In its first and second term Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) forged very good relations with regional countries in general, Syria in particular. This was a very wise decision which also had very positive economic gains. Its neighbor with whom it shares the longest border, Syria has been one of Turkey’s most important neighbors. This was a huge development in Turkish foreign policy. Both countries came to the brink of war in the fall of 1998 because of the Hafez al-Assad regime’s support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The regime provided separatist Kurdish guerrillas with bases and logistics while PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan sought refuge in and led the group from Syria for decades.
However the 1998 military coercion of Turkey led to a policy change in Syria towards the PKK. Then in 2000 when Hafez al-Assad died, his son Bashar al-Assad took over. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad, two new names in their countries’ political scenes, developed very good relations. The emerging good relations had direct effects on economic and social relations. Trade between the two countries boomed. Syria was a new market with its low standards, particularly for newly emerging Anatolian businesses in cities like Gaziantep and Kayseri. Increase in trade led to cultural exchanges as well. The number of tourists from both sides increased dramatically. This emerging and developing relations lasted until the 2011 Syrian crisis as part of the Arab Spring.
The Arab revolutions that kicked off in early 2011 have hugely effected Turkey’s orientation towards the Middle East. Ankara’s foreign policy orientation towards the Middle East moved from a diplomatic, non-interference policy to an interventionist, revisionist one, even imperialist to some people. In terms of foreign policymaking, Turkey resembled the US in terms of relying on its military might to shape the direction of its foreign relations in order to maintain supremacy of its global political economy or economic hegemony.
Erdoğan’s soaring popularity post-Davos
When the so-called “zero problems with neighbors” policy was guiding Turkish foreign relations, in his visits to Middle Eastern countries Erdoğan interacted with ordinary people on the Arab streets. The popular support in the region particularly in the aftermath of the Davos incident in 2009 led him to believe that he is the leader of the region. He saw how the people of the countries, particularly in Syria, Egypt and other North African countries, welcomed him, waving flags with his photos and his party’s symbol. This picture of the region may have had a huge impact on the Turkish ruling elite such that they may have believed he is the leader whom all the people of the region were yearning for. This psychology may have had a huge effect on Turkey’s foreign policy towards regional countries. There has at least been a shift from seeing neighboring countries as equal partners to younger brothers needing guidance from big brother. This understanding has gone further and Turkey has aimed to redesign the region via engaging with armed opposition groups in the region.
Related to Syria it is surprising that since onset of the crisis the AKP has been insisting on a regime change. In this the AKP government has even become even more assertive than the US. Then-foreign minister and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had spoken with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, saying Assad must go and that Turkey insists on this. He presented this option as the only solution to the problem. It is not easy to believe that this same person was once regarded as the architect of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy. His response also made it seem as though he is not aware of global politics, power balances and the effect of UN Security Council members on the Syrian crisis. It is well known that Russia has good relations with the Assad regime and supports it being in power. China has also made its position clear in UN Security Council meetings. It appears that the strategic depth doctrine and its “zero problems with neighbors” policy byproduct, and furthermore the architect of these policies, are in a strategic crisis. They do not have any Plan B and all their calculations are based on the collapse of the Assad regime, which seems to be a miscalculation.
From the onset of the Syrian crisis the ruling AKP took sides against the Syrian regime. They calculated that the Assad regime was on its way out. Professor Bulent Gokay from Keele University noted that “just over two years ago, Ahmet Davutoğlu had famously declared that Assad was about to fall in a matter of weeks. More than 100 weeks have passed; Assad did more than just hold his ground, he has even gained the upper hand in the civil war.” Turkey actively engaged with opposition groups to have a say in the future of Syria and to maintain its political clout in the region. This attempt was not behind closed doors but the official policy. They summoned opposition groups to İstanbul in 2011 and organized them against the Assad regime. This active involvement by the Turkish government in the “domestic politics” of Syria was counterproductive and antagonized the political and economic relations developed between the Assad regime and Turkey in the last decade. In Ziya Öniş’s words, the “proactive foreign policy of the AKP government in recent years has not been effective in terms of facilitating reforms or a regime change in Syria or influencing the direction of political change in Egypt.”
I think the answer to the question searching for the reason behind this sudden policy change towards Syria is the “imagination” mentioned above — the imagination-led domestication by the Turkish ruling elite of the developments in the region. The problems in Egypt, Syria and Iraq were seen as domestic problems and they did not view directly interfering as problematic.
This active involvement has gradually drawn Turkey into a “cold war” in the region. The reflection of this cold war showed its proxies as sectarian conflicts in the region. Turkey faces losing all its economic gains achieved in the last decade in its region. It was this fear of losing a market that Turkey insisted on a regime change in Syria. To do so, it engaged with radical jihadist groups with the same logic of the US, which once supported jihadists against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Mustafa Demir is a Ph.D. candidate in politics and international relations at the Institute for Social Sciences at Keele University, United Kingdom.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman. Click here to go to the original.