the AKP and other political parties in the region linked to political Islam and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood was to be leveraged for this purpose.

“Yet this policy failed to produce the expected benefits. On the contrary, it led to a weakening of Turkey’s influence as Ankara started to be seen as a side taker in the domestic affairs of these countries. The ongoing readjustment in Turkish foreign policy is designed to mitigate these risks. So any illusions of leading the Muslim world have also been put to rest.”