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Is Turkey's foreign policy based on democratic values – or pan-Islamist ideology?

In a climate of great uncertainty, one thing seems clear: Prime Minister Davutoğlu intends to stubbornly pursue his flawed, ideological foreign policy, regardless of the consequences for Turkey or for the region.   

Behlül Özkan
17 December 2014

This article is a response to a conversation between Richard Falk and Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which took place on 28th September–see part 1part 2part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so here, along with the many other responses to Davutoğlu published in this series, listed to the right under 'Related Articles'.

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Flickr/Mihrimah bint Ibrahim. Some rights reserved. 

Last month saw the 100th edition of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Strategic Depth, which was first published in 2001, the year the AKP first won power, and which remains the single most important text for understanding Davutoğlu’s foreign policy vision. Few if any books on foreign policy can boast such a record number of sales. The popularity of Strategic Depth has undoubtedly been assisted by its author’s steady ascent of the rungs of power: from foreign policy advisor to the prime minister in 2003, foreign minister in 2009, and finally to prime minister this past August. Another factor behind its success is Davutoğlu’s ambitious claim that his magnum opus provides a strategy for making Turkey a “global power.”  

Strategic Depth can be described as Davutoğlu’s critical engagement with several fundamental aspects of the Turkish Republic: its identity as a nation-state, its political borders and its foreign policy. The Republic of Turkey was founded as a secular nation state in 1923 after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Since then, Turkey has primarily focused on defending its own borders, a strategy which Davutoğlu belittles as more suited to a “mid-sized nation.” Davutoğlu is equally critical of the pro-western foreign policy pursued by Turkey’s political elites after 1945. In his estimation, all of this has led Turkey to become isolated from the surrounding region, especially the Middle East.

The two concepts of “civilization” and “restoration” are of key importance in understanding Davutoğlu’s goals for Turkey. According to Davutoğlu, the Ottoman Empire’s loss of Libya in 1911 and its severance from the Middle East in 1918 were not irreversible setbacks. They merely represented the beginning of a century-long interlude–a “parenthesis”, as Davutoğlu puts it. Davutoğlu holds that Turkey should transcend its identity as a nation state and rekindle its allegiance to the Islamic world, an allegiance that still remains powerful in Turkish society. Islam, not Turkish nationalism, should lie at the core of Turkey’s identity as a state. Davutoğlu never tires of reminding his readers that the Ottoman Empire was the leader of the Islamic world for five centuries. He is convinced that Turkey will one day be restored to its rightful position; however, there are certain obstacles that must first be overcome.Davutoğlu never tires of reminding his readers that the Ottoman Empire was the leader of the Islamic world for five centuries.

Both Strategic Depth and Davutoğlu’s scholarly articles written from the 1990s onward make the following assertion. As a pan-Islamist, Davutoğlu believes that the authoritarian, Arab nationalist regimes created in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya after 1918–as well as the Gulf monarchies–have been responsible for the fragmentation of the Islamic world. Such regimes do not derive their legitimacy from elections and do not truly represent their own societies; ultimately, they are doomed to perish. In the impending transformation of the Middle East, Davutoğlu believes it inevitable that Islamist groups and parties–the strongest political opposition in the region–will come to power. In order for Turkey to become the leader of the Middle East, it must support such movements against forces like Arab, Kurdish, and Persian nationalism.

With the 2011 Arab Uprisings, it seemed as though Turkey’s opportunity had finally arrived. In Davutoğlu’s judgment, if Ennahda came to power in Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, then an AKP-led Turkey would be able to call the shots all over the region. However, the past three years–and especially the disastrous results of Turkey’s Syria policy– have shown that Davutoğlu’s foreign policy is unsuited to the realities of the Middle East, both in theory and in practice.   

Davutoğlu’s Pan-Islamist ideology envisages the future integration of the Islamic world, which is currently made up of dozens of nations from Morocco to Indonesia and hundreds of ethnicities and sects. Yet this notion is problematic, to say the least. How will this unification be achieved? Why should all the countries in this vast region consent to Davutoğlu’s dream of Turkish leadership? And most importantly, does Turkey have the economic, military, and political might to take on such a leadership role? Davutoğlu disdains to even consider such questions. In his opinion, it is self-evident that the Arab Uprisings will allow Turkey to create a new order in the Middle East, making it first a regional and then a global power. In fact, the AKP’s disastrous Syria policy has shown that it has limited influence even over its next-door neighbor, let alone over the entire the Middle East.  

Davutoğlu claims that Turkey has supported democracy in the Islamic world since 2011, whereas Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Gulf countries (though not, apparently, Qatar) have backed autocratic regimes. Additionally, he criticizes the west for its insufficient support for Middle Eastern democracy. Such an argument is highly dubious. It is entirely valid to criticize the west for its hypocritical foreign policy, especially when it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue and the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf. Yet Turkey’s own actions are scarcely less hypocritical. Turkey has worked together with the totalitarian monarchies of Saudi Arabia (which backed the coup in Egypt) and Qatar in supporting and arming the opposition to al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Moreover, Turkey has been silent about the democratic uprisings in Bahrain, to which it has sold large amounts of weaponry (as well as military vehicles which have been used to suppress those same uprisings). Visiting Bahrain in 2013, Davutoğlu described this Shiite-majority country led by a Sunni dynasty as “a good example of sectarian and ethnic peace.”

Davutoğlu likes to point out that the al-Maliki government in Iraq referred to al-Assad as the leader of a “terrorist” regime prior to 2012, but later supported the Syrian president. And yet an equally salient change of course can be observed in the AKP’s own Syria policy. Before the Arab Uprisings, former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the Syrian president as “my brother, al-Assad,” holding joint Cabinet meetings with Damascus. After 2011, both he and Davutoğlu began referring to al-Assad as a “dictator with blood on his hands.” In light of events like the elder al-Assad’s 1982 massacre in Hama, did it really take the AKP until 2011 to see the Syrian regime’s true colors?

Or consider the most stalwart supporter of the al-Assad regime–Russia. Turkey currently conducts 33b dollars’ worth of foreign trade with Russia, its biggest trading partner after Germany. In December of 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Ankara, where he was received with full ceremony. During the ensuing talks, Turkey did not challenge Russia on the issue of Syria. Seeing that Davutoğlu has criticized the west for its insufficient support of the Syrian opposition, how does he explain Turkey’s establishing economic ties at the highest level with Russia, which supports the al-Assad regime? A cynic might ask what is likely to exert more influence over Turkey’s Russia policy: democratic values, or the interests of AKP-linked construction companies which have invested billions of dollars in Russia?  In fact, the AKP’s disastrous Syria policy has shown that it has limited influence even over its next-door neighbor, let alone over the entire the Middle East.  

This selective approach towards “democracy” is equally evident in Turkey’s relations with countries that are backing the Syrian opposition, such as Qatar. Davutoğlu has taken great pains to distinguish the government of Qatar (which any impartial observer would describe as authoritarian) from its supposedly less democratic counterparts in other Gulf countries. Such public pronouncements are obviously a reflection of Turkey’s close relations with Qatar since the start of the Arab Uprisings as well as the two countries’ joint support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the rebels in Syria.  

The AKP’s support for the Syrian opposition inevitably raises the question of its stance towards ISIS, which Turkey has been accused of tolerating by the western media. In the interview, Davutoğlu denied this charge, insisting that Ankara had designated ISIS a terrorist group. However, there can be no doubt that Turkey has played a key role in arming the rebel opposition known as the Free Syrian Army. For instance, a March 2013 New York Times article entitled “Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, with Aid from CIA” claimed that more 160 cargo flights from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan had shipped arms to Turkey for distribution to the Syrian opposition. Could these weapons, which apparently reached the Syrian rebels via Turkey, have later ended up in the hands of ISIS? No one can yet say for certain.  

Clearly, Turkey has not based its post-2011 foreign policy on democratic values, as Davutoğlu often claims. Rather, it has pursued a pan-Islamist foreign policy whose ultimate goal is the ascendancy of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Davutoğlu assumes that the Middle East will undergo more or less the same transformation that Eastern Europe did after 1989. However, any analogy between today’s Middle East and late-1980s Eastern Europe is fraught with peril. The two regions have little in common in terms of their ethnic, religious, and sectarian makeups, their levels of social and economic development, or the challenges faced by their nation states. Moreover, several western nations (chiefly Germany, but also the UK and France) played an instrumental role in helping to foster liberal democracy in eastern Europe in the 1990s. The entry of many eastern European countries into the European Union likewise facilitated their efforts at overcoming their economic and social problems. No institution like the EU exists in the Middle East, nor do regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar aim at establishing liberal democracy in the region.

Davutoğlu is not one to admit his mistakes or engage in self-criticism. Instead, he prefers to blame the west, Iran, and the Gulf countries (except for Qatar) for disasters like the civil war in Syria–which has killed nearly 200 thousand people and caused millions to flee the country–and the strengthening of radical groups like ISIS. Rather than acting as a mediator in the Syrian civil war, Turkey insists that the solution lies in the creation of a no-fly zone and safe haven, as well as an escalation of the conflict by arming the “moderate opposition” (whoever they may be). In this climate of great uncertainty, one thing seems clear: Davutoğlu intends to stubbornly pursue his flawed, ideological foreign policy to the end, regardless of the consequences for Turkey or for the region.   

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