Ömer TAŞPINAR Today's Zaman
|Foreign policy was conspicuously absent during the election campaign. Neither the Justice and Development Party (AKP) nor the Republican People’s Party (CHP) bothered to talk about the European Union or the revolutions in the Middle East.|
| This was probably because Turkish public opinion is overall satisfied with the more independent and self-confident approach pursued by the AKP government. Yet, Turkey’s approaches to both the Middle East and the EU urgently need fine-tuning. The Arab Spring is rapidly changing the balance of power in the Middle East and is causing problems for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero-problems with neighbors” policy. After the emergence of new regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the turmoil in Yemen and Bahrain, and civil war in Libya, now Syria is the latest Arab nation facing the rise of a people’s movement.|
Until recently, the Syrian-Turkish bilateral relationship was a remarkable story of a journey from enmity to friendship. It was also the cornerstone of Turkey’s zero-problems strategy. At a time when a brutal crackdown is taking place in Syria and thousands of Syrian refugees are crossing the border with Turkey, this situation is putting much pressure on Turkey’s shoulders. The events in Syria provide a crucial litmus test for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in terms of testing his proclaimed commitment to democratization in the region. This is not a matter of idealism versus realpolitik for Turkish foreign policy. Turkey needs to change its “zero problems” policy with Syria, and not because of its ideals of freedom and democracy in the region. Logic, realism and self-interest should guide Turkey’s changed strategy towards Damascus.
Simply put, the destabilization of Syria is not in Turkey’s national interest. Yet, the path that the Assad regime has taken will achieve just that. It will destabilize Syria and potentially pave the way towards a sectarian civil war in the country. As Syria’s only democratic ally, Turkey has a moral and political responsibility to harshly condemn the killing of hundreds of protesters by this brutal regime.
At the same time, Turkey seems uniquely placed to provide some friendly advice to Syria. Prime Minister Erdoğan has in fact significantly sharpened the tone of his criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The obvious issue is that Damascus is in no mood to listen. It should not be particularly surprising that when a dictator is faced with regime survival, outside pressure seldom works. As a result, Turkey is slowly discovering the limits of its regional influence and zero-problems policy. In the event the refugee crisis with Syria gets out of hand and a much larger influx takes place, Turkey is likely to consider establishing a buffer zone at the border, which may turn into a safe haven for the Syrian opposition. The Syrian official news agency is already accusing Turkey of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. These reports are fabricated, but since Turkey is a predominantly Sunni country, Turkish public opinion would not look favorably at a minority Alawite regime massacring Sunnis.
When one looks at the larger picture, the Arab Spring is a mixed blessing for Turkey. On the one hand, most Turks enjoy the fact that their country is referred to as a democratic model and source of inspiration in the region. On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that Turkey until recently used to fill a vacuum of strategic leadership in the Arab world. It was the dismal failure of Egyptian leadership in the region that was at the heart of the Arab predicament and the deep admiration of Turkey’s growing soft power. With the Arab Spring and particularly Egypt’s revolution, Cairo is now slowly re-emerging as the most likely candidate to fill the vacuum of strategic leadership in the Arab world. As it slowly finds its footing as a more democratic regime, Egypt, rather than Turkey, will emerge as a more relevant model for the Middle East. Let’s not forget that Turkey is not an Arab country and that Turkey’s political evolution and history are unique. Thanks to the people’s movements sweeping the region, the vacuum of strategic leadership is likely to disappear in the near future. The fact that it was Cairo and not Ankara that brokered the deal for Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is a case in point. We will continue to analyze the foreign policy challenges facing Turkey and the AKP next week.