by Sebnem Gumuscu
Turkish foreign policy since the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) came to power in 2002 has been oriented towards deepening economic relations with the Middle East, and advancing Turkish interests in the region. The Arab Spring only intensified Turkish involvement. The Turkish government has been using different instruments, such as democracy promotion, Islamic solidarity, and economic interdependence to foster stability while playing for greater influence over the emerging regimes. Yet this instrumentalism, which benefits Turkey in the short term, unless well-balanced by tangible support from the Turkish state in treating the new regimes as equal partners, may decrease Turkish credibility in the medium to long term.
With the onset of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s growing involvement in the Middle East increased its importance in the eyes of regional actors as well as the European Union and the United States, while providing the ruling AKP with ample opportunities to acquire economic and political clout. Turkey had already established strong and deep economic ties with authoritarian regimes in Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia. In the past decade, it became Syria’s primary trading partner. Cooperation between the two neighbors even extended to joint military exercises before recent strains in relations. Yet while economic integration has been the foremost aim of the Turkish government, democracy promotion was not necessarily on the agenda.
As revolutionary verve spread across the Arab world, Turkey adopted a new stance and began to lend its support to pro-democracy movements. That support, however, has varied by country, depending upon Turkish interests at stake. In cases where Turkish investment and trade relations would be adversely affected by political instability, Turkey approached events with caution and tried to play a mediatory role in democratic reforms. In Libya and Syria, where Turkish investments were substantial, the Turkish government prioritized stability and gradual reform. In contrast, Turkey lent quick support for popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt, where Turkish investments are relatively limited. Yet Turkey remained conspicuously silent on the events in Bahrain. The democracy rhetoric that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used so liberally in other cases did not extend to Bahrain, where Saudi forces under Gulf Cooperation Council auspices were deployed to restore stability in the country. Apparently, relations with Saudi Arabia were too important to jeopardize.
Ankara has not only changed its tune from one country to the other, but even within countries depending on the course of events and their impact on Turkish interests. Libya is a prime example. Just weeks after Erdogan claimed that NATO intervention in Libya was unacceptable, Turkey quickly adjusted to political realities once it was clear that the Gaddafi regime would fall and a new Libya would emerge. Suddenly, a NATO operation would restore stability in Libya sooner and remaining on the sidelines as a new Libya was born would hurt Turkish interests. This abrupt turn indicated Turkish priorities as well as its preference for instrumentalism and pragmatism over principled foreign policy.
Turkey’s response to Syria has also been determined by stability concerns. Turkey estimated its losses to stand at millions of dollars as the bilateral trade between the two neighbors stopped and Syrian refugees began to flow into Turkey. To that effect, Turkey initially proceeded with caution. In the early stages of popular protests in Syria, rather than publicly denouncing the Syrian regime, the Turkish government sought behind-the-scenes mediation between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition. When mediation attempts failed, Erdogan openly called upon Assad to make reforms, which could bring stability to Syria and allow deepening economic cooperation with Turkey to resume. The tone of the Turkish reaction, however, has become harsher as Assad has refused to take concrete steps toward liberalization, brought the country to the brink of civil war, and has quelled Turkish hopes for a quick return to stability. Recently, Ankara turned to multilateral efforts with the Arab League and the UN to take action against the Syrian regime, including economic sanctions and the possible instatement of a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.
While concerns for stability dominated Turkey’s early response to popular movements during the Arab Spring, its desire to establish strong relations with the new regimes shaped its later approach. Turkey decided to participate in the NATO operation in Libya, which it had categorically rejected when it was first discussed, and it also released a financial aid package worth $200 million to the Libyan opposition. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Libya twenty-four hours after the Libyan opposition captured Tripoli. Erdogan was the first foreign leader to visit post-revolution Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
In this effort to build ties with the new regimes, Turkey has played the cards of anti-imperialism, Islamic solidarity, and historical as well as emotional ties with the Middle East in order to distinguish Turkey from Western powers. In his visits and speeches, Erdogan frequently refers to the sovereign rights of the people, the legacy of Western imperialism in the region, Islamic history and values, as well as current issues such as Palestinian statehood and Israeli policies. The primary aim in constructing this highly emotional discourse built around notions of Islamic solidarity is to discredit the Western countries with which Turkey competes and thus establish influence over these emerging regimes, particularly since Islamic political parties are likely to be at center-stage in those countries.
While this discourse of brotherhood appeals to many in the region, Turkey’s instrumentalist and transparently self-interested policy-making, its close ties with the US, Erdogan’s didactic approach to fellow Islamic movements, and some of the contested decisions of the AKP government – such as freezing Libyan assets in Turkey – undermine Ankara’s sincerity. Turkey’s pick-and-choose foreign policy in the Middle East may yield short-term benefits, but it is not a credibility-enhancing strategy for the long term. Treating these new regimes as equal partners rather than as economic and political instruments will better serve Turkish interests, and will help ensure that the values the Arab Spring movements fought for can be realized.
Sebnem Gumuscu teaches political science at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey. Her research interests include political Islam, Turkish politics, and the Middle Eastern politics.