Turkey and the New Middle East: The Problem with No Problems

By Rahul Ravi
The United States isn’t the only country facing challenges and opportunities in the face of the “Arab Spring.”  This is part of a two-part series focusing on the region’s polar powers Turkey and Iran.  Both have sought to influence the course of events in the Middle East in the past with varying degrees of success.  However, the recent tide of revolutionary fervor that has swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria pose different challenges for both countries.  The new status quo creates interesting dilemmas and fascinating dynamics for Tehran and Ankara to cope with in the near future.

Dealing with new problems

The AKP’s Diplomacy of Economics?

Since the ascent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into Turkish politics a decade ago, Turkey’s foreign policy has been dominated by the paradigm of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “No Problems Policy.”  Turkey used the past 10 years to solve long standing issues with its neighbor Syria, including water rights and the issue of Syrian support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).  It has (ineffectively) tried to become the bridge between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue.  It has also helped develop stability and prosperity in the Kurdish region of Iraq through close cooperation with the US.  In all of these issues, the single common thread, however, has been economics.  Ankara has over $620 million invested in northern Iraq, $15 billion in Libya, and has a free trade agreement worth about $2 billion with Syria.  Needless to say, the Arab Spring has complicated matters for Turkey’s policy.

At least that is the narrative that has been bouncing around Middle East circles these days.  The thought process going something like this: “Turkey was hesitant to support NATO action in Libya, and is hesitant in calling for Syrian President Assad’s ouster because of pecuniary concerns.”  However, economics did not stop Erdogan from being first in line to call for Hosni Mubarak to acquiesce to popular demand (first for reform then for Mubarak to step down) in Egypt.  Apparently Turkey’s $1.5 billion invested in the Egyptian economy and bilateral trade worth $3 billion didn’t hinder Erdogan from being a hero of Tahrir Square.  What gives?

Pandering to the Polity

Taking the level of analysis a little deeper, Turkish domestic politics probably played a role in Erdogan’s grandstanding on Egypt and waffling on Libya.  With elections on the horizon during the spring, Erdogan had eyes towards his domestic polity in an effort to boost AKP approval ratings and with them the chance at gaining a supermajority in the National Assembly.  This would allow the AKP to rewrite the constitution without approval from the other parties and therefore make it easier for Erdogan to stay in power.  Experts predicted that the goal was to reform government and the justice system to make it more difficult for other parties to challenge AKP’s dominance.  However, that is a story for a different day.  But it provides strong incentive for Erdogan to cater to the domestic polity when addressing regional events.  It also gives him incentive to take a harder line with Israel.

While Turkey doesn’t traditionally frame foreign policy issues for the domestic audience to the extent that Iran does, the first half of 2011 shows that Erdogan has a keen sense of what the people want.  Put in these terms, Egypt was a no brainer.  When the Egyptian people wanted their voices to be heard, Turkey was the first to call for changes that accepted those voices.  How would it have looked had Erdogan waffled to support a popular Arab movement or, even further, showed support for Mubarak to preserve business deals?  With elections on the way, there was no other choice but for Erdogan to seize the flag of Egyptian democracy and run with it.  Turkey becomes a champion of democracy at home and a champion of Arab rights in the Middle East.  Furthermore, it contributes to the destruction of an American pillar and regional rival.  A treble win if there ever was one.

On Libya, the question became more difficult for Erdogan to handle.  While the Libyan movement became an armed rebellion, Erdogan had no real incentive to support the rebels in Benghazi and all the more incentive to protect Turkish business in Libya – all of which was conducted with Qaddafi’s regime or its subsidiaries.  Furthermore, by waffling on NATO action in Libya, Turkey may have earned the flag burning scorn of those in Benghazi, but it also made it known that it disagreed with the West on using armed force against a(nother) Muslim nation.  Domestically this had two goals.  First Erdogan made it known that he was on the side of Turkish business classes.  He holds about a 60% approval rating generally in Turkey.  But more importantly, that approval is based more on economic considerations than foreign policy ones.  Second, it showed that Turkey is part of NATO but that it differs from NATO in the context of the Middle East.  This is an important distinction that the AKP needs in domestic politics.  Essentially it says: Turkey is part of NATO, yes; but it is not a Western pawn in the Middle East.  It is a regional power with its own interests.  But when push came to shove and Turkish flags were burning in Benghazi, thereby creating a problem for the “No Problems Policy”, Turkey folded and approved NATO action.  However, Erdogan’s initial hesitation spoke volumes to the domestic polity.

Syria provides a huge test for Davutoglu’s policy paradigm.  Turkey has been very ambivalent towards its friends in Damascus over the recent months.  While Erdogan initially spoke to Assad and expressed confidence in the Syrian president’s efforts at reform, he has more recently called for Assad to institute reforms in wake of continued protests.  Erdogan and Assad are good friends, and Syria and Turkey are important business partners.  Regime change in Damascus would cost Turkey a solid friend and also has the potential to bear a chaotic future.  None of those would be accepted by Turkey’s business elite.  So how does Erdogan cater towards the electorate if Syria is a focal point of his policy?  He allows the Syrian opposition to meet in Istanbul.  Turkey set up refugee camps on the north western border to cater to those who fled the crackdown in and around Jisr al-Shoughour.  And when it became clear that Assad would not yield and resorted to an armed response, Erdogan threatened to back UN Security Council resolutions against Syria, jettisoning any friendly restraint he had shown before.  When it came down to supporting cash ventures versus supporting the people, Erdogan, in election season, opted to go with his populist instincts.  If Syria collapses post Assad, then that is a future economic problem, not an immediate one.  However, taking sides with a brutal dictator in the midst of oppression isn’t palatable during election season.

The No New Problems Policy

So what do we expect from Turkey in the Middle East this point forward?  Erdogan’s AKP won the elections handily but failed to gain their coveted supermajority.  In fact, they now rule with a decreased majority, meaning they cannot rule with impunity and still have to consider popular demand.  With Libya occupied in civil war and Egypt frozen in a post revolutionary stalemate, Syria holds the key to Turkish hegemony in the region.  As it stands, the passing of the elections hasn’t changed Turkish behavior towards Syria.  However, this is due more to the fact that Syria’s crackdown has begun to spillover into Turkey in the form of refugees and because the AKP has lost patience with Assad.  Furthermore, it has become clear to Turkey that Assad is now closer to Tehran than Ankara, amping up a regional rivalry that has been somewhat benign over the past few years.   Syria’s Palestinian credentials are also threatened.  Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal threatened to leave Damascus for Qatar and Egypt was responsible for Palestinian reconciliation.  Even Hezbollah has been wary of supporting Assad due to their status as a popular movement.

With Assad gone and Syria weakened, Turkey could simultaneously reduce Iran’s power projection and take up the Palestinian cause in earnest (which they have been doing for the past few years now).  This would increase their profile in the Middle East and pander to the AKP’s constituency, feeding off the rising anti-Israeli sentiment in Turkey.  To put it bluntly, a Syria without Assad is an easier proxy for Turkey to handle.  And if Arab public sentiment turns on Assad in a heavy way, then count on Ankara to be one of the first in line to show him the door.  Erdogan enjoys popular support in the Arab world and has a high enough level of support in Syria to make this type of push.

However, Ankara will likely toe the line between pushing Assad out of Damascus and keeping the status quo.  They don’t know if Assad will be able to cling to power and cannot risk calling for his ouster and failing.  What Ankara (and Erdogan) does know is that it wants to minimize foreign policy troubles and maintain the Davutoglu paradigm as long as possible.  Having Syria collapse upon itself will create strategic problems that Turkey does not want to face.  Among those are an unpredictable Kurdish population free from Damascus’ yolk and a possible civil war with more spillover into southern Turkey.  So for now, Erdogan will call for reform and berate Syria to maintain his domestic stance while applying gentle pressure on Damascus to appease the international community.

Turkey and America: Partners Again?

For the United States, the Arab Spring brings opportunity to rekindle a fading relationship with a growing power.  While Libya is likely to be a point of contention between the NATO allies, Egypt and Syria provide avenues of cooperation between Ankara and Washington.  The new government in Cairo needs a role model and steady regional ally versed in democracy.  Turkey’s patronage of Egypt, combined with financial support to Cairo from the United States could help build stability and a lasting democratic framework.  Furthermore, a free market Egypt with decreased amounts of corruption and cronyism (or with new cronies) could provide a larger market for Turkish goods and businesses.

In Syria, the US position seems to be similar to Turkey’s: wait and see with Assad hopefully abdicating in the near future.  However both nations realize the possibility of Assad staying in power and the possible need to work with him in the future.  The US and Turkey, though, could work together to oust Assad and replace him with a stable regime.  The US, for all the talk of decline, still carries diplomatic and military weight in the region, but has very little leverage (outside of the sanctions imposed) on Damascus.  Turkey, on the other hand, lacks the resources of a superpower but has economic and political leverage on the regime stemming from its economic ties with the business class.  International sanctions, specific Turkish pressure forced onto Syrian business class and government class (sometimes one in the same), and continual domestic upheaval could eventually push Assad out of power.  However, this is all undone by the fact that Iran (see next post in this series) needs Syria for its foreign policy as well as its domestic polity.

The opportunities for regional realignment don’t come around too often.  The Arab Spring is a moment in time where new power dynamics are made and old ones are threatened.  The United States, under Obama, has accepted the wave of change and has articulated a policy of support for democratic movements across the region (sans Saudi Arabia of course).  Turkey has proven itself to be a purveyor of the closest thing to liberal tradition in the region and is the perfect partner for the US to embrace the new status quo in the Middle East.  But Washington must realize that as a democracy, Turkey is beholden to its polity, just like the US is, and AKP (Erdogan especially) loves to be loved.   And that is the framework that outsiders should probably use when determining how Turkey deals with the New Middle East.


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