By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: The rise of Turkish influence in the Middle East over the last fifteen years has been something that has been talked about for a long time. With the advent of the Qatar sanctions, and the direct involvement of the Turkish government in protecting the Qatari regime there (with 5,000 troops protecting key sites and palaces of the Al Thani mostly from an internal coup) there is much to discuss about the development of this foreign policy and what led the Turks back into the region.
In the past and present, many commentators on Turkish foreign policy have looked at Turkey’s actions through an ideological lens based of Turkey’s unique Western and Eastern Islamic identity. We should be looking at the more pragmatic motives of different Turkish regimes since Turkish independence. Both the father of the Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk’s disengaged from Middle Eastern politics and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-engagement with the region are practical responses to strategic realities according to Middle East Democracy editor Nicholas Danforth, not just driven by nationalist ideology or Islamic values. I generally argue that while ideological arguments do drive foreign policy formation the pragmatic reasons usually trump them (no pun intended).
During the Ataturk period Turkey was firmly oriented towards becoming a modern Western industrial state and had a staunchly isolationist policy. Turkey’s embarrassing loss during the First World War, the loss of its former territories to the European imperialists, and the clear economic gap between the new rump state and its Western rivals meant that the former colonial territories represented a scar that most Turkish leadership wanted to forget. Moving beyond Turkey’s Cold War alignment with NATO became the hallmark of the government’s foreign policy during the last half of the 20th century which meant situating the country further into Europe and ensuring Turkish access to Western European influence and economic opportunities; something that Ataturkist nationalists saw as vital for Turkey’s quest to be modern.
After the end of the Cold War, the new Turkish President, Turgut Özal, began a less traditional Kemalist policy, with the policy of exploiting opportunities to enhance Turkey’s regional capabilities and economic position. This worked, by the start of the 1990s the Turkish economy was increasingly export oriented and more integrated with markets in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria and Romania mostly) and other post-Soviet Bloc states, especially the Central Asian Turkic states, which had previously been off limits to relations with Turkey.
In 2000, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who later became Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor argued that the President’s desire to fuse Turkey’s Western and Islamic identity would improve relations with all Turkey’s neighbours. Davutoğlu criticized Ataturk’s policy of disengagement with the region on pragmatic terms, as many opportunities, in the region had been missed by the fixation on Europe.
But the number of regional and global changes that have occurred since the turn of the century with Turkey have made Turkey’s bridging role very difficult if not impossible.
First off, the decline of the United State’s soft and hard power and the rise of China, the European Union, and Russia has complicated Turkey’s relationship with its neighbours. The disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 have made it difficult for Turkey to support its most important ally at the same time as it balances its growing role in the Muslim world, where anti-Americanism is on the rise. Nonetheless this relationship is vital for many political, social, and military reasons that will not disappear anytime in the next decades.
Before 2008, European Union membership was central to the objective of the foreign policy establishment in Ankara, but the 2008 stock market crash and the instability caused by Greek debt default and the subsequent implosion of nationalist pressures has led to a decline in support from the Turkish public.
The Arab Spring also complicated things much further. When the revolts started Erdogan saw an opportunity to unite with popular Islamist forces with similar ideologies as his Justice and Development Party (AKP). This was a pragmatic move to open these previously closed economies to new Turkish investment. When Tunisian President Zein Bin Ali fled Tunis after the revolution had overthrown his government the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the “Tunisian revolt could be model for other countries seeking reform”. Turkey immediately started supporting the new regime politically and economically.
At the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution in January 2011 Turkey fully supported the evolutionary spirit, and hastily signed many military, investment, and trade agreements between the two countries. With the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi regime in late June 2013 all these agreements disappeared. Turkey has refused to fully recognize the legitimacy of the Sisi regime and coupled with the failure of Turkish backed groups to overthrow the Syrian regime has been a painful setback for Turkey’s role in the region. Turkey’s pragmatic approach is demonstrated in its confusion with intervention in Libya, where it had significant investments and interests (160 Turkish companies and 1.9 billion USD in 2010) as well as a close personal relationship between Erdogan and Gaddafi. At the beginning, Turkey rejected the NATO use of force and the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya and only later recanted under pressure from the other allies.
To complicate matters further the attempted coup on July 15th has led to a series of domestic disturbances, mass arrests, and a weakening of military morale. The Turkish state was already in crisis mode before July 15th (at least since 2014) but the continuing dislocation of traditional foreign policy actors in the Armed Forces, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and National Security Council, a very volatile and threatening security environment on its borders with the Kurdish question, and the divisive nature of amendments to the Turkish parliamentary and presidential system has meant that the Turkish foreign policy is not only convoluted but increasingly in the hands of one man, Erdogan, and like Trump in the U.S. is battling his own establishment and electorate with decisions that they may not agree with.
Turkey’s support for Doha in the Qatari crisis can be seen as the melancholic end to an illusion created by the Turkish elite, one in which the Turkish regime could quickly create a set of relations with its neighbours that would overcome centuries of bitterness and divisive relations. Qatar is the last bastion of that policy, one in which the Turks will likely hold onto for dear life now that it is really all that is left of their poorly formulated plans. Clearly, Erdogan has not learned from his Ottoman forbearers or the policies of Ataturk, or more recently the blundering of American policy, which has been a total failure since 2001. There was a very good reason post-Ottoman Turkey kept out of much of the crises of its neighbours for over sixty years after they had made a mess for over 700 years for their Arab neighbours.
* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.