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Is Turkey’s Foreign Policy of “Zero Problems with Neighbours” Coming Apart? A Critical Appraisal

Col Rajeev Agarwal is Assistant Director (Admin). Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 31, 2012

    On 4 October, Turkey finally took a step it had been deliberately avoiding for over a year by declaring the possibility of a military confrontation with Syria. If and when that happens, it would be a huge departure from its foreign policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours’. As the civil war continues in Syria, it threatens to drag not only Turkey but also the entire region into a security quagmire. How Turkey manages this situation as well as the rapidly changing geopolitical situation in the region would perhaps be the sternest test of its foreign policy since its promulgation in 2002.


    Turkey had always been important for the region. Blessed by geography, it acts as a bridge between Asia and Europe, is surrounded by the sea on three sides and has abundant energy and natural resources to add to it riches. It sits astride one of the most important waterways in the world, the Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The fact that its borders traverse through the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), the Muslim and Arab world (Iran, Syria, Iraq) as well as Europe (Bulgaria, Greece) bestows upon it a unique geostrategic position as well as advantage.

    The legacy of the Ottoman Empire had left bitter feelings in the region and the neighbourhood. The fact that Turkey is a NATO ally was also not to the liking of the Arab world since the latter saw it as a betrayal of Islamic values. The military junta ruling Turkey for decades made no efforts towards changing any of these perceptions. But that was all to change when the 2002 elections heralded a new dawn in Turkey with the AKP coming to power for the first time. Among the first things the AKP government set out to do was to craft a policy that would help Turkey regain its position as a prominent power in the region and make it acceptable within its immediate neighbourhood. With four Muslim countries as its immediate neighbours, there was a realisation that Turkey could no longer remain, and prosper, in isolation. And so came about the new foreign policy which emphasised ‘zero problems with neighbours’.

    The Successful Evolution

    Soon after coming to power, the AKP-led government vigorously launched the implementation of its new foreign policy. The success of the policy banked upon successful implementation of some of its core principles: balance between security and freedom (which recognised the crucial inter-relation and importance of each in society), zero problems with neighbours, proactive peace diplomacy or ‘soft power’, compatible global relations and, finally, active participation in global and regional issues. The first signs of the new foreign policy were visible in 2003 when Turkey refused to allow its territory to be used for launching operations against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Even in Afghanistan, despite being a part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Turkey refused to be a part of the fighting force. All this not only helped signal a Turkey relatively less dependent on the United States but also won friends in the Muslim world. Keeping in with its notion of being an equal part of the European-Muslim civilisation, Turkey continued its pursuit for permanent membership in the European Union. It also took the lead in secret peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2007-08, which were reportedly in the final stages of breaking the deadlock when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. At the same time, Turkey engaged proactively in the Balkans to bring about normalisation among the Serbs, Bosnians and Croats in Bosnia. With Russia, Turkey improved ties to such an extent that Russia is today one of Turkey’s leading trade partners as well as Russia’s strategic gateway to the warm waters through the Bosphorus. With Iran, Turkey has found common ground on the Kurdish issue as well as on opposing Israel (especially post the May 2010 Flotilla incident), and also emerged as an interlocutor on the Iranian nuclear issue by volunteering to be the host for the swap of enriched uranium. With Israel too, initially, Turkey improved ties, especially in defence cooperation and annual participation in Exercise Anatolian Eagle. Syria and Georgia were quickly integrated into Free Trade Agreements and dialogue commenced with Armenia in 2009 with a historic visit by Turkey’s president. In 2007, Turkey even took the initiative in Iraq and Lebanon in an attempt to solve their internal issues. Prime Minister Erdogan’s speech in the Arab League in 2007 made it clear that Turkey wanted to embrace its Muslim neighbours without getting into the Shia-Sunni discourse, thus winning over many more Arab friends. Just when it seemed that all was well and Turkey was well on course to emerge as a nation of prominence in the region with zero problems with neighbours, its foreign policy began to appear stretched and falling apart.

    From Zero Problems to Plenty of Problems

    Things suddenly started to look different for Turkey in 2010 when in May that year Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla to Gaza and, in the ensuing fight, killed nine Turkish citizens. With Israel refusing to apologise, Turkey broke off ties with Israel, putting into freeze all economic and defence ties. Instead of ruing the spoilt relationship, Turkey took it as an opportunity to carve additional space for itself in the Arab world. But events in 2011 took Turkey as well as the region by surprise with the onset of the ‘Arab Spring’. Revolution in Tunisia was over before anyone could get their act together. Egypt presented the first big challenge and Turkey was prompt in calling for the ouster of Mubarak. But Libya presented a different challenge with over US $15 billon in investments and over 25,000 Turkish citizens in that country. After initial hesitation, Turkey finally came on board with NATO’s decision to impose a ‘No fly zone’ and called for Gaddafi’s ouster. Similarly, in the case of Syria, Turkey initially engaged President Assad to usher in reforms and resolution, but as violence escalated and refugees started pouring into its territory it changed its stance by siding with the rebels. Today, Turkey houses the rebel command centre, is the major conduit for supply of weapons to the rebels and on 4 October even declared its intention of launching military operations if the violence continues to spill over on to the Turkish side. Even on the European front, things have gone sour for Turkey. Talks of accession to the European Union are virtually frozen. And relations with Greece have dipped to a new low on the Cyprus issue especially after the discovery of gas reserves near Cyprus and Turkey’s declaration of challenging any exploration by others. What has thus suddenly gone wrong for Turkey and its new foreign policy tenets?

    A Critical Appraisal

    At the outset, it is quite clear that most of the issues troubling Turkey’s foreign policy have been more of their own creation than faults in Turkey’s dealing with them. Israel’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla and killing of Turkish citizens was an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty and Israel’s refusal to apologize left Turkey with no other option but to sever ties. Similarly, the ‘Arab Spring’ was a manifestation of internal turmoil in respective countries which threatened to engulf the region and Turkey was forced to make a choice and, in most cases, it chose to side with change.

    Even in good times, Turkey had focused on increased engagement in the region and was open to talks with the existing regimes. In fact, it found it easier to forge relationships with authoritarian regimes as in the case of Libya and Syria. Turkey’s emphasis was on soft power and taking a lead role in resolving regional issues. Internal or social problems in those countries ran contradictory to Turkey’s foreign policy tenets and therefore became a blind spot. However, the Arab revolutions were born out of such internal unrests and are threatening to alter regional equations, thus placing Turkey in a delicate situation. The overthrow of pseudo-secular powers and the rise of the Islamists are threatening to bring about a new political order in the region, one which Turkey will have to find a way to accept and deal with. The AKP-led government too has been accused in recent times of attempting to propagate a more Islamic agenda in Turkey. The formulation of a new constitution for Turkey is stuck due to major differences on the character of society and nation. If and when Turkey turns Islamic, it would find it difficult to remain neutral in the neighbourhood. Enough signs are already there in this regard, with Turkey embracing the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt, acknowledging the rise of the Islamists in Libya and Tunisia as also indications that Hamas could well get a new patron in Turkey.

    Thus, Turkey is realising that a soft power-based foreign policy was successful and gave returns with minimum risks only when the region was stable. The existing foreign policy was purely based on context and may not remain so in changing times and situations. With the region going through a political transformation, Turkey will have to invent new strategies to remain strong and relevant and continue its rise a regional power.