Turkey: Back to Zero Problems with Neighbors?

by Omer Taspinar

During the earlier years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, Turkish foreign policy had a strategic vision based on improving relations with all neighboring countries in order to raise the country’s regional economic and diplomatic status. Those were the years when Ankara pursued a historic compromise in Cyprus, normalization with Armenia, mediation between Israel and Syria, and energy and construction deals with Russia. Ankara had particularly good relations with Damascus. Turkish diplomats had even taken steps towards mediating the conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Turkish soft power was on the rise, and both the United States and European Union hailed the country as a model Muslim democracy. As all good things come to an end, these golden years of the AKP ground to a halt by 2010.

What went wrong? Factors that contributed to Turkey’s regional isolation included problems with Israel related to Hamas and Gaza, a deadlock with Armenia, and a stalemate in Cyprus. Ankara supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but a military coup ousted this new ally. The crisis of the Arab Spring also precipitated the civil war in Syria, leading to major tensions with Moscow and Tehran as well. By late 2015, the country that once followed a zero-problems-with-neighbors strategy now had zero neighbors without problems.

As if all these regional challenges were not troubling enough, Turkey’s failure to find a peaceful and democratic solution to its own Kurdish problem made matters worse. The eventual failure of AKP’s Kurdish opening not only reignited the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency in the southeast but also aggravated problems in Syria, particularly in the context of the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Soon after the Syrian civil war began, Turkey’s Kurdish question became intimately linked with Kurdish dynamics in Syria. The AKP quickly realized that the expansion and consolidation of Kurdish autonomy in Syria would both strengthen the PKK and further fuel similar aspirations among Turkey’s own Kurds.

It is no coincidence that Turkey’s fragile peace process with the PKK collapsed as PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds (PYD) emerged as the most efficient military actors against IS and began receiving US military and logistic support. Pro-western, secular, and determined to fight for their homeland against IS, Syrian Kurds were now the darlings of the United States. Turkey, on the other hand, did not actively join the coalition against IS until 2015. Such reluctance coming from the only Muslim country in NATO contributed to Turkey’s negative image in Western circles.

The Obama administration decided to support the Syrian Kurds despite serious Turkish objections. In the eyes of Ankara, by supporting the PYD against IS, Washington was helping one terrorist organization in order to fight another. Washington, in turn, was highly frustrated that Ankara turned a blind eye to jihadist infiltration in Syria through its lax border policies between 2012 and 2015. Equally frustrating for the West was the Turkish policy of considering the PKK, rather than IS, as the most important national security threat. Things went from bad to worse for Turkey when Moscow also began to support the Syrian Kurds, partly in retaliation for the downing of a Russian jet in late 2015. As a result, by 2016, Turkey was highly isolated in the region. Moreover, it faced an unprecedented situation on the Kurdish front with the PYD receiving support from both the United States and Russia while the PKK insurgency at home showed no sign of abating.

All of these factors led Ankara to seek ways to end its regional isolation by improving relations with key regional actors such as Russia and Israel. Ironically, the recent terrorist attack at the Istanbul airport came when Turkey was busy conducting a charm offensive with these two estranged partners. A couple of days before the Istanbul attack, Turkey signed a much-awaited agreement to normalize relations with Israel. The same day news agencies reported that Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin apologizing for the downing of the Russian jet. Although IS has not officially claimed responsibility for the Istanbul airport attack, the perpetrators were identified as Islamist operatives from the North Caucasus and Central Asia. Always prone to victimhood, the Erdogan government was quick to argue that Turkey was paying a price because IS was opposed to Turkey improving its regional standing.

Erdogan clearly wants to restore Turkey’s regional image by improving ties with Israel and Russia. As Erdogan’s handpicked new prime minister recently declared: “We will increase the number of our friends and decrease the number of our enemies.” Improving ties with Israel and Russia are steps in the right direction. Yet, ending Turkey’s regional isolation and its negative international image requires more than fixing relations with Israel and Russia. For Turkey to return to a zero-problems-with-neighbors regional policy, the AKP also needs to reduce the number of its problems and enemies at home. The AKP needs to remember that during its golden years between 2003 and 2010 the country improved its standards of democracy and human rights. There will be no return to zero problems without a major reversal of Erdogan’s march toward authoritarianism.

A good place to reverse the autocratic trend in Turkey is to return to peace talks with the PKK. The Istanbul airport attack should help Turkey prioritize its main national security threat. Although the PKK is an important challenge for Ankara, the AKP has proved in the recent past that there can be rational negotiations with Kurds. There can be no reasoning with IS, however. There will be no real progress in Turkey’s fight against IS unless Ankara focuses on peace with the PKK. Only then will Turkey be able to understand that IS is an existential threat to national security.

Omer Taspinar is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence and an expert on Turkey, the European Union, Muslims in Europe, political Islam, the Middle East, and Kurdish nationalism. He is a professor at the National War College and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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