Foreign policy plays a big role in Turkey’s elections

Turkey’s miserable failure in foreign policy is one of the rare examples of how rapidly a nation can lose friends in a troubled neighborhood

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov
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Turkey’s miserable failure in foreign policy is one of the rare examples of how rapidly a nation can lose friends in a troubled neighborhood where building coalitions is already a hard task.

In the Middle East, major shifts in coalitions and alliances are rare. The last major change in alliances took place in 1979-80 and another one is taking place this year, particularly after a military coup in Egypt that significantly changed the balance of power. But why then has Turkey lost most of its friends in the region over a course of just two years?

Ankara’s patronizing rhetoric – no matter how well-intentioned it was – dealt a heavy blow to its regional ambitions. It ignored nationalistic sentiments that run deep in every Middle Eastern society and dictated its own terms and rules while advising others how to solve and manage domestic crises, often in public. Although Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu frequently highlighted that they are dealing with “legally equal” and sovereign states, Turkey’s rhetoric hardly matched its actions.

Although Turks ruled the Middle East for centuries in the past, they are a relative newcomer in the region following decades of isolation, particularly during the Cold War. Ankara, especially the foreign minister, believed that a smile and a handshake would bury decades of hostilities, while Muslim Arab publics would embrace Turkey’s political and economic model. They ignored current lines of alliances, hostilities and interests of major powers.

Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy initially worked because it did not go beyond building free economic zones, abolishing borders and visa requirements and offered an opportunity to increase the prosperity of people. Cultivating a relationship with its neighbors has once again imbued Turkey with a great deal of regional importance and potentially a leadership role. Turkey’s tandem success in building alliances has been a rare positive sign in a hostile neighborhood still facing deeply-rooted animosities.

With the advent of Great Arab Turmoil, Ankara was caught between the regimes it recently befriended and its promise of democracy and human rights. The situation in Tunisia and Libya threw the Turkish leaders into some apparent confusion. Quick and decisive victory in Libya, however, created the illusion that the decrepit and authoritarian leaders in the region will fall one by one and that Turkey could seize the opportunity to undertake a leadership role. It then started to view the political turmoil as a welcome trend and quickly abandoned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, previously a good friend of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

With the advent of Great Arab Turmoil, Ankara was caught between the regimes it recently befriended and its promise of democracy and human rights

Mahir Zeynalov

Turkey is now left without any friends. To counter criticism at home, Turkish leaders call it a “precious loneliness” – a phrase that is easy to sell to the Turkish public, who mostly favor supporting oppressed Muslims abroad. Instead of shouldering the blame for failing to sustain a kind of diplomacy that could be more helpful in solving crises, Turkish decision-makers accuse critics at home for ignoring the plight of suffering Muslims. Here is what Erdoğan said on Saturday to critics of his Syria policies:

“There were many criticisms and [they told us] not to deal with Syria, not to stand by the oppressed people of Syria. The main opposition is leading [these critics]. They said Turkey is becoming alone in foreign policy. They said Turkey is having problems with neighbors. Now I’m asking all these people [who are criticizing us]. I’m asking to those both in Turkey and abroad who are criticizing our Syria policy and our position regarding Syria: More than 150,000 innocent people died, children and women died and murdered. For God’s sake, can you look at the mirror?”

This is an example of how Turkish leaders can quickly label critics by implying that they support the outrageous violence and killing that go on daily in the Middle East. Only three months left to key local elections in Turkey, Erdoğan is traveling around the country to speak before a crowd of cheering supporters and almost half of his speeches are about foreign policy.

Attempt to revive foreign policy

To avoid criticisms that Turkey is left alone in the region, Davutoğlu has embarked on a series of diplomatic overtures to give an impression that Turkish foreign policy is getting back on track. As part of Davutoğlu’s electoral calculations, he first traveled to Baghdad in a bid to end the political standoff with the government of Nouri al-Maliki. Despite small signs of reconciliation, an attempt to salvage relations hit a snag due to Turkey’s oil deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Earlier this week, Davutoğlu traveled to Armenia in the hope of creating a positive atmosphere for further talks in reconciliation. It was an obvious attempt to silence criticisms that Ankara can indeed talk to its neighbors. On Friday, he visited Athens and tried to secure a diplomatic breakthrough in Cyprus peace talks. Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders, as well as the Turkish opposition downplayed the notion that there could be any breakthrough in restarting Cyprus peace talks. Davutoğlu, however, seems determined to secure a kind of diplomatic leap that will help his government in upcoming elections.

With Egypt, Ankara was mostly busy banging its head against the wall trying to find ways to work constructively with the interim government in Cairo. For more than two months, Turkish diplomats sought ways to improve ties but it collapsed when Egypt expelled Turkish ambassador after Erdoğan said he has no respect to “those who are trying [former Egyptian President Mohammad] Mursi in court.”

Although Turkish foreign policy picked up momentum in the past few months, it is largely part of the government’s electoral calculations. The fact that friendships Turkey built several years ago collapsed very rapidly is an important sign that alliances that are not built based on mutual interests are hardly healthy ones.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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