Turkey’s Arab Spring Journey: Qui Vadis on Syria?

Turkey enjoyed increased attention from the Middle East in the middle of the last decade and the early period of the incidents known as “Arab Spring” or “Arab Awakening.

The main reasons for this interest were as follows:

  • After 9/11, the U.S. was no longer said to be the preferred destination for Arab investment, as the U.S. was intensifying security on Arabs. Thus, investors from the region looked for alternative venues.

  • Turkey, governed by a party with Islamic roots, was perceived as an ally not just politically but also economically and socially.

  • Turkey’s standing on Israel during the second term of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had a very positive impact on the Arab street.

  • Due to public diplomacy tools (mainly through Turkish soap operas), Turkey is understood as a role model and became a popular destination for Arab elites and the middle class.

  • Since the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkish foreign policy has been oriented toward intensifying economic cooperation with the Middle East and increasing Turkish interests in the region. This orientation was largely deepened during the second half of the AKP’s first term, starting in 2005, for the following reasons.

  • The Turkish economy needed hot money, and the Middle East was the correct address for this.

  • AKP emphasized religious solidarity with the region, especially after the momentum for European Union accession was lost.

  • Current foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s influence has increased as the chief advisor to the prime minister.

Principled foreign policy vs. pragmatism

However, while this positive environment continues for Turkey in the Middle East, with the start of the Arab Spring almost two years ago Turkey was faced with a dilemma: Will Turkish foreign policy back up authoritarian regimes like the relationship established with Libya, or would it hear the demands for change that had support in the societies where these events were taking place?

In the case of Libya, the prime minister – upon receiving the Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights – claimed that NATO intervention in Libya was unacceptable while the U.S. and leading European countries were in favor. However, soon after, Turkey quickly reset itself to political realities once it was clear that the Qaddafi regime would fall.

On the other hand, Turkey has exhibited another form of incoherent policy in the case of Bahrain. Turkey chose to remain silent in the face of incidents in the country, which has been in the grip of political and ethnic unrest since protests started in February 2011 by groups demanding greater democracy and more representation to the majority Shia community in the Sunni-governed country.

Before the uprising in Syria began in mid-March 2011, Turkey was Syria’s leading trading partner

These two experiences are enough to show the dilemma faced by Turkish foreign policy makers. When short-term pragmatic approaches are shown to be limited, the crucial part of international relations is also lost: a principled foreign policy.

Syria: A site for the power struggle of the post-Cold War world. Why is Turkey the flagman?

While Turkey continues her journey with those sharp shifts, the “spring” has come to its border. Before the uprising in Syria began in mid-March 2011, Turkey was Syria’s leading trading partner in the last decade and cooperation between the two neighbors even widened with regular joint cabinet meetings and two joint military exercises in 2009 and 2010. However, democracy promotion against human rights violations and poor governance in Syria was not on Turkey’s agenda…

It is almost two years now since the initial demonstrations started against Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey’s clear support to the Syrian opposition has brought some costs.

Firstly, Turkey lost seven citizens after Syria shot down a Turkish Air Force jet in which two Turkish pilots died and Syrian shells hit homes in the Turkish town of Akçakale across from the Syrian border, causing the deaths of five. Secondly, there is strong evidence of Syrian support for the terrorist activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, in response to Turkey’s support to the Syrian opposition. Thirdly, it has had negative economic results for Turkey’s border region, which had developed a vivid trade environment with Syria before. What’s more, Syrian tourists also increased economic income for the region.

Furthermore, the process is also a test of the limits of Turkish foreign policy on a regional basis, as well as its capability toward Iran and Russia, the two countries that Turkey has been working hard to develop close relations with in recent years, as two thirds of Turkey’s natural gas and petroleum demand depends on these two countries.

Russia supports the al-Assad regime for two main reasons: It uses Syria as a venue in its power struggle against other global players and through Syria it confirms its presence in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean where it has no other allies. We may adopt this for Iran as well, with its presence also being a way of balancing Turkey’s regional claims. Moreover, Syria means a lot for Iran, as a Shiite Islamic Republic. Syria is ruled by a leader with a similar religious background to Iran – despite three fourths of its population being Sunni – while it also neighbors Lebanon and “long-time enemy” Israel. It is therefore a crucial ally for Iran.

The question of why Turkey is carrying the flag on the Syria question has importance here. Turkey has become recognized as a pro-Sunni country in the region not only because of its support to the Sunni-backed Syrian opposition but also because of its efforts to displace Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Turkey is also protecting another leader of the Sunni community in Iraq, vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, who has been sentenced to death in Iraq.

As a result, we should raise a question here: Does Turkey pragmatically use pro-Sunni identity in order to be a regional leader in the eyes of the Sunni-dominated Middle East (mainly Gulf) countries, in order to be able to catch the opportunities mentioned at the beginning of this paper? Or do these efforts only depend on its high level government officials’ religious, cultural and educational background? Or both?

About Emre Ozdemir

Independent Analyst