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Turkey's Foreign Policy Towards the Middle East: An Interview with Asli Bali (Part 1)

[Cartoon by Ingram Pinn] [Cartoon by Ingram Pinn]

This is Part 1 of a two-part interview in which Asli Bali discusses Turkey's foreign policy interests and obejectives with regards to the Middle East. In Part 1, Asli tackels the question of whether Turkey's foreign policy positions vis-a-vis the Middle East have changed with respect to what is otherwise described as a "western orientation." She also explores whether whatever changes have occured can be traced directly to the AKP's rise to power within Turkish domestic policy, or rather form part of a larger strategic calculation on the part of Turkey's political elites. The interview was conducted on 30 November 2011 by phone. It was transcribed by Ziad Abu-Rish.

Edited Transcripts (Audio File Below)

Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): What is your understanding of Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East, prior to both the May 2010 flotilla attack and the 2011 Arab uprisings?

Asli Bali (AB): Turkish foreign policy towards the Arab world essentially changed at the turn of this century, during the beginning of the 2000-2001 period when it turned to a policy of engagement. This does not have to do with the Arab world per se, but rather a much broader rethinking of foreign policy in general. The idea was that—and this is particularly so after the first AKP government was elected in late 2002—Turkey needed to establish its own "strategic depth." I use this phrase because it is the title of a book published at the end of the 1990s by the man who is currently the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. He wrote a book entitled "Strategic Depth" in which he made the argument that while it was not a mistake for Turkey to be turned towards the West—and that in fact this was a good policy for Turkey to continue to pursue—the mistake was to have very little to offer in exchange for the relationship that Turkey was seeking to build with the European Union. Therefore, he argued, in order to make a case for why Turkey would be an asset for the European Union, it was important for Turkey to actually valorize its own geo-strategic position and, moreover, that it was in Turkey's interest to rebuild relationships with all of its neighbors. When he was making this argument, Turkey essentially had poor relations with every one of its neighbors: Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia, Georgia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, etc. It had essentially pursued a policy of isolation in its own region and was leapfrogging and looking past that region to Western Europe.

Beginning with the 1990s, when Turkey became more engaged with the Balkans as a result of the wars in Bosnia and Turkey's support for various groups that were fighting on behalf of Bosnian Muslims, there was a sort of sea change and a turn to thinking about our traditional relationships in the Balkans: traditional Turkish-Balkan relations. This was expanded upon by the argument put forth by Ahmet Davutoglu. So Turkey not only reengaged with the Arab world in this last ten-year period, but, for example, Turkey concluded basically ten times the number of agreements that it had in its entire republican history of the previous seventy-five years. There was a lifting of visa restrictions with Russia. There has been reengagement in the Balkans generally and Serbia in particular. There was also a rapprochement with Armenia, an attempt to resolve the ongoing Cyprus dispute, and then the establishment of very strong ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, in particular after the 2003 Iraq war, and now more generally with the Iraqi government as a whole. This was also the case with the Iranian government. Turkey has always had essentially positive relations with the Iranian government throughout its republican history. There has never been a time when that border was closed. But there was a new investment in that relationship, particularly around shared energy interests. And of course, there was Syria.

Thus, Turkey had decided that with respect to the Balkans, the Black Sea region, and its Arab neighbors, it was going to engage in a policy of investment which would enable Turkey to be a player that had real leverage given its fortunate and incredible geo-strategic location at the crossroads of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. In addition, Turkey has pursued a very aggressive set of policies of investment in both Africa and Central Asia, all the way through to Pakistan. So the reengagement with the Arab world was one piece of a much larger project, which should not be mistaken for some kind of neo-Ottoman approach. In fact, it bears little relation other than the fact that the Turkish state is located in the same region that the Ottoman Empire was in, and therefore its neighbors are those same areas in which the Ottoman Empire was either present or had relations in. But outside of that, it stretches far beyond anything related to Ottoman territories. This is not about imperial design. It is basically about pursuing what the government had already been doing domestically, which is a neo-liberal economic strategy of investment as a basis for growth, the development of constituencies, and foreign relations. All of these were also geared towards strengthening, rather than replacing, relationships with the United States and Western Europe.

This policy paid some dividends. First of all, the AKP government is the first government that enacted domestic reform policies and improved the foreign relations profile of Turkey sufficiently to have the European Union begin to have accession talks in 2004-2005. Obviously, Europe is now, and has been for some time, vexed in its own problems and Turkey has now once again been placed on a slower track. But this is not the result of anything that has happened on the Turkish end of the relationship. So the view that there was something specifically Arab prior to 2009 in the new orientation of Turkish foreign policy is a mistake in understanding. It was not particular to the Middle East. It was a general reengagement strategy towards all of the regions with which Turkey borders and some that are even further flung than that. The understanding that this is Turkey turning away from the West is also mistaken. Once we understand this, putting in perspective Turkey's so-called "zero problems" strategy of seeking to minimize hostile relations on all of its borders, we can understand what is happening as something different than simply a neo-Ottoman Middle Eastern policy.

ZA: In a previous interview addressing the Kurdish issue in Turkish domestic politics, you argued that there existed continuity rather than a break between the approaches of the Kemalist political establishment and that of the newly emergent AKP when it came to that issue. You seem to be arguing something similar with respect to foreign policy. Is this the case?

AB: That is right. First of all, some of the Balkan wars of the 1990s created both an occasion and a opportunity for Turkey to reinvest in the Balkans in particular because it had very sharp interests that were implicated and a very strong sense of solidarity within Turkey, particular in relation to the Muslim communities in the Balkans that had come under attack. Turkey had also already initiated a warming of relations with Greece. So some parts of the strategy certainly pre-date the AKP. This is also equally true of the economic strategy. Without any question, the path that Turkey was on following the finical crisis at the turn of the century was one that was set before the AKP was elected into office. So in many ways, there is great continuity on the foreign policy front. The AKP is building on a set of ways in which Turkey had emerged from a posture of isolation that—while certainly dated back to the 1982 military coup—had begun to erode by the 1990s. The AKP has placed its own stamp on that. There is no question about that, more so in the foreign policy arena than the domestic policy arena, but it is certainly more continuous than it is a break.

Now with particular respect to the Middle East, I think that there was a moment where we saw a real turning point. But I do not think that it is restricted to the AKP. This really came around the Gaza war and the transformation of what had until then been an important strategic partnership (with Israel) into a very tense relationship. Just briefly, as most of the listeners probably realize, Turkey had been mediating a set of different disputes in the region, including but not limited to negotiations between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights. Turkey had made some headway in the two year period of 2007-2009 within this regard, and it had been widely understood that the red lines around those negotiations had been that, on the one hand, Israel was not to change anything about the status quo with respect to Gaza—not to reinitiate the type of onslaught that occurred in 2006—and, on the other hand, Syria was to do everything within its power to keep Israel's northern border with south Lebanon stable. Those were the conditions under which Turkey was mediating, and those conditions had held during those two years. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a press conference with Ehud Olmert that December in Ankara in which they essentially spoke publicly about the progress that had been made on that negotiations track as well as a number of other ways in which the Turkish-Israeli relationship had been strengthened, particularly through business ties and other track-two connections between Turkey and Israel.

Then, within a very short period after that Olmert press conference, Israel initiated the war against Gaza at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. By all accounts, despite the appearance of having been at that press conference—and in fact the perception among the Turkish public that Erdogan had been put on notice during that press conference—very title has emerged to suggest that that was true. It seems as if he was absolutely taken by surprise as many other people in the region had been by this attack. He was genuinely horrified by what he was seeing in Gaza. He seems to have taken it quite personally. He saw it as a betrayal of the negotiations paths and a betrayal of the strategic relationship [with Israel] that he thought he had. Turkey was absolutely galvanized during the Gaza war in protest against Israeli actions to a degree I had never previously seen despite the fact that I have always made the argument—and it has always been clear to me—that as a public matter Turks have been very pro-Palestinian. Turkish foreign policy has obviously gone in the opposite direction and was quite unpopular with respect to Israel during the 1990s and 2000s. Now, after the 2008/2009 Gaza war, you had a meeting of the minds between the Turkish government and the public. You had mass demonstrations everywhere in Turkey to an extent I had never really seen, certainly not with respect to the Question of Palestine. That really marked the beginning of a turning point. It was followed, as many know, by a public event at Davos where Prime Minister Erdogan shared a stage with Shimon Perez, whereon they had a very public confrontation that set the tone for increasingly strained diplomatic relations between the governments. There was then another incident in which a member of the Israeli foreign ministry insulted the Turkish ambassador. It just went back and forth, back and forth, deteriorating throughout 2009.

However, obviously, it is the flotilla incident in May 2010—the fact that the Israeli government became the first army to ever open fire on Turkish civilians, Turkish citizens, in the history of the republic—that really brought relations to a grinding halt, at least at the governmental level. I think that is also a period during which Israel developed extremely strained relations with many other parts of the world. It was not only with Turkey that—beginning in 2009—Israel's relationship deteriorated. Therefore, the question of "why did this happen" is best answered by looking to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv rather than Ankara. Despite this, despite the fact that I do not think that this was something that was sought particularly by the Turkish government, the collateral effect of it was an increasing rise in popularity of Prime Minister Erdogan in the Arab world. I think this was not an important determinant of Turkish foreign policy. As recently as this year, the elections that took place in 2011, domestic elections in which the AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan did extremely well, there was next to no mention of foreign policy amongst the electoral platforms. The most contested issues all had to do with domestic issues such as the economy, the Kurdish community within Turkey, and other regional issues. So the perception that Erdogan's rising popularity in the Arab world is somehow a driver of his success at home is completely misleading. On the other hand, I do not doubt that he is very pleased with it. Turkey of course has, in the last year in particular, really been focusing on leveraging its position in the Arab world in light of the Arab uprisings.

ZA: Many pundits and analysts have expended quite a bit of energy on how the shifts in Turkish foreign policy you discuss represent a "turning away" from the west on Turkey's part. Can you say more about this idea, and whether you see the choices before the Turkish government as a zero-sum game? In other words, has Turkey been able to continue to maintain its western foreign policy orientation while at the same time taking advantage of its new interests and objectives in the region?

AB: The reality is that I do not think there has been a change with respect to Turkey's orientation to the west. But there is a greater assertiveness, in general, that Turkey is exhibiting with regards to its own role in the region it finds itself in, and as a result a greater autonomy in its policy choices. This may rankle some of its allies, like the United States, which have been accustomed to dictating policy outcomes for Turkey. Now this of course, again, is not as novel as people would suggest. There was a lot of talk about who lost Turkey and so forth when the Turkish parliament voted against allowing the United States to stage forces from Turkish NATO bases in its war against Iraq. That was already a moment in which these concerns were raised, and again they were misplaced. That was a moment when Turkey had learned the lesson of the previous Iraq war, which imposed tremendous costs on the country that had to be absorbed entirely domestically. Turkey was just not prepared to engage in an unprovoked second war with a neighbor. That decision was not about changing its polices with regards to the west. It was about a divergence of interests, in which Turkey's interests simply did not lie with backing US policy at that moment. I think this is increasingly the case was the west has sought to develop policies with respect to some of Turkey's neighbors that are premised on sanctions, isolation, punitive measures, and Turkey has chosen to instead take the approach of engagement, in part because it is much more costly for a frontline state to engage in strategies of sanctions and isolation which also impact its own capacity to conduct trade.

These kinds of divergences, genuine divergences of interests, are being misread as some kind of an axis shift on the part of Turkey. I think that is less the case now. I think a year ago, you could not open a paper without finding some article or column in the foreign policy/affairs section of a newspaper without suggesting that Turkey had “turned east” or that “we had lost Turkey.” I think that now, with Europe in disarray around both its monetary union and more generally around its own strategic orientation, as well as the United States being in a posture that is increasingly converging once again with Turkish interests—for example, Turkey has sort of joined an international movement to isolate Syria, which plays into the preferred US strategy—and therefore these types of arguments about how Turkey has turned in another direction have begun to recede. Having said that, Iran is obviously a touchstone where Turkish interests and US and European interests, at least as manifested now—the strategy the latter are pursuing today—remain divergent and that is a potential area where those interests will continue to conflict.

Interview with Asli Bali on Turkish Foreign Policy re Middle East (Part 1) by Jadaliyya

[Click here for Part 2 of this interview, wherein Asli specifically addresses Turkey's involvement in the Arab uprisings, with particular attention to Egypt, Libya, and Syria.]

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