Today's Zaman, Turkey
June 29 2012

Syria and Turkish foreign policy

├?┬░HSAN YILMAZ


Despite what the staunch Justice and Development Party (AKP) enemies
have been arguing, there was nothing wrong with the
zero-problems-with-neighbors approach. This was an idealist aim,
worthy of trying to attain. Moreover, it is not mainly Turkey's fault
that this approach is now not practical. Saying this does not mean
that Turkish policymakers must be immune to criticism and have been
working immaculately. Starting with the Syrian issue, let us evaluate
what went wrong.


Thanks to its economic success, increasing democratization and ability
to accommodate a formerly Islamist group to run the country, Turkey
has been a shining star in the Middle East. Turkish foreign
policymakers were good at leading Turkey's soft power that not only
includes its economic and political success but also its growing civil
society, cultural achievements and gradually increasing intellectual
advances. Only time will tell if they are also good at leading the
country in a difficult time of turmoil, but the first signs suggest
they are clumsy and very inexperienced when it comes to hard power and
smart power issues.

In the Libyan revolt, Turkey did not know what to do and initially did
not side with the opposition to Muammar Gaddafi's rule. Our
politicians explained that Turkey had $25 billion in investments and
25,000 Turkish workers in Libya, so it was not easy to side with the
opposition.

This strong and very confident rhetoric that sometimes amounted to
lecturing peer policymakers has been one of the problematic aspects of
our foreign policy. I have heard many international colleagues and
politicians joke about it and I cannot blame them.

Even though, initially, we did not support the opposition in Libya and
strongly opposed a NATO intervention, after this intervention and
after seeing that Gaddafi was going down, we started to support the
opposition. This is understandable as long as we honestly face the
fact that Turkey, like any other nation-state, places its own
interests over other considerations. The impact of the Libyan
experience was costly for Turkey vis-├?-vis the Syrian crisis. This
time, Turkey apparently did not want to repeat the same mistake that
it made in Libya in Syria and from almost the beginning sided with the
opposition and started putting pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Nevertheless, this time we overdid it at the other extreme --
especially the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdo├?┬?an, who
became more aggressive every time he talked about the Syrian issue. We
had not made careful calculations of our capabilities, our allies'
probable positions and action plans on the Syrian crisis, the
possibility of being bogged down by a proxy war in Syria with Iran and
Russia, supported by China and India, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party
(PKK)/Kurdish problem. Our prime minister even shockingly said that
the Syrian crisis was our internal affair. Turkey was implying that
resorting to hard power was on the table, too. Then, to the public's
surprise, Turkey's harsh rhetoric -- amounting to threatening the
Assad regime -- abruptly stopped. There could be a few explanations
for this, but I think the major one was the Russian message to Turkey
and its allies. Russia sent a warship to its one and only base on the
Mediterranean Sea and gave a very clear message to Turkey. I think
this was actually the real test case for Turkey's capability of hard
power, not the downed jet.

When it comes to soft power, Turkey is also in an unfortunate
position. Even though the Turkish army has been positioning its tanks,
etc. alongside the Syrian border, it is very highly probable that it
is a ploy for the benefit of domestic observers. Syria will not attack
Turkey. Our politicians are quite justifiably trying to save face
without clashing with Syria. Syria does not have much to lose. Its
economy is already in tatters and it does not have any soft power at
all. It is Turkey that needs millions of Western tourists, direct
foreign investment, a status of credible peace-broker, people spending
confidently and a country that aims for zero problems with its
neighbors. It is obvious that Turkey now needs creative solutions. It
seems that only a NATO intervention invited by the Arab League could
save Turkey's face and help the opposition. But even this does not
promise a bright future for Turkey. A NATO intervention could pave the
way for Syria's partition, which means there will be another Kurdish
at least de facto state along our longest southern border.

All in all, overconfidence and ambitious rhetoric that alarmed our
adversaries unnecessarily and caused concern among our friends in the
Middle East, the Balkans and Caucasus; not being able to walk our
talk, as was the case with Armenia and our Iran and Israel policies
vis-├?-vis the Malatya missile shield issue; and the lack of
calculating our capabilities are some of the reasons why Turkey's
foreign policy is now in trouble.

Instead of getting upset with people who constructively criticize
them, our politicians, their bureaucrats and advisors should follow
God's order to engage in consultation. Free debate in the public
sphere is part of this process of consultation in democracies. God
will reward humility and consultation.