On shaky ground

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Riot police at Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 12 after a night of violence in the city. Erdogan's redevelopment plans for the square were behind the protests. Photo: Bloomberg

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, with Mohamed Morsy when he visited Ankara last year as Egypt's President. Photo: AP

A protest in Copenhagen in 2004, using the Little Mermaid, a Danish icon, against Turkey's E.U. entry. Photo: AFP

February 2012: A family outside a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border in Yayladagi. Photo: REUTERS

Turkish President Abdullah Gul, left, and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in 2009 after the re-establishment of ties. Photo: AP

The tremors of the Arab Spring have had a negative effect on Turkey’s economy and the country’s relations with its neighbours.

BEFORE the so-called Arab Spring brought violence and chaos in its wake, Turkey’s economy was booming and relations with all its immediate neighbours ranged from excellent to normal. The much-vaunted “Zero problems with neighbours: Peace at home, Peace in the World”, which the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, banked on when he took charge in 2009, had seemed to be paying huge dividends, both politically and economically. But now, two years later, according to senior officials in the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the country is facing a “double earthquake” that has emanated from the Arab Spring in the north and the south.

After a very long gap, Turkey had repaired its relations with countries it shares borders with, such as Syria and Iran. Its relations with Armenia were also showing signs of returning to normalcy, despite the legacy of the “genocide”. Armenia wants the Turkish government to acknowledge that a planned extermination of Armenians did happen during Ottoman rule in the First World War period.

Relations with Iraq, especially with the northern Kurdish region which is virtually independent, had become exceptionally good. Initially, the Turkish government had viewed the Iraqi Kurds with suspicion, fearing that they would team up with their rebellious brethren across the border. The Kurds in Turkey, said to be around 25 per cent of the population, are led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and until recently were waging a guerilla war against the Turkish state. Today, Turkey has emerged as northern Iraq’s biggest trading partner, with oil and gas from the resource-rich region flowing through Turkey. The special relations with the north have angered the central government in Baghdad. Turkey has also been demanding that the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul be given to the Kurds in the north. The former Vice-President of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashimi, has been given refuge in Istanbul, despite being wanted in his home country for running death squads.

Relations with Iran have become frosty in the aftermath of Turkey’s support to the forces hostile to the Syrian government and the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon. But the bilateral trade between the two countries, according to Turkish officials, was estimated to be more than $21 billion last year. The officials say that Turkey only adhered to the United Nations-mandated sanctions on Iran. To get around the American and European Union (E.U.) sanctions, there are companies in Turkey which do business only with Iran. However, isolating and defeating Iran and its allies in the region is a long-term strategic goal of the West and Turkey. Iran knows that if the West and its allies succeed in their plans, it will be the next target. Syria and the Hizbollah are the only two allies Iran has in the region.

NATO & Turkey

Turkey has been a traditional ally of the West since the beginning of the Cold War. It was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) though the country is situated far away from the Atlantic. Turkey even sent its troops to fight in the Korean War in the early 1950s. Though many European politicians have publicly questioned the relevance of NATO after the demise of the Soviet Union and the rival Warsaw Pact, the Turkish political establishment, cutting across party lines, seems to be of the view that NATO is integral to the security of the nation. At the Turkish government’s request, NATO has deployed Patriot missiles on the border with Syria. According to the NATO constitution, a military attack on a member country will automatically elicit a joint NATO military response. As matters stand, it is Syria that is facing the threat of outside military intervention. Turkey, which already boasts the strongest and most well-equipped army in the region, faces no military threat except hit-and-run attacks by Kurdish militants.

Turkish military forces are part of the NATO deployment in Afghanistan. As many as 15,000 Afghan soldiers were trained in Turkey. Afghan police recruits are also being trained in the country. Officials in Ankara say that Turkish troops, along with other NATO forces, will stay on even after 2014 in Afghanistan. Turkey has been hosting the “Ankara Process” trilateral summits with Pakistan and Afghanistan. The last one was held in 2012 with the Pakistani and Afghan heads of state in attendance. Turkish officials said that peace and stability in Afghanistan was very important as “it was only one country away from Turkey”. Turkey also has cultural and linguistic affiliations with Afghanistan. The Uzbeks, the Hazaras and the Tajiks are ethnically connected to the Turks.

E.U. membership

However, Turkey’s long quest to become a full-fledged member of the E.U. seems to be getting nowhere. Germany, the powerhouse of the E.U., seems to be further stiffening its resistance to Turkey’s entry. The German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, emphasised in the first week of July that Turkey could never be a member of the E.U. as it was not part of Europe. What many European leaders refuse to spell out openly is the fear of the threat that Turkey’s ascendance poses to the dominance of countries such as France and Germany. Turkey, with its robust economy and huge population, will have a dominant say in E.U. affairs. Besides, there is an element of racism and xenophobia involved. The right-wing and centre-right parties that are on the ascendant in Europe do not want a Muslim-majority country to be part of the E.U.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials in Ankara insist that E.U. membership continues to be a “strategic goal” for the government. At the same time, they point out that public support is waning rapidly. Today, fewer than 20 per cent of the Turks support E.U. membership. The government is still adhering to the goals of modernisation and Westernisation set by the republic’s founder Kemal Ataturk in 1923. All Turkish laws are copies of European laws. Seventy per cent of the foreign direct investment and technology transfer to Turkey comes from the E.U. Turkey is already part of the E.U. Customs Union. Turkish officials said that with the AK Party (Justice and Development Party) implementing a “neoliberal” economic programme, E.U. membership was important.

Events in Egypt

The latest foreign policy setback for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the unfolding events in Egypt. It is no secret that the AK Party, which likes to style itself as a centre-right party cast in the mould of the Christian Democrats in Germany, is also the strongest backer of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. Acting in tandem with the oil-rich emirate of Qatar, it has been providing succour to the resurgent Islamists in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do not support the Brotherhood and are helping other opposition groups, including the Salafis. Erdogan was among the first leaders to call for the departure of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and he was welcomed by rapturous crowds when he visited Cairo after the revolution two years ago. He tried to sell Turkey as a model for the unfolding Arab revolutions. He felt vindicated when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power through the ballot box in the elections held last year. Turkey showered Egypt with aid and investment. It gave $2 billion as credit to the Egyptian government.

The ouster of Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military, therefore, came as a shock to the Turkish government. Ankara was quick to condemn the military coup. Turkish officials emphasised that the Morsy government should have been given more time to deliver on its promises. At the same time, they blamed the deposed Egyptian President for many political missteps, including his promise to change things for the better for the Egyptian people within 100 days of coming to power. “The minorities should have been respected more,” admitted a senior official in the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Erdogan was not amused when all his allies in the region quickly welcomed the fait accompli created by the Egyptian military.

Saudi Arabia announced an aid package to the new Egyptian government that dwarfed the largesse provided by Turkey to the democratically elected government. Qatar too reluctantly fell in line, not wishing to annoy Washington any further. The Barack Obama administration was already miffed with the emirate for lavishly patronising jehadist groupings in Syria and other parts of the world. Qatar had also shown a preference for the Muslim Brotherhood over other Islamic parties. Erdogan’s public ire was, however, reserved for the E.U. He accused the E.U. of having “double standards” on the issue of democracy. On July 5, he said that the E.U. had “disregarded its own values once again by not calling the Egyptian army coup a coup”. He went on to add that all those trying “to cover up coups and remain silent about them were as responsible as the coup makers”.

Ditching Syria

The scenario for Turkey in the region and beyond is threatening to unravel. Though Turkish officials and politicians from the ruling AK Party vehemently deny that they had miscalculated their policy on Syria, it is evident from facts on the ground that expecting a regime change in Damascus any time soon is a pipe dream. Erdogan’s decision to ditch his good friend Bashar al-Assad and openly side with the motley group of rebels waging “jehad” inside Syria seems to have been a serious error of judgment. The two leaders and their families used to vacation together. There were annual meetings between the Cabinets of the two governments to enhance common strategic development. Turkey has established such mechanisms with 13 other countries. The one with Syria has broken down irretrievably along with a basic tenet of Erdogan’s foreign policy—that of forging closer regional links and taking “regional ownership” in solving conflicts in the neighbourhood.

After two years of bloodshed, the government in Damascus is slowly but surely reclaiming towns and territory it had lost. The Obama administration’s announcement in June that it would directly arm the opposition in Syria was no great diplomatic triumph for Ankara. Erdogan, during his Washington visit, had hoped that President Obama would opt for a more robust military intervention leading to the setting up of “no-fly zones” over Syria. Washington, on the other hand, has indicated that while it will continue to arm and train rebel groupings selectively, it prefers a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria.

Relations between Washington and Ankara have soured a bit in recent times. Turkey’s withdrawal of its Ambassador from Israel in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident was not appreciated in Washington. Turkey is Israel’s closest strategic ally in the region. Israel has now agreed to pay compensation for those killed in the Israeli commando action against Turkish citizens. According to analysts from a Turkish think tank in Ankara, the International Strategic Research Organisation, a rapprochement with Israel will have a positive impact on Turkey-United States relations. After Israel, Turkey spends the highest on lobbyists in the U.S.

No choice on Syria

According to the narrative of senior Turkish officials in the Foreign Ministry, the Syrian Army’s recent gains are all thanks to the presence of foreign fighters from Hizbollah and Iran. “There are close to 10,000 Shia mercenaries. They will spread sectarianism,” claimed Can Dizdar, Deputy Director General for the Middle East in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He chose to gloss over the infusion of foreign jehadis into Syria to fight a holy war against the government there. According to Dizdar, the Syrian Army’s strength has been depleted to 45,000 and the rebels are making steady military progress in Dera and other parts of Syria. Dizdar denied charges that the Turkish government allowed the Al Nusra brigades, an Al Qaeda affiliate, to cross over from their territory into Syria. He said that many of the Al Nusra fighters were from Chechnya, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dizdar asserted that Turkey was left with no choice on Syria. “Turkey had to choose the people, we had no choice,” he said.

Turkey has now reconciled to the holding of Geneva II talks on Syria as originally proposed by the Russian government. Ankara, like Washington, wants the rebels to first improve their military position on the ground so as to have better leverage over the government in Damascus. Turkey is no longer insisting that the Syrian President quit before meaningful talks begin. “Assad should leave at a certain stage before the transition starts,” said Dizdar, adding that ethnic identities would come to the fore in Syria with the Alawites going their own way if the fighting dragged on. Idris Bal, a senior AK Party Member of Parliament, conceded that sectarianism had cropped up in Syria. “The conflict now is between different sects,” he said. “Russia, China and Iran are using Syria as a test case to undermine NATO’s relevance in the region,” he claimed.

Turkey, he said, wanted the Syrian crisis to get over while Iran wanted to ensure that the events in Syria did not become contagious. Dizdar asserted that neither Turkey nor the opposition in Syria wanted “foreign troops in Syria”. He, however, said the situation on the ground could change if something dramatic happened. Dizdar noted that many of Assad’s close associates had already been physically eliminated by the armed opposition. Bal from the AK Party, on the other hand, says that he will prefer other states to militarily intervene in Syria, either under the U.N. or under the NATO umbrella. He conceded that the Turkish government had “underestimated” the staying power of Russia, Iran and Hizbollah in Syria.

Turkish officials, however, say that the talks on Syria can be meaningful if Iran too is invited for the proposed Geneva II talks. The Obama administration continues to remain opposed to any Iranian presence in talks relating to Syria. “We want an end to the conflict in Syria. The U.S. is not taking concrete steps to end the conflict. Iran is part of the conflict and should be invited to participate in the Geneva conference,” said Bal. Erdogan is aware that his government’s involvement in Syria has become very unpopular domestically. It has further alienated the sizable Alevi minority inside Turkey, which shares kinship ties with the Alawites across the border in Syria.

The conflict in Syria has also bolstered the self-confidence of Kurds on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. To better concentrate on the fight with the Islamist insurgent groupings, the government in Damascus has given virtual autonomy to the northern and northeastern parts of the country inhabited by Syrian Kurds. This has encouraged the Kurds in Turkey to adopt a stronger negotiating stance vis-a-vis the Turkish government in the ongoing talks between the two sides. A truce was signed in March this year so that talks could begin to end the insurgency, which has been going on for more than 30 years. Mehmet Ozkan from the independent think tank SETA is of the opinion that “mutual trust” has to be first established between the Turkish government and the PKK for a meaningful truce to materialise. The PKK had agreed to withdraw from inside Turkey and move its forces to northern Iraq. The withdrawal so far has only been partial.

The countrywide protests sparked by the events in Istanbul’s Taksim Square may have dissipated. But the episode seems to have galvanised the youth and those groups that feel threatened by the AK Party’s growing grip on all levers of power. Nobody doubts that Erdogan remains the single most popular politician in the country, but it is unlikely that many of those who helped him gain more than 50 per cent of the votes in the last election will help him post such an impressive win again. Most analysts and officials this correspondent spoke to were of the view that the events of June would make the task of rewriting Turkey’s 1960 military-drafted Constitution more difficult. All parties agree in principle that the Constitutions need to be changed for Turkey to have the trappings of a truly democratic state.

The economy, which had been growing at a tigerish pace, is expected to slow down this year, adding to the growing woes of the government. Income per capita had tripled after Erdogan first assumed power a decade ago. It had recorded a remarkable annual growth rate of 6 per cent from 2002 to 2012. This year the forecast is not that rosy and the growth rate may be more than halved. Turkish officials are among the first to admit that the conflict in the region has made Turkey not all that attractive for FDI. Syria, through which Turkish goods used to flow to the wider West Asian markets, is no longer accessible. Tourism, which is a crucial sector for Turkey, has been affected to some extent. The towns near the border with Syria, which were until two years ago bustling with tourists, are now playing host to tens of thousands of unwelcome refugees.

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