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Turkish Foreign Policy: No Longer Neutral, Far From a Leader

Responding to Turkey’s request for protection against a possible attack from Syria, the NATO Council mobilized six Patriot missile batteries to assist Ankara in defending the south-east and south-central provinces. With material and personnel support becoming increasingly operational over the coming days, Turkey is further shifting its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy in favor of a proactive response to regional issues, which affords Ankara the opportunity to forge a new path in its foreign policy initiatives.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu developed the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy in 2009 as a means to push Turkey into a more international position that fulfilled Ataturk’s desire for ‘peace at home, peace in the world.’ Intending to position the nation into a more centralized role in global affairs, the Turkish government sought out opportunities to mediate inter- and intra-state disputes as a means to broker regional peace.

Through these measures, Ankara attempted to promote stronger relations with its autocratic neighbors, and the policy was initially utilized to justify signing the Tehran Declaration, as well as voting against United Nations sanctions against Iran. The initiative was short-lived and began to be dismantled after a 2010 NATO Summit where Ankara agreed to a radar-defense system deployed in its territory.

Prior to the agreement, Tehran believed Turkey was distancing itself from its Western allies; however, the NATO agreement severely soured relations between the two countries. The escalating chaos that manifested from the Arab Spring showed the Turkish leadership that the ‘zero problems’ policy was an over-simplified solution to broad, complex problems throughout the region.

Lessons from Libya

In 2011, the Libyan conflict further deconstructed the Turkish government’s support for its ‘zero problems’ policy, because Ankara was forced to maintain good relations with the Gadhafi regime while the international community waged war. This neutral stance diminished Turkey’s image at home and abroad; its indecisiveness exposed divisions within the government and was deemed a weakness by the population during a time of regional chaos.

It was due to the government’s inability to initiate a strong response against the Libyan government that members of the Erdoğan administration began to debate whether the existing policy to engage regional governments should be replaced by supporting the neighboring population’s democratic ambitions. Eventually, though ill-prepared for the region exploding into protests and the subsequent violent responses, Ankara decided to change course and focus its support on the Arab Spring. It was believed that by defending these movements Turkey would be reinforcing its pro-democracy rhetoric as well as position itself as a strong economic and political ally for emerging governments.

Relations with Syria

For the past two decades, Ankara’s relationship with Damascus was a model illustrating what could be achieved through the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy; the stabilizing of relations between the two countries could be justified as a means to ending regional hostilities. During the 1990s, Turkey and Syria were near war over Syria’s support of the PKK, but, as years passed, the governments set aside their concerns and began building stronger economic relations. These bi-lateral efforts continued to grow as Ankara defended the al-Assad regime over allegations that Damascus played a role in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, in 2005.

However, when the civil war erupted in Syria the entire relational platform quickly unraveled. Turkey, learning from their neutrality in the Libyan conflict, believed they were in a position to assist the Syrian people in pressuring the government to initiate pro-democratic reforms. Ensuring the administration would not be seen as weak or uncoordinated in the face of more regional crises, the Erdoğan government did not hesitate when applying pressure to the al-Assad government.

Turkey’s response eventually moved beyond rhetoric as Ankara – a government adept at criticizing international sanction programs – imposed unilateral sanctions against Syria and offered financial and material support to the people’s fight against Damascus. The Erdoğan administration defended its new regional strategy as a way in which the Turkish people can protect victimized populations and expand democratic institutions across the region.

Turkey’s Mixed Response

Prior to the outbreak in regional violence, Turkey focused on furthering its relationship building with regional powers; however, since the Arab Spring Ankara has moved away from foreign governments and towards defending the people marching in the streets. The new foreign policy stance has led Turkey to strengthen its security initiatives and build the capacity to engage, if necessary, at a military level.

The transition in foreign engagement is not an end to ‘zero problems,’ for many in the international community expect Turkish diplomatic efforts to become the voice of reason. There is an expectation Ankara will develop a strategy to end the violence; however, in doing so, Turkey may end up undermining its progress in supporting the pro-democracy movements. Being able to bring peace to the region does not necessarily mean the pro-democracy movements will achieve all they are asking.

The current stance against Syria illustrates the competing nature of Turkey’s regional interests. On the one hand, Ankara is willing to take on a leadership role and initiate unilateral sanctions and assist the Syrian people, in order to achieve democratic reforms in Damascus. On the other hand, Turkey refuses to act against Syria without a ‘coalition of the willing,’ and once it became apparent the United States and NATO are uninterested in another foreign incursion border security became a central interest to national planning. Turkey’s inability to act unilaterally undermined the regional leader image it is attempting to cultivate.

A Missed Opportunity

Granted, all the implications brought about by the Arab Spring and regional conflicts cannot be placed entirely on the Erdoğan administration, Ankara does recognize that it can no longer remain neutral. However, it must also acknowledge that it cannot remain indecisive or wait for a comprehensive military coalition to come about if it desires to promote the secular Islamic democracy it has developed. Finding peaceful resolve to the Syrian crisis has become a, seemingly, lost cause, and coalition building, though beneficial, will take time the Syrian people do not have.

Turkey must seize upon the Syrian conflict as a means to expand the regional leadership role it has been constructing for decades and reinforce the desire for democratic reforms throughout the region. Now is the time to become the nation it perceives itself as being.

Over the short-term, the Patriot missile batteries will create a false sense of security for the Turkish government. They will only be useful against defending the country’s border region against Syrian incursion, rather than the issue concerning the nation – how to care for the over 160,000 Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. NATO arms will not shift the country’s regional status from observer to leader; this change in national posture can only be directed by the Erdoğan administration, though it lacks the fortitude to realize the expectations of the international community.