Well-meaning and with lofty goals, Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy came crashing down once the advent of the Arab uprisings exposed some of the policy's internal contradictions and shortcomings.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with striving to have no problems with neighboring countries, but Ankara's overly optimistic approach -- which, among other things, failed to see how its own ambitions for regional leadership would set off alarm bells in the capitals of other countries with similar aspirations -- was not able to withstand the tensions and dynamics unleashed by the new crises in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
But it's fairly clear now that Ankara is working on rebooting its regional foreign policy, with its strained relations with Iraq being used as a test case of what a new version of the "zero problems" policy might look like.
Ties between the two countries hit rock bottom in April of last year, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, upset about Ankara's support for his political rivals, labeled Turkey an “enemy state” bent on interfering in his country's internal affairs. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his Iraqi counterpart – leader of a Shiite party – was fanning the flames of sectarianism in Iraq. The exchange of words led to ambassadors being summoned in both capitals.
In recent weeks, though, Turkey and Iraq have had reciprocal visits by their foreign ministers, and visits by their prime ministers are in the works. Writing in Today's Zaman, analyst Yavuz Baydar provides the background to all the action taking place on the Turkey-Iraq front:
While Turkey's foreign policy in the Middle East has faltered over the last two years in the wake of the Arab uprisings, a region where Turkish diplomacy has racked up some important successes has been the Balkans, where Ankara has been behind a number of significant diplomatic and economic initiatives. But a comment made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a recent visit to Kosov is threatening to derail Ankara's Balkan express -- and again raises the question of what kind of impact does the mercurial leader's rhetoric have on his country's diplomacy.
During an address made last week while visiting the Balkan mini-state, which declared independence in 2008 after breaking away from Serbia, Erdogan told an audience in the city of Prizren: “Do not forget that Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo."
The comment drew an immediate rebuke from Serbian leaders, who not only called for Erdogan to apologize for his comments, but who also announced that they would freeze their participation in an upcoming trilateral meeting between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey, part of successful mechanism put in place by Ankara in 2009. From a report on the Serbian B92 website:
[President Tomislav Nikolić] underscored that the scandal triggered by the Turkish prime minister in Prizren constitutes brutal and reckless breach of good neighbourly relations and disrespect and violation of Serbia's sovereignty by a revision of history.
Nikolić said that when he took on the position of the president, he also took on the good relations with Turkey set up by his predecessor, former president Boris Tadić.
When they were signed in Switzerland in October of 2009, the normalization accords between Turkey and Armenia promised to be perhaps the fullest expression of Ankara's then new (and now failed) "zero problems with neighbors" policy, restoring diplomatic ties with a country that had strong historical grievances against Turkey.
Sadly, the accords never went much further, languishing to this day in the Turkish and Armenian parliaments, where they have yet to be ratified. Although both sides blame the other for the failure of the process, the general consensus among experts is that what mostly doomed the process was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence after the protocols were signed that their ratification be linked to the successful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, a precondition that was not part of the original negotiations between Ankara and Yerevan. (For a thorough history of the rise and fall of the protocols, take a look at this report by David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights Institute for the Study of Human Rights.)
Is there any prospect for the Turkey-Armenia normalization process to be revived? Yesterday, on the signing's fourth anniversary, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested Turkey is still trying to find ways to move forward. From Today's Zaman:
As discussed in a previous post, Turkey's vocal criticism of the recent military takeover in Egypt -- much of it a reflection of the Turkish leadership's fear of they themselves being the target of a coup -- managed to create severe strains between Ankara and Cairo.
Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has toned down his criticism since the early weeks of the Egyptian coup, the new leadership in Cairo doesn't seem quite ready to give Ankara a pass. For evidence of that, look to Egypt's state-run media, which appears to be delighting in running items designed to needle Turkey. On Monday, for example, the website of Al-Ahram ran a juicy item reporting that Egyptian writers and actors, angered by Ankara's policies, are calling for a boycott of the crown jewel in Turkey's regional soft power arsenal: its exceedingly popular soap operas. From the article:
Considering the support the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has shown for Morsi, calls for a boycott have been raised by a number of production companies and the Egyptian Cinema Syndicate.
According to television director and the head of the Egyptian Cinema Syndicate Mossad Fouda "Such an initiative was important. It received mass attention from different production companies; both private and governmental. Also, many satellite channels prevented the broadcasting of Turkish series as a protest to the Turkish intervention in Egyptian affairs and because of its negative stance towards the 30 June Revolution."
In the early days of the 2011 Tahrir revolution in Egypt, a then status quo-oriented Turkey was criticized by some for at first having little to say about the unfolding events in Cairo (it was only once it became fairly clear that Mubarak would fall that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan started vocally calling on the Egyptian leader to step down). Following the recent ouster by the Egyptian military of democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, Turkey’s problem seems to be reversed: keeping Erdogan from saying too much about what’s happening in Egypt.
In the wake of the coup in Egypt, Erdogan was without a doubt the most outspoken international critic of the military’s action, issuing a steady stream of denunciations – not just of the Egyptian generals but also of the western countries that refrained from calling Morsi’s ouster a coup – and, at one point, referring to the deposed Egyptian leader as “my president in Egypt” and boasting of having refused to take a call from Mohammed ElBaradei, the liberal former diplomat appointed interim Vice President. Erdogan’s lambasting of the new regime in Egypt reached such a level that Cairo pointedly warned Ankara not to “interfere” in its internal affairs, while the Turkish PM felt obliged to publicly state that he is not “obsessed” with Morsi.
Today marks the third anniversary of the Mavi Marmara incident, an Israeli military raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla to Gaza that resulted in the death of nine Turks and in the shattering of the once-close ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.
In March, Turkey and Israel -- with American help -- started what looks like will be a drawn-out reconciliation process. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and apologized for "operational mistakes" made during the incident that resulted in the loss of life, meeting one of the three conditions set forth by Ankara for diplomatic relations to be restored. The two countries are now working on the second condition, compensation for the victims, which is where they seem to be getting stuck. As Ha'aretz recently reported, Israel is offering to pay $100,000 to each victim's family, while Turkey is demanding $1 million (Turkish officials have denied the Israeli report).
Things will likely get more complicated in terms of the third condition, which, as set forth by Erdogan, is Israel's lifting of its blockade on Gaza. During his recent visit to Washington, the Turkish leader again stated that relations with Israel could only be restarted once this condition has been met. So far, there has no been any indication from either side about how they plan to deal with this complicating issue beyond some vague statements made by Turkish officials about Israel taking "positive" steps to improve conditions in Gaza.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Washington last week hoping to get Washington to commit to taking a more assertive stance on Syria, but in the end left with very little of what he wanted.
In fact, if anyone changed their positions during the visit, it was the normally strong-headed Erdogan, who came away from his meeting with President Barack Obama in support of Washington's efforts to put together an international conference on solving the crisis in Syria, dubbed Geneva II. Erdogan had previously been dismissive of such a diplomatic effort, calling it a stall tactic by the Assad regime and its supporters, but in Washington he sang a different tune, saying he was now in favor of Geneva II, particularly since Russia -- Assad's main supporter -- and China are now expected to participate.
Veteran Turkish analyst Cengiz Candar, writing for the Al Monitor website, explains how the White House got Erdogan to change positions:
The Americans pampered Erdogan enough to twist his arm without hurting and enabled him to showcase his Washington visit to the Turkish public as a victorious diplomatic fanfare. The meeting of delegations at the White House was unprecedentedly crowded with 1+13, that is in addition to Erdogan and Obama, there were 13 others on both sides. Americans accommodated the Turkish whim for this ludicrous number clearly with prospects of possible profits.
Like most other countries, Turkey has no desire to see the current Syrian regime stay in power but also has little appetite for intervening militarily in Syria. At the same time, like many of its neighbors, Ankara is finding itself dealing with a growing Syrian refugee and humanitarian crisis, one that could have a disruptive effect on Turkey's own domestic affairs.
A new report released today the International Crisis Group takes a look at this dynamic, suggesting that Ankara needs to recalibrate its Syria policy if it wants to keep the effects of the conflict in that country from spilling across the border. From the ICG's report:
Turkey has no capacity to solve intractable problems inside Syria alone, and is not considering significant military intervention. Stepped-up arming of opposition fighters seems unlikely to enable them to topple the regime quickly. And Turkey’s wishful thinking about the Ottoman past and a leading historical and economic role in its Sunni Muslim neighbourhood is at odds with the present reality that it now has an uncontrollable, fractured, radicalised no-man’s-land on its doorstep. Meanwhile, the suffering of millions of civilians in Syria continues. Even though Ankara has responded well over the past two years, it will need more support as the refugee crisis becomes larger and protracted. Turkey should allow UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations greater access. EU member states should also show more solidarity by facilitating access to their territory for fleeing Syrians, who should not be turned away at either EU borders and should be granted asylum.
Compared to previous years, this April 24 -- the day that commemorates the 1915 destruction of the Ottoman Armenians -- has arrived with few diplomatic problems for Turkey. There were no resolutions in other countries' legislative bodies recognizing the 1915 events as a genocide to fight off and no foreign governments to spar with over the issue.
But could this merely be the calm before the storm? In two years, which will mark the centennial of the 1915 events, Ankara will likely be facing a very different picture, with preparations already being made to use the occasion to, as one Armenian website put it, "take Genocide recognition to a new dimension."
Turkey's policymakers are not unaware of the preparations being made for 2015. In fact, as the Hurriyet Daily News's Barcin Yinanc suggests, they have a careful plan for how to deal with what's coming. From her report:
No one, of course, should expect the Turkish government to remain idle regarding these activities.
Iraq has been the site of one of the great turnarounds in Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, in the north, Ankara has gone from having dreadful relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government -- it was not that long ago that Turkish government officials refrained from even using the word "Kurdistan" -- to working closely on a host of political and economic issues with the Kurdish-led government there. On the other hand, Ankara's relations with Baghdad have taken a nosedive over the last few years, with the Turkish and Iraqi governments failing to see eye-to-eye on a score of issues.
These simultaneous changes are, of course, not isolated from each other. One of the issues driving a wedge between Turkey and Iraq is the question of Ankara's energy ties with the KRG and whether the Iraqi Kurds can bypass the central government in Baghdad and sign independent energy deals with the Turks. The issue may get even more complicated if a recent report by Bloomberg, which claims Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have signed a secret deal to send northern Iraqi oil and gas to Turkey, is true. From Bloomberg's report:
Iraq’s Kurdish region has signed a landmark agreement with Turkey to supply it directly with oil and gas, two people familiar with the matter said.
The accord was signed last month when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Ankara, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, contacted via his press office, declined to comment, as did an Iraqi Kurdish official. The Oil Ministry in Baghdad didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.