Ankara can no longer afford to ignore how the region has changed

Turkey’s foreign policy desire of zero problems with its neighbours would be difficult to achieve in the best of times. After the Arab Spring, that the country is no longer being realistic but exceedingly risky, Sharif Nashashibi writes

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to mend fences with his neighbours. Kyhan Ozer / Turkish Presidential Press Service / AFP
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Turkey has made great strides in implementing a comprehensive foreign-policy shift outlined by prime minister Binali Yildirim in May 2016. “Turkey has a lot of problems. We have regional problems,” he said at the time. “So what will we do? Very simple: We’ll increase the number of our friends and we’ll decrease the number of our enemies.”

He elaborated further in July: “It is our greatest and irrevocable goal: developing good relations with Syria and Iraq, and all our neighbours that surround the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.”

Turkey has since patched things up with Israel, improved ties with Iran, expressed an interest in mending fences with Egypt, softened its rhetoric against the Syrian regime, and normalised relations with Russia at lightning speed, resulting in Ankara and Moscow now taking ownership of diplomacy over Syria. Meanwhile, ties with the United States, which became increasingly strained under president Barack Obama, will probably be reset when Donald Trump is inaugurated on January 20.

This process is widely seen as a reincarnation of Turkey’s regional policy in the 2000s, described by Ahmet Davutoglu – a former prime minister, foreign minister and chief adviser to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – as “zero problems with neighbours”.

This policy is interpreted as having been undone by Ankara’s strident positions after the Arab Spring, particularly its vehement opposition to the Syrian regime and to the toppling of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.

However, this widely accepted narrative of Turkey’s regional status – past and present – is overly simplistic and mischaracterises its position and the dynamics of the Middle East. It is woefully naive to think that Turkey could have maintained, let alone achieved, “zero problems with neighbours” in such a turbulent and polarised region. This does not even exist in stable regions. Lest we forget, the Middle East was no oasis of peace, stability and unity before the Arab Spring. The wide-ranging and devastating fallout from the invasion and occupation of Iraq is the most obvious example, but not the only one. The Arab Spring did not create problems – it brought long-festering ones out into the open.

It is not “very simple” – on the contrary, in fact – to have “good” relations with “all” countries surrounding the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, which cover such vast and complex regions as the Middle East, North Africa, southern and Eastern Europe, and the Caucuses.

These foreign-policy goals are as utopian as they are unrealistic. Yes, Ankara has done much in the past several months to mend fences, but this is not without risks and costs. In the Middle East, making a friend often entails losing another.

Rapprochement with Israel risks undermining Turkey’s support of the Palestinian cause. Closer ties with Iran risks angering Saudi Arabia. Rapprochement with Russia risks upsetting the Syrian opposition. Mending fences with Egypt would risk alienating Qatar. Because these various overtures are recent, there has been insufficient time for the repercussions to fully develop, let alone be assessed.

For example, while the governments of Turkey’s Gulf allies have been muted about its shifting positions vis-à-vis Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime, considerable unease is being expressed by Gulf commentators who echo, or are privy to, official sentiment. More broadly, there is alarm about what many in the region and beyond see as Ankara’s abandonment of the Syrian revolution.

Similarly, while neither the Palestinian Authority nor its main domestic rival Hamas have criticised Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel, Palestinians across the political spectrum view it as a betrayal. They are particularly mindful of Mr Erdogan’s repeated insistence that there would be no such rapprochement unless Israel lifted its blockade of Gaza. Ankara and Tel Aviv have normalised ties, yet Gaza remains under siege.

The widely accepted basis for Turkey’s foreign-policy shifts – its desire to end its regional isolation – is oversimplified and exaggerated. No country in the Middle East has managed to achieve what Ankara aspires to: good relations with everyone. When looking at the region’s deep fissures, other countries are also experiencing varying degrees of isolation – this is typical of divided regions, so Turkey is no exception.

Take, for example, the intra-regional standing of the governments of four of the countries with which Ankara has said it wants better relations: Israel, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Israel has full diplomatic relations with only three countries: Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey again.

The governments of Iran, Syria and Iraq only have each other as state allies (besides non-state allies such as Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthis), though Cairo has recently warmed to Damascus and ­Tehran.

Also, Turkey’s relations with various countries in the region have been overly simplified as bad or good. For instance, despite strains with Tehran over Syria, Ankara played an important role in the nuclear deal that resulted in the lifting of crippling sanctions on Iran.

Amid the war of words with Israel following its killing of Turkish citizens on a flotilla heading to Gaza in 2010, it was actually business as usual in bilateral relations in some respects. Trade increased during their spat. And despite Ankara’s close ties with Riyadh, the two stood on opposite sides of Morsi’s overthrow.

Furthermore, opinion polls have shown that Ankara’s positions vis-à-vis the Arab Spring were popular among Arabs. “Turkey is the biggest winner of the Arab Spring”, according to a 2011 Brookings Institute poll. “Turkey is seen to have played the ‘most constructive’ role in the Arab events. Erdogan is the most admired among world leaders.”

Positive sentiment did not dissipate as the Arab Spring went on. According to the 2014 Arab Opinion Index, 57 per cent of respondents held views of Turkish foreign policy that were “positive” or “positive to some extent”, while only 25 per cent held views that were “negative” or “negative to some extent”.

As such, if Turkey’s current foreign-policy shifts are based on ending regional isolation, they actually risk undermining its popularity. In this respect, Ankara seems confused. “We have always been on the side of the oppressed all along our history,” said Yildirim, while announcing his country’s foreign-policy shifts.

However, these shifts indicate an emphasis on good relations with governments rather than peoples – in many cases in the Middle East, this means good relations with the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

One can argue that this is necessary realpolitik in the pursuit of Turkish national interests in a turbulent and fast-changing region. However, Ankara often couched its positions – particularly vis-à-vis Palestine, Syria and Egypt – in terms of principle rather than political expediency. That was what made Turkey popular among Arabs. Ankara risks undoing that.

In a region with so many fierce divisions, trying to please everyone may end up having the opposite effect – a balancing act that, in the current climate, seems almost impossible in the long run.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs