Erdogan’s Turkey: strategic partner or liability for regional peace?

Turkey had been everyone’s friend as long as its foreign policy was driven by business and economic interest. Over the last couple of years, however, its ‘zero problems’ strategy has become more rhetoric than reality.

The PKK’s ongoing separatist struggle in Turkey was bloodily revived in the last two weeks with a series of terrorist attacks that left scores dead and injured. The latest attack took place last Saturday, as a female suicide bomber killed three and wounded twenty in the town of Bingol in southeast Turkey.

As international condemnation of the attacks came from several quarters, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced that it was preparing an arms sale of AH-1W Super Cobra Attack helicopters to assist Turkey’s fight against the PKK. If confirmed, the arms sale would include associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support, altogether worth an estimated $111 million.

Turkey’s internal problems have come at a time when its regional diplomatic clout seems to have taken a setback. After warning Assad against attacking oppressors, Turkey’s arbiter role has been rebuffed by Damascus which now prefers to deal with the Arab League. A delegation of Arab officials met Assad in Damascus last Wednesday, holding “frank and friendly” dialogue. Qatari PM Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, who is heading the Arab League delegation, noted “the commitment of the Syrian government to work with the Arab committee to reach a solution.”  

The DSCA’s announcement of a potential arms sale to Turkey reflects Washington’s commitment to consolidating its strategic partnership with Ankara, a trend that has been marked since Saudi Arabia’s fall from grace following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, reinforced in the fallout of post-war Iraq, and re-emphasised more recently with the Jasmine Revolutions.

For many in Washington, 9/11 marked a break in U.S. foreign policy. The links between the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, the Wahabbis, dramatically exposed the failings of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East which had previously relied on Saudi Arabia as a force for “stability” in the region.

Saudi Arabia, Washington suddenly discovered, had failed in more than one respect: it had managed the incredible feat of spreading Muslim extremism and sectarianism without checking Iranian power, as it once was assumed to be capable of doing in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Despite Wahabbi preaching, Iran had extended its influence beyond Syria and Lebanon, working closely with Sunni Islamists in Palestine, Turkey and elsewhere.

‘Who would replace Riyadh?’ became one of the key strategic questions for U.S. policy-makers in the post-9/11 world.

For many in President Bush’s administration in 2003, the answer seemed Iraq: an oil-rich country with an educated population and a proud history as the ‘cradle of civilization.’ Yet, after a controversial war, a bungled post-war occupation soon instigated a cataclysmic wave of violence and sectarianism. The hopes of a pro-western democratic Iraq that could immediately spring from the clasp of Saddam’s tyrannical dictatorship and assume the role of regional lead were left in ruins.

Iraq optimists may point today to improved security conditions and increased foreign investment since 2009, suggesting the 2003 vision could still be realized. But if it does, it will likely take years if not decades.

Turkey, in the meantime, appeared to be ready in the here and now. And almost overnight, Washington seemed to notice the country’s understated strengths.

Turkey is the world’s 17th biggest economy, and one which grew at a faster rate in 2010 than most of the world’s big economies (with the exception of China and India). It is, for all its system’s flaws, a constitutional democracy. The ruling AK party has roots in both the Islamist and conservative democratic traditions in Turkey, and governs largely within the frameworks of the secular state Kemal Atatürk constructed. Erdogan’s power is checked by a fiercely secular army, albeit one that has gradually lost influence as a result of Turkey’s democratising trends.

Turkey’s geopolitical position lends to its role as a ‘bridge’ between east and west. For much of the last two decades, it has enjoyed strong foreign relations with Israel and Iran, the U.S. and the EU (it is a long-standing NATO member) as well as Russia and China. Part of the credit for this must go to Turkey’s charismatic foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has championed a ‘zero problems’ foreign policy intent on making more friends than enemies.

Armed with these advantages, Washington hopes that Turkey can serve today as a linchpin for regional peace, a buffer to Iranian influence, and through its brand of ‘moderate Islam,’ offer the Muslim world an attractive alternative to Saudi Arabia’s extreme wahabbi ideology.

The events of the last two weeks, however, may prompt some analysts to think a little different.

The revival of the ‘Kurdish problem’ is not merely an issue of terrorism. Turkish Kurds have increasingly lost faith in Erdogan’s promises, and are antagonizing for real reform and rights. Continuing tensions between Islamists and secular groups in Turkey add another layer of complexity, suggesting that the country’s internal problems are yet to be resolved.

Further analysis leads to greater concerns. Turkey managed to become everyone’s friend when its foreign policy was less interventionist, driven more by business and economics. In the last couple of years, however, its ‘zero problems’ foreign policy has become more rhetoric than reality. Turkey played a heavy-handed sectarian role in Iraq’s last elections, backing Ayad Allawi’s largely-Sunni list Al-Iraqiya against the predominantly Shi’a lists, PM Maliki’s State of Law and the Sadrist-dominated United Iraqi Alliance. Seen in a non-democracy light, Turkey’s position on Syria today can also partly be attributed to sectarianism, given the Allawite nature of Assad’s Baath party. Turkey’s silence on Bahrain puts it on an equally hypocritical footing as Saudi Arabia, which sent military forces to quell peaceful protesters in Bahrain and now loudly condemns Assad resorting to similar means in his attempts to quell protesters in Syria.

A worrying question emerges here: are the changes in Turkey’s internal dynamics and its foreign policy two faces of the same trend? Will an increasingly powerful AKP party take increasingly non-compromising positions at home, and tend toward a deliberate sectarianism abroad in its attempts to replace Saudi Arabia as the representative of the Sunni Muslim world? If this indeed proves to be the case in the coming years, then Washington may find itself disappointed once again with its latest choice of ‘special partner’ in the Middle East.

About the author

Educated at Oxford and Georgetown Universities, Jaffar Al-Rikabi is a researcher in Middle East politics and economics