A New Purpose for Turkish Foreign Policy?

For a short period of time, Turkey appeared to many to be a model for the rest of the Middle East. It’s “zero problems” foreign policy had warmed relations with its Arab and Iranian neighbors, the Kurdish opening was putting to rest concerns over its own democratic credentials, and its economy was growing fantastically.

I’ve argued before that the Turkish model was always over-stated and less applicable to the Arab states than assumed. And not surprisingly, Ankara has been struggling to find a coherent foreign policy framework since the collapse of strong relations with Israel, the Arab Awakening, and the renewed emphasis on Iran’s nuclear program.

Under these circumstances, any country would have a hard time constructing a clear regional strategy. It hasn’t helped that Turkey’s Prime Minister has been reactive rather than proactive. Growing concerns about the economy, the repression of Kurdish activists in conjunction with a more violent response to re-emerging PKK attacks, and the suppression of media criticism and other human rights violations have exacerbated these weaknesses.

Still, the continuing uncertainty of the Arab Awakening has provided Turkey with an opening to refocus its foreign policy, provided it can resist outsized rhetoric and adopt realistic policies that account for the difficulties of existing conditions. In particular, Turkey can play a leadership role in working to stabilize emergent systems and play a role in post-regime transitions.

The first instance was Turkey’s role in Libya. After some hesitation and uncertainty, Ankara worked quickly to establish good relations with the Transitional National Council and help shepherd it into power. It provided about $300 million in aid to the TNC at a crucial moment at its origins and worked to unfreeze around $3 billion in Libyan assets for the rebels to use. It also hosted a meeting of the Libya Contact Group, putting itself near the center of political and diplomatic efforts in the country.

Now in Syria it has been working to find an acceptable new government in preparation for the moment when the Asad regime is overthrown. In the spring it hosted the Friends of Syria, an international meeting convened to deal with the Syrian civil war. Most dramatically, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has now called for Syria’s Vice President, Farouk Sharaa, to lead a transitional government once Bashir Asad is gone.

Sharaa is no outsider, and his credibility is questionable. It’s also not clear that the Syrian opposition trusts or wants him (though there are now reports that it would consider him). But at least Turkey is working to take on a greater role in preparing for what comes next.

The Syrian opposition remains fragmented and many potential problems are obvious. And at the regional level it’s too early to call this a new trend in Turkish foreign policy. It’s also not clear how many more similar opportunities will be available.

But I think Ankara is finally doing what I’ve argued it needed to do a long time ago: work constructively within existing conditions to prepare for what comes after regimes are removed, and adopt a less aggressive leadership role while recognizing its limitations under existing conditions. It’s also a smart move because it compensates for Turkey’s reluctance to intervene more directly in the Syrian civil war, and for its less than sympathetic treatment of Syrian refugees. And the credibility Turkey creates with the new governments provides many post-Asad benefits, including economic, political, and security ones.

Turkey is starting to deal with its own political problems, particularly as the AKP prepares for some kind of leadership transition, and this could prove distracting to its foreign policy. But hopefully Turkey has learned from its past mistakes and will continue its regional efforts along a clearly laid out framework.

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