Not unlike other powers that have an interest in the region, Turkey was taken by surprise regarding the coming of the Arab Spring. During the recent years, in its efforts to develop closer ties with countries of the region, Turkey had taken the existing regimes as a given and had not considered it likely that they were to change in the foreseeable future. Without doubt, the thinking went, there would be occasional mass manifestations against existing political arrangements but surely they would be brought under control by the rulers, even if that took resorting to brutal methods. Furthermore, many of the regimes had good relations with countries of Western Europe and the United States such that external challenges to their domestic authority were unlikely. Accordingly, rather than focusing on export of democracy, a form of rule that is in need of further improvement in Turkey itself, it chose to build close ties, to the extent possible, with all countries in the region.
Initially, Turkey’s growing involvement in the Arab Middle East was driven primarily by economic considerations. As these relations expanded, Turkey added an aspiration to regional leadership to its foreign policy motivations. That Egypt failed to provide leadership on account of its inability to deal with its domestic problems provided the opening it needed to bolster its role as a regional leader. Turkey quickly came to view itself as a power with historical ties and interest in the region that would broker peace among the quarreling parties which, at the beginning, included Israel. After Turkish-Israeli relations began to deteriorate, Turkey focused on extending help to Gaza and supporting Palestinian aspirations to establish their own state.
When mass demonstrations forced the Tunisian president out of office and those events came to be replicated in Egypt, Turkey did not appreciate, probably along with many others, that this marked the beginning of a contagion that would quickly spread to the entire region. Tunisia was outside the domain of major Turkish interests ; Egypt, on the other hand, was perceived as a competitor in regional pretensions and an impediment to giving more help to the Palestinians. Therefore, initially, Turkey expressed favorable views of demands for change and encouraged Mr. Mubarak to exercise restraint and listen to the demands of the people on the streets.
Deciding what to do became more difficult when incidents broke out in Libya. Turkey had cultivated good relations with the Kaddafi regime. Turkish companies had obtained contracts totaling nearly $30 billion and there were more than 20,000 Turkish workers in the country. Hence, when international intervention to bring about change in Libya was first mentioned, accompanied by suggestions that NATO might be the appropriate instrument, the reaction of the Turkish prime minister was “What business does NATO have in Libya ?!” Nevertheless, in view of the intensifying disturbances, Turkey began to vacate Turkish workers and those of some other nationalities by airlifts and by sea.
Soon Turkey became aware that Western European countries and the United States were determined not to allow Kaddafi to enjoy the unlimited power he had been enjoying thus far as ruler. On the other hand, Turkey’s shying away from NATO’s imposition of a no-fly zone would not only alienate it from its allies but also offer the leadership of the operation to France on a golden plate, a situation that Turkey found unacceptable. Furthermore, the Libyan opposition concentrated around Benghazi began to express dissatisfaction with the Turkish position and some anti-Turkish demonstrations occurred. With special fondness for support in the Arab street, the Turkish prime minister apparently decided that it was preferable to cooperate with the provisional government and have his country stay in the game.
Soon Syria evolved into another major foreign policy challenge. The belated spread of incidents to Syria had generated an initial optimism that it might be spared from them, but the expectation was not borne out. Turkey, with increasingly close relations with the Bashar al-Assad government, felt that it might advise moderation to the Syrian president and accommodation of the opposition. That may have actually reflected an inaccurate assessment of the regime. Reminiscent of the way Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi had threatened the opposition with slaughter unless they surrendered, Assad has chosen to send his soldiers and police to fire on the demonstrators. Each Friday, dozens of new deaths continue to be reported during the demonstrations that come after noon prayers.
In contrast to Libya, conducting air strikes against Syria would be logistically more difficult. There seems to be little enthusiasm among the allies to assume more commitments in the Middle East. Syria is not important as a major producer of oil or as a major transport route. Therefore, sanctions imposed against Syria such as freezing the bank accounts of its political leaders appear to be more modest and less effective than military measures. But whether a Syrian regime that is economically weak and politically isolated will be able to survive the pressure is uncertain. Furthermore, the violent way the government has treated the opposition renders it very difficult to make a case for negotiations.
Turkey continues to support a path of accommodation with the opposition, political liberalization, and the conduct of elections in Syria, although it appears less and less likely that a peaceful transition guided by the current regime will be realized. Recently, Turkey has permitted a meeting of the Syrian opposition in Antalya, Turkey. Although it is not unusual for countries of Western Europe to allow such meetings to be held in their countries and treat them as natural manifestations of ordinary democratic freedoms, it is not within the Turkish bureaucratic tradition to accommodate them. This gesture marks a significant departure from past practice and may indicate a more confident, democratic, and sophisticated new approach to foreign policymaking.
Adjustment of Policy
Facing difficult choices in Libya and Syria, Turkey has opted for staying within the general boundaries of the U.S. and European response to the developments. But more challenges lie ahead. The spirit of the Arab Spring continues to haunt other authoritarian regimes in the area. Some like the Yemen are geographically distant and not in the immediate zone of Turkish interest. In such cases, Turkey will likely follow the line of its European friends and allies. Although Turkey has not followed the international community in condemning the way the Sudanese government has handled Darfur, if demands for change lead to public manifestations, it would not be surprising if the Turkish government would again choose to join its allies, after some hesitation. This would hold true for Jordan as well. There is also no reason to suspect that Turkey will not retain its place in the double-standard approach that Western Europe and the United States have adopted toward Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The energy and financial stakes are too high to insist on democratic change. In addition, there is general agreement that Iranian influence should not be allowed to expand in the Gulf. Interestingly enough, change in this region is associated with growing Iranian influence. Though not explicit about it, Turkey also neither desires nor welcomes ascending Iranian regional influence.
The outcome of the Arab Spring is too uncertain yet to predict politically more stable and democratic days. Turkey appears to have adjusted its foreign policy to the changing realities, as have others. It is to be remembered that the French were close to the Tunisian leadership that has been ousted ; French President Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to be close friends with Kaddafi, as was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Both are now contributing to the effort to topple him. The United States had a close ally in the person of Mubarak but decided to support those who demanded political change. It debated whether it should get involved in Libya at all before deciding that it ought to.
Dangerous Curves Ahead
There continue to be two areas where Turkish foreign policy appears to be at serious variance with that of its allies : how to deal with Iran and how to bring about an Arab-Israeli settlement. As regards Iran, although Turkey does not want a nuclear Iran and observes the UN sanctioned part of the embargo, now that Iran has intensified its efforts to penetrate further into Arab Middle East using its claim to Shia leadership, clashes between it and the U.S.-EU coalition may intensify. If Turkish support is expected in employing new means to restrain Iran, this may present another not so easy choice for Turkey. As regards Israel, the process of deterioration that commenced after Turkey felt used by Israel in its efforts to bring about an agreement between it and Syria and reached a climax with the Israeli attack on a humanitarian aid ship on the high seas that culminated in the death of nine Turks remains unsolved. There are plans for a second humanitarian aid flotilla that is to go to Gaza during the second half of the month, despite strong discouragement from the United States. If the second flotilla is sent and unfortunate developments reminiscent of the first one occur, it will become exceptionally difficult to repair Turkish-Israeli relations, which will inevitably have repercussions on Turkish-American relations.
Turkish foreign policy has successfully adjusted to the outcome of the initial wave of regime change demands in the Arab Middle East. The longer range problems of an expansionist and nuclear Iran and the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, on the other hand, continue to present dangerous challenges to Turkish foreign policy as well as to those of its allies. There are, in other words, dangerous curves ahead.