...Turkey’s new, assertive – indeed aggressive – foreign policy is predicated on the notion that the West is on the decline. Yet as they rather carelessly wield their newfound power, the Turks seem curiously oblivious to the risks of overreaching.
Turkish foreign policy has become increasingly self-assured and activist. ...
- Ankara has turned an antagonistic relationship with Damascus into a strategic partnership;
- it has turned a policy of isolating northern Iraq into one of engagement with the Kurdish leadership there.
- Ankara also built close ties with the Islamic republic of Iran;
- it has cultivated gulf regimes, as well as notably Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan.
- Most importantly, the AKP has deepened Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East conflict, first by seeking to mediate between Syria and Israel, but increasingly by overtly taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ankara has re-oriented its foreign policy ...[which] was always schizophrenic, combining links and ties that did not appear to be easily combined. ...Turkey could function as an interlocutor between the West and Iran, Syria, or Hamas, and be a positive influence on these forces. Secondly, Washington itself has reached out to Damascus and Tehran, making it difficult to criticize neighboring Turkey for doing the same.
Yet it has grown increasingly difficult to explain the AKP government’s foreign policy trajectory in exclusively benevolent terms. While ties to Syria and Iran are understandable given Turkey’s proximity to these countries – and the necessity, not least, to secure their cooperation in combating Kurdish separatism – that hardly explains the lengths to which Ankara has gone in publicly defending Iran’s nuclear program, as Prime Minister Erdoğan and Turkish diplomats have repeatedly done. Likewise, the tilt toward the Palestinian side is understandable in a country where pro-Palestinian sentiment is strong ...However, none of this explains why the AKP began overtly championing the Hamas movement, while keeping a much colder attitude to the Fatah leadership in the West Bank. Only the AKP’s ideological baggage can explain these choices.
...The IHH (Insani Yardım Vakfı), which organized the recent flotilla to Gaza, is an example of how NGOs are used in the foreign policy sphere... The IHH operates joint projects with the Turkish Agency for International Development, and is reported to have been used by the government in order to shore up Turkey’s position in northern Iraq by distributing aid to populations there. The IHH has its origins in the Orthodox Islamic Milli Görüş movement, from which the AKP organizationally split in 2001. As such, the IHH is known as a dyed-in-the-wool Islamist movement, which has been suspected and investigated repeatedly for alleged involvement in arms shipment to Islamic forces in various conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Bosnia. Leading former French counter-terror magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière has repeatedly testified that the IHH had ‘clear, long-standing ties to terrorism and Jihad’, including ties to Al Qaeda in the late 1990s.
While IHH is close to the more Orthodox Islamic Saadet (Felicity) Party, ties between individual high-ranking AKP figures and the IHH are known to be close as well. IHH acquired the Mavi Marmara ship from the AKP-run municipality of Istanbul. It is not conceivable that the IHH’s Gaza operation could have been carried out absent high-level government sanction.
But unexpectedly, the confrontation with Israel has opened up a rift within the Islamic conservative movement. The influential Fethullah Gülen religious community – for which the AKP depends on for support and cadres – seems unhappy with Erdoğan’s anti-Israeli stance. In a statement that came as a shock to many in Turkey, Gülen overtly criticized the Gaza flotilla for having failed to seek accord with Israel in delivering the aid (as Gülen’s own aid to Gaza does). Gülen may disagree with the AKP on principle, or just view Erdoğan’s reckless policies as a liability to his own vision for Turkey – but the rift appears real nonetheless.
...Turkey has threatened drastic measures unless Israel bows to Turkish demands that include not only apologies and an international investigation, but lifting the blockade of Gaza. This leads to the obvious question whether decision-makers in Ankara truly believe that they will be successful in dictating to Israel, or for that matter to the United States, what course of action to take.
If that is the case, it would suggest a level of hubris hitherto unseen in Turkish foreign policy. If not, it would suggest ulterior motives – perhaps setting unrealistic demands that, when not met, would be used to justify measures that will make Turkey’s international realignment even more dramatically obvious.
Turkey’s growing economic clout does indeed legitimate its aspiration to have a decisive say in Middle Eastern matters. While Turkey enjoys an advantageous position as a consequence of its relatively strong economy, the structural political instability of the country will inevitably hamper its foreign aspirations and make it vulnerable.
...The founding generation of the Turkish republic had first-hand experience of the costs of imperial designs and political adventurism, and for decades Turkey mostly stuck to a cautious and balanced foreign policy.
The present rulers of Turkey have made it abundantly clear that past restraints do not apply to them. The question is whether or not their assessment of Turkish power is sufficiently well founded. Ostentatiously seeking zero-problems with neighbors, Turkey has ended up taking on an erstwhile strategic partner in the region.
As it rather carelessly wields its newfound power, the AKP government seems curiously oblivious to the risks of overreaching. Davutoğlu’s zero-problem-with-neighbors policy was always predicated on the unrealistic assumption that none of Turkey’s neighbors had any intentions that run counter to Turkish interests. Likewise, the alienation of Israel was based on the equally unrealistic assumption that Turkey will never need the friendship of either Israel or its lobby in Washington. But mostly, perhaps, these policies have been based on the notion that America and the West need Turkey more than Turkey needs them. What is clear in the meantime is that the AKP leadership has set in motion a reassessment of assumptions in the West, and particularly the United States, about Turkey’s reliability as an ally and partner.
*Svante E. Cornell is Editor-in-Chief of the Turkey Analyst, and Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.